As per court order, every comics blog has to address the release of a major new superhero film within 72 hours of risk losing their license. So, you know, don't get pissed at me if you haven't seen the damn thing. Although, if you weren't one to rush out and see it immediately so as to avoid being spoiled, I wouldn't recommend beating feet. It's kind of a mess.
Going in, advance reviews seemed rapturous. And, based on the fact that The Avengers was a legitimately fun movie, I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to this one. They've done a good job building up their brand here, which is a lot more than you can say for the people making the comics.
People love Shane Black beyond all sense of proportion. I don't have a lot of nostalgia for the Lethal Weapon series - I haven't seen either of the first two in decades - but just glancing at Wikipedia I see that he wrote (or co-wrote) The Last Action Hero, which is is a movie I legitimately like, so . . . yeah, Shane Black. He has made competent movies in the past, and will undoubtedly be making more movies in the future, and this, this is certainly a motion picture, projected on a screen for two hours and ten minutes.
The first two Iron Man films were sturdy, if perfunctory, exercises in genre-definition. The first Iron Man, more than any of the other superhero movies before it, set the template for what successful superhero movies - at least, Marvel superhero movies - would look like going forward. Since then "consistency" has been the watchword. Watching Iron Man 3 I found myself saying something I never thought I'd say in a million years - I wish this movie had been directed by Jon Favreau. Favreau's films were sometimes banal, often cursory affairs. The best symptomatic example of this, the one that always springs to mind, is the introduction of the Black Widow in Iron Man 2. After having teased "Natalie Rushman" throughout the first half of the film, the Black Widow is finally revealed by . . . walking over to a table in a coffee shop in her costume. It's an odd move for the introduction of such a significant character, and very much indicative of Favreau's approach. What do you remember from that scene? Probably not the Widow's introduction so much as the establishing shot of a troubled Tony, in his armor, drinking a cup of coffee and sitting inside a giant plaster donut with the Beastie Boys' "Groove Holmes" playing. Favreau liked to bury the lede. Even if it made for an occasionally surreal viewing experience, it nonetheless helped, ever so much, at leavening the self-seriousness that naturally follows these films like a cloud of mosquitoes.
I found myself wishing for something sturdy and perfunctory here. Black likes to blow things up and he likes to play with tone but the overall effect was less exhilarating than exhausting. Seriously, about 2/3 of the way through the movie I realized that even if I had no trouble following the plot, the movie had lost my entirely entirely. I spent the the last forty-five minutes or so actively praying for it to be over. I never had that trouble with any of the previous Marvel movies, which have, if anything, made a virtue of their perfunctoriness by always managing to leave the viewer wanting more than what they got - and the post-credits scenes always did a great job of reinforcing the fact that these films were supposed to instill the viewer with no greater sensation than the overriding desire to see the next one. I left this movie wishing that I had received a lot less than what they gave me. I do still want to see the next one, but that's primarily because the trailer makes Thor: The Dark World look like it will be a lot more fun than this thing.
I've never made any secret of the fact that I detest the "Extremis" storyline on which this story is largely based. Do people remember that when Marvel relaunched Iron Man at the tail end of 2004 with Warren Ellis at the helm, the book took a year and a half to finish shipping a six-issue story? (Issue #1 cover date January 2005, issue #6 cover date May 2006.) This was an embarrassment, especially considering the fact that Ed Brubaker's character-defining run on Captain America began the same month. Ellis' major "breakthrough" was essentially to write Tony Stark like a stock Warren Ellis character - a cynical, sardonic futurist who uses phrases like "bleeding edge" without a shred of irony. And yet, this is the version of Tony Stark that prevailed going into Civil War just a few months later, and it was this Tony Stark who produced the template for Downey's interpretation. One good thing this movie doesn't actually do which the comics unfortunately did was to infect Tony himself with the Extremis virus. You can make arguments as to why that was an inevitable development for the character - wouldn't a futurist want to make himself as futuristic as possible, after all? - but ultimately what it did was saddle Stark with a wide-ranging and vaguely-defined set of de facto superpowers that undercut the facts that not only is Tony Stark a normal human whose only real "super power" is his brain, but that the character historically has to be defined by strong limitations. Unfortunately, the strong limitations that they chose to start playing up shortly after "Extremis" finished was his mysanthropic hubris, which led directly to the catastrophic events of Civil War. The character was so unlikeable after that sequence of events that Matt Fraction had to literally reboot Tony's brain to a pre-Civil War state, a series of events that also - thankfully! - finally rid his body of the Extremis.
All of which goes to say - not a fan of Extremis as either a concept or a story, and I was happy to see it finally be written out of the series by Fraction. So while I was not thrilled to see it onscreen I was at least glad they chose not to go the same route as the comics and make Tony into a computer-powered Superman. But then they infected Pepper Potts with the Extremis virus, a potentially fatal infection which they were able to fix with a quick hand-wave in the closing narration. Just like they were able to extract all the shrapnel from Tony's heart - something that they had been unable to do for the previous two movies, and which took the character in the comics a few years to accomplish himself - with a brief mention. That's great plotting.
The film actually seemed to get worse as it went along. The early scenes were strong and did a good job of setting up the conflicts. But then after a handful of nice, taut action sequences - Tony in Tennessee fighting the Extremis-enhanced commandos was pretty good - the movie settled into a pretty dull slog. I realized after a while that it had been seemingly forever since Tony was actually in his armor, which strikes me as an odd reiteration of the same narrative problems the last Batman movies had. I mean, yeah, for a couple scenes it was cool to see an unarmored Tony getting by on his wits, but after a while it just got boring - did I pay this exorbitant ticket price to see Robert Downey, Jr., skulk around like an extremely unimpressive action hero and kill and maim people with dollar store gadgets, or do I want to see Iron Man strutting his stuff? (We won't even dwell on the fact that the armor he wears throughout most of the film, the Mark 42, is one of the least interesting designs of any Iron Man armor in 50 years.)
The filmmakers had so little desire to actually show Tony as Iron Man that Tony spent the duration of the entire climax of the film basically trying and failing to climb back into a suit of armor, one of the strangest bits of counter-intuitive coitus interruptus I can remember seeing in a movie like this. After all, action movies are about, if they are about anything at all, gratifying the audience's desire to satisfactory narrative resolution. The last action sequence at the broken oil tanker was just terrible: so many empty suits of armor flying around to no effect whatsoever, and I couldn't keep anything straight - how many of those Extremis commandos were jumping around? How many suits of armor were demolished? Plus, there's the fact that if Tony can not "just" remote-control his armor but basically build a functional AI that allows the suits to function effectively and independently in combat situations, he's more or less mooted himself and created a weapon so powerful he could conquer the planet. This is one of those ideas that gets waved-away every so often in the comics through a number of convenient plot devices, but I didn't see any of those devices onscreen here. Basically, he calls in a platoon of empty armored suits to kill a bunch of super-soldiers, which strikes me as kind of a big deal. Perhaps in the age of drone strikes this might seem to be less startling sci-fi futurism and more "day after tomorrow," but that doesn't make it any less chilling in its implications. Quite the opposite. Since these movies are more or less completely unironic celebrations of American technological superiority and ethical exceptionalism, it does not surprise me in the least that these implications are ignored.
If I'm not a fan of Extremis, that goes double for the various generic characters who follow in that storyline's wake. I'm generally agnostic to Guy Pearce but his role was pretty decrepit, essentially your standard smooth-talking tycoon-turned-maniac that we've seen approximately one zillion times before. Compare Aldrich Killian with Sam Rockwell's delightful Justin Hammer from the last movie and you'll see a definite charisma void here. This is nothing against Pearce, but his role - especially in light of the fact that the third-act reveal undercuts the Mandarin entirely by positing Pearce as the true mastermind of the entire Extremis plot - just did not grab me. Killian was both underwritten and overacted. His motivations did not and would never make sense without a lifetimes's familiarity with the overheated genre conventions of American action movies. I never thought I'd be singing the praises of the second Iron Man's arch subtetly, but think back to how Rockwell's preening Hammer played off and against Mickey Rourke's gnomic Vanko and you see why this movie just didn't have the wattage necessary to present an effective counterpoint to Downey's showboating. Ben Kingsley is, admittedly, pretty funny after the big reveal, but that same reveal underlines pretty definitively that he is not a villain and has absolutely no stake in antagonizing Tony Stark, and therefore drops away from relevancy almost immediately.
Which brings us, of course, to the real problem with the movie. First, if you haven't yet you should go read MGK's opinion on the matter here. We usually agree on more than not, but I am slightly surprised to see him striking such a positive note in regards to the movie's third-act twist. Even if you buy his argument that the "real" Mandarin would be a hard-sell in the year 2013 - and I think everyone reading this should agree with that assertion on some level- you're stuck with the fact that the movie itself has a giant void at the center where the villain should be. Although there are no flies on Sam Rockwell or Mickey Rourke, the fact is that neither of their characters were really all that memorable in terms of being "major arch nemeses" - you needed two of them to add up to one Stark, because on their own both characters are merely reflections of different facets of Stark / Iron Man himself. The less said about the first film the better - again, no disrespect intended to Jeff Bridges - but Stane was a pale imitation of Lex Luthor. The generous, spontaneous cheering that occurred in my theater during the preview for the next Thor film when Loki appeared onscreen points to the fact that the quality of the villains has been a serious limitation for many of these Marvel films. People love Loki. But Loki can't appear in every Marvel film. (I will posit that it wouldn't have been very hard to write Justin Hammer into this film in some small capacity, which would have provided some degree of continuity as well as playing up the character's status in the movie universe as Stark's truest real competitor, but that's obviously not the direction they chose to go.)
I will argue that MGK's assertion only works if you believe that the people responsible for these movies have any intention of bringing back the concept of the Mandarin for the (inevitable, unless you're an idiot who believes that Robert Downey, Jr. is anything less than a consummate mercenary, i.e., a professional actor) fourth film. Iron Man doesn't have a very deep rogue's gallery, this is very true. The problem is that most of his villains fall into three camps - either twisted versions of Stark himself, evil businessmen or science tycoons dedicated to his personal downfall (Hammer, Stane, Killian), other guys in armor who are usually just generic thugs (Titanium Man, Crimson Dynamo, Hammer's Iron Monger), or mercenary corporate saboteurs, gimmick-based charisma-challenged variations on the Flash's villains (Whiplash, the Melter, the Ghost, the Unicorn, et al). These can get repetitive, and the three movies to date have provided versions of all three of these types. After that we're left with compelling thematic oddballs like Fin Fang Foom and Ultimo who, while very cool in the comics, are probably too left-field to appear in the films - and his arch-enemy, the Mandarin. Now, there are obvious ways any of the villains from the first three categories could be pumped-up for the fourth film - they've reimagined the Ghost quite successfully in the last few years, for instance, but I doubt even the current version of the character could support a movie by himself. Without a Cold War enemy against which to fight, and in the absence of any extant real-world ideology to which they could convincingly and non-offensively attach the characters in the year 2013, the Titanium Man and the Crimson Dynamo are pretty much dead letters. (Notwithstanding the fact that the movie Whiplash already kind-of, sort-of, was a Titanium Man / Crimson Dynamo hybrid.)
But regardless of how few options the filmmakers possess, I still think it's somewhat optimistic to believe they're playing any sort of long-game with the Mandarin's reveal. After all, while we know that the Ten Rings organization existed as far back as 2008, the movies' timeline leaves no ambiguity as to whether or not Killian could have been responsible for the organization dating back to its inception. I think this is - as we're used to seeing every week when the internet comes out in force to dissect the latest episode of Doctor Who - another example of the collective intelligence of fandom being far smarter than the individual creators themselves. The various seeming-clues and plot-holes that fans pick up on as signs of long-term planning and foresight on the part of the creators add up, more often than not, to simple oversights and red herrings. We're hardwired to want to pick up on loose threads as evidence of long-term planning, but history points to relatively few examples of long-term subtle planning adding up to anything more than fans' overactive imagination for these kinds of franchises. The next movie will probably have the Ghost or the Melter, and possibly the return of Justin Hammer or a version of Ultimo, but probably not another iteration of the Mandarin. If they had intended to do so, they would not have been ambiguous in their use of foreshadowing. That's now how these Marvel movies work. If you don't have some kind of dramatic post-credits cut scene to underscore exactly what the important ongoing plot points are, it's probably just shadows.
I could be wrong. I'd love to be wrong. Nothing would make me happier than to see the Mandarin - the real Mandarin - onscreen, with his ten magic alien rings of unimaginable power, as smart as Stark and twice as ruthless. I think the first half of this film did a great job of showing how a character like the Mandarin could work, by presenting us with an ethnically ambiguous terrorist in the (quite glaringly obvious) Osama bin Laden mold, whose critique of western values nevertheless carry enough moral authority to be genuinely frightening. But in hindsight it was no surprise that the Mandarin failed to arrive - none of the commercials or previews actually showed the Mandarin doing anything. There were no rays of deadly black light or devastating electro-blasts cracking Iron Man's armor, flashy effects that would probably have made it onto the promo materials. I think the character himself could have survived the transit from his "yellow peril" origins to a more vaguely-defined central Asian terrorist figure - a pan-ethnic revolutionary dedicated to overthrowing the hegemony of Western capitalism through force and guile. No one but a few hand-wringing liberals would be upset if the villain of a superhero movie turned out to be a vaguely brown-skinned terrorist. But the movie Mandarin was undercut, as it turned out, by capital itself, made into just another stalking-horse for a mad tycoon with a grudge intending to use his personal power to leverage a monopoly. That at least makes sense, but dramatically it hit like a wet fart, and this narrative deflation sucked the energy from the film's final sequences. Compare this, for instance, with the similar third-act reveal at the end of The Dark Knight Rises - again, hardly a perfect film, but the revelation of Talia's identity very pointedly did not undercut Bane's significance, and actually succeeded in ratcheting up the stakes for Batman by forcing him to deal with a crushing last-minute betrayal from a valuable ally.
As Michael Paciocco pointed out, the movie enacts some really weird algebra by having the Mandarin + Extremis = more or less the Melter, which seems like an odd way to burn off two more interesting ideas (I might not like like Extremis but at least there's an idea there) to get to something really banal. The Melter is pretty much the most generic Iron Man villain ever: he's a thuggish industrialist who builds a weapon that will allow him to melt Iron Man's armor. He slipped into the role of super-villain and mercenary, even serving in the inaugural line-up for the Masters of Evil - but think about the fact that even though the character debuted in 1963, you probably can't even remember his real name (Wikipedia is cheating). Despite his pedigree, he was killed by the Scourge and it was over twenty years before they even bothered to resurrect the name. The idea is pretty basic, really: a villain who tries to kill Iron Man by melting his armor. You don't get much more simple than that, but you also don't get more forgettable.
The movie is defined by missed opportunities. After spending years selling a worldwide movie audience on the importance of these films' shared universe as not merely a selling point but a narrative strength, this film seems strangely disconnected from the previous Marvel productions. The introduction of AIM seems significantly underplayed considering the organizations historical ties (in the comics, at least) to Hydra, who will assumedly be making their return in the next Captain America film. Now that we have half-a-dozen superheroes walking around the cinematic Marvel Universe, the films are running into the same problems that the comics have been confronting for five decades - how to logically maintain the separateness of each hero's adventures while maintaining the cohesion of the shared universe. The previous movies have addressed this question, rightly or wrongly, by using SHIELD as the glue, providing a rationale for the way certain characters interact at certain times and not at others. The fact that SHIELD had no role to play in this movie seemed strange to me, considering just how much time they've spent selling us on SHIELD's central significance. As comic book readers were used to the kind of hand-waving that allows us to answer the question of "why don't the Avengers just show up to help every time the Sinister Six tries to kill Spider-Man?" But this seems like a more difficult question to answer in the context of these movies, since they've gone out of their way to show us that there's not much that happens on this world that goes unnoticed by Nick Fury. You'd think a little thing like a string of terrorist bombings leading up to a conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States spearheaded by the Vice President of the United States would be something he would at least pay attention to - but hey, I guess he was busy!
So we're left with a third film that, rather than expanding upon the good will left by the success of The Avengers, shows signs of settling into typical late-franchise bloat. The filmmakers seem to be genuinely baffled as to why people like these kinds of movies. I'm not going to lie and say that my perception of these problems is having any impact whatsoever on the films' reception - it's already one of the most successful films ever, breaking records left and right, blah blah blah. But it goes a great way towards illustrating just how fragile a recipe the first few Marvel's films' mixture of high adventure and arch humor really was. Tony in this film goes over the line from smartass to asshole without really any indication that this is an intentional slippage on the filmmakers' part. I've never been completely sold on Downey's version of the character, but here he just seems unpleasant and shrill. People seem to like assholes now - the whole "cool exec with a heart of steel" thing has become less a description of the characters' defining disabilities and more an aspirational model of why we want to be Tony Stark in the age of neoliberal economic collapse. Sure, he has the whole PTSD thing going on for a little while, but as we all know from years' of experience with returning soldiers, that's nothing that can't be cured by further exposure to excessively violent traumatic life-and-death situations. Go America! Fuck yeah!