I once ate a half-gallon of ice cream at one sitting to win a bet. The first pint went down with no strain. The second was a delight and reminded me how much I love this stuff. The third was smooth and satisfying but made me aware there were limits to my enjoyment. The last quarter was a chore.
That’s exactly the experience I had with “Iron Man 3.” By the time innumerable suits of armor were flying through the air, instantly assembling and disassembling themselves around Tony Stark while he was running and jumping, I was worn out. But the ride up to then had been a jolt of continuous pleasure.
In this sequel, directed by Shane Black and written by Black and Drew Pearce, Tony Stark has completely turned into Tony Snark, an unattractive transformation that suits Robert Downey Jr. as an actor.
A Tennessee boy (the excellent Ty Simpkins) helps the fugitive Stark put himself together and tells Stark that his father ran off six years ago; Stark snaps, “Don’t be such a -----.” The likely death of War Machine (renamed Iron Patriot) barely moves the needle on Stark’s anxiety scale. Even the presumed murder of Pepper Potts, now his live-in lover, scarcely registers: Where we expect a tear to roll down Downey face, the close-up reveals only a trickle of blood.
The character has been remodeled to suit Downey’s strengths: He’s edgy, sleepless, plagued by panic attacks after what happened during Loki’s assault on New York in “The Avengers,” unable to relate to anyone. He finds a purpose in life – remorseless revenge – when the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) goes on TV to take responsibility for terrorist bombings across America.
The movie has more complexity than most superhero outings these days. Scientists tinkering with human DNA (Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall) have a good idea: They want the body to be able to repair itself. But like Stark before them, they realize that the government providing their funding wants them to make weapons, not help people. Unlike Stark, they cooperate, with disastrous results.
No one in the film can be written off simply as evil or crazy, including the Mandarin. (When Black finally revealed his motivation, the surprise came out of the blue. And it’s a good surprise.) Neither the scientists nor the military come off as heroes or villains; they’re just people doing a job that sometimes has disastrous consequences when they sell their souls.
The writers juggle the story among so many characters that none gets full justice; Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle) and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) play key roles but have little to do. Still, the balance between human interaction and mechanical mayhem works well until the end, when flying suits and exploding bodies fill the screen.
That’s when Black commits mistakes most directors make in this genre: continuity errors, confused cutting, faux-funny one-liners delivered with a thud, the big sacrifice that turns out to be no sacrifice at all. He’s like a kid let loose in a candy store shortly before it closes, running indiscriminately from shelf to shelf and grabbing anything that catches his fancy.
Two more things are worth noting: The coda has a funny payoff, if you can sit through seven minutes of credits and Brian Tyler’s roaring music. And Wilmington, principal shooting spot for “Iron Man 3,” along with some filming in Cary, gets a shout-out at the end, though only residents will recognize many of the locations. Except for the shipyard, it looks like Anytown, USA.
IRON MAN 3
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Ben Kingsley
Director: Shane Black
Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (sequences of intense action and violence throughout)
Raleigh: Brier Creek, Wakefield, Grande, Six Forks, Mission Valley, Carmike, North Hills, IMAX at Marbles. Apex: Beaver Creek. Cary: Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Lumina, Timberlyne. Durham: Southpoint, Wynnsong, Northgate. Garner: White Oak. Morrisville: Park Place. Roxboro: Palace. Smithfield: Smithfield.