2013, Shane Black
"I am Iron Man." With this now infamous line, Tony Stark capped off the immensely pleasurable and genuinely heartfelt first entry into not only Marvel’s flagship enterprise that is the Iron Man franchise, but also the first phase of the Avengers project itself. Since then, Marvel has remained thoroughly focused on building and expanding their entire world through the many different heroes on display, but the trickier aspect of this is trying to keep things interesting for the sub-franchises contained within the larger picture. After Avengers dominated the world last year everyone knew it would be difficult to then work their way back into the individual stories of these characters away from the rest of the group, but Marvel headed into the fold by leaning on their biggest star and the man who started it all.
I was a big fan of Iron Man and still hold it near the top of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, but Iron Man 2 falls near the very bottom for me. It was overly crowded, trying to jam in the individual story for the hero while also basically making it a prologue for The Avengers and none of it really worked, along with featuring a truly painful villain in the form of Mickey Rourke’s disaster of a performance. With that out of the way, it means a lot for me to say that Iron Man 3 makes Iron Man 2 look like a masterpiece. The buildup to Avengers was handled very well by Marvel on the whole, but following something like that is a lot harder to manage and their strategy here was to alienate Tony Stark from his companions entirely, a bold move that I don’t think paid off.
It’s difficult to watch Iron Man 3 and not wonder where the rest of the Avengers are and why they aren’t helping out. There are some casual joking references to the group but never a sufficient answer as to why they aren’t there. That’s not Iron Man 3's biggest problem though; it's not even in the top five. Marvel has taken a lot of commendable risks in diversifying their franchise and broadening their horizons, hiring directors you normally wouldn't expect to take on these kind of films. Heading into some very different directions in their upcoming slate, they've got James Gunn on board for Guardians of the Galaxy and Edgar Wright for Ant-Man and I really admire them giving more inventive artists the opportunity to work on a franchise of this level without compromising their vision (hopefully).
Giving such distinctive directors room to work like this is a double-edged sword however, and it leaves you vulnerable to the potential that maybe they aren’t exactly cut out for this style of filmmaking. The trick is making sure that the director’s vision is in tune with what would still naturally fit into the film that they are trying to make. For Avengers they hired Joss Whedon and it worked gangbusters, as the film is distinctively Whedon while still feeling totally at home within the Marvel universe at large. They caught lightning in a bottle there and while that was a sign of everything going right, Iron Man 3 is a sign of everything going wrong. Shane Black took on the mantle here, taking over from Jon Favreau who was behind the first two films, and while I loved Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang it seems that he couldn’t have been a worse fit for the Iron Man franchise or the Tony Stark character.
This doesn’t feel like an Iron Man movie in any way, shape or form. Not only does Stark barely spend any time in the movie as Iron Man (something I thought was a neat idea at first but pretty poorly executed overall), Black’s writing turns Stark into an asshole robbed of all the charm and likability that Robert Downey Jr. was able to fuse into him when better writers were giving him material. Shane Black makes all the wrong choices here, primarily because he doesn’t realize that this isn’t supposed to be a “Shane Black movie”. That’s the key difference to what worked for Whedon and what didn’t for Black. Whedon realized that Avengers was a Marvel movie written by Joss Whedon, while Black basically turns this into some kind of unrecognizable fan-fiction version of this universe. Black throws everything that has been established about this world and these characters out the window and turns in something that feels like a half-assed attempt at jamming in all of his recycled tendencies together under the loose skeleton of a ridiculously asinine narrative.
There’s no doubt that Stark is a bit of a tool at times and definitely thinks way too highly of himself, but with Black writing him every shred of decency in the character feels gone and Downey Jr. is practically on a Johnny Depp level of sleepwalking through the part at this point. He seems less interested here than I was. Black also manages to fit in the fourth-wall narration that he employed in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, something that doesn’t work for this kind of movie at all and if you missed Black’s Lethal Weapon stuff don’t worry because by the end of it he manages to work in plenty of buddy cop comedy with Stark and Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes. Oh, and if you thought it couldn’t be a Shane Black movie unless it takes place around Christmas well then you were exactly right! This review is already pretty long-winded, but there are just so many bad choices in Iron Man 3 from a conceptual level to a writing one to an acting one and it makes it impossible for me to swallow with any shred of acceptance.
Supporting characters are introduced of seeming importance only to be discarded without any ceremony or depth whatsoever (oh hey, Rebecca Hall and James Badge Dale, oh bye Rebecca Hall and James Badge Dale), there’s an entire subplot with a precocious little kid that gets bullied at school that couldn’t be further from the kind of thing that belongs in this type of movie (or any movie) and worst of all the big villain twist is one of the most mind-numbing, misguided they could have come up with. I’m all for trying to keep the audience on their toes, but if you’re going to throw any ability to take your movie seriously out the door with it then it’s just not worth it. Iron Man 3 is loaded top to bottom with huge problems but the one that probably matters most is that it simultaneously tries to take itself too seriously and not seriously enough and in the end I felt nothing but disappointment and lost hope for a franchise that kicked off with one hell of a bang five years ago and should really be put out of its misery at this point. I can only cross my fingers at this point that the upcoming first sequels for the other sub-franchises don’t fall down the well like Iron Man has.