The Iron Man films are so much better when Iron Man isn’t onscreen.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a charming, roguish ne’er do well. Quick with a quip, sporting a disarming smile, he dominates scenes in a way no other superhero "civilian" identity has done during the recent string of comic book films.
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Bruce Wayne (Batman, Christian Bale) is dour. Steve Rogers (Captain America, Chris Evans) is bland. The less said about Hal Jordan (Green Lantern, Ryan Reynolds), the better.
(Incidentally, Thor avoids this trap altogether by refusing to give its protagonist a civilian identity. Chris Hemsworth is always Thor, even when he’s trapped on Earth and bereft of powers. And he’s pretty entertaining.)
The flatness of a superhero’s civilian persona is why comic book films only tend to be as good as their villains. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are as great as they are because the bad guys portrayed by Liam Neeson (Ra’s Al Ghul), Heath Ledger (The Joker), and Tom Hardy (Bane) are so compelling. They aren’t merely punching bags for Batman to wail on; they are legitimate threats with the ability to take down our hero.
Green Lantern, on the other hand, fails because the film culminates in a battle between Hal Jordan and an amorphous yellow blob.
Great actors playing bad guys have saved some of the other Marvel films. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull provided Captain America a few much-needed sparks, while Tom Hiddleston’s Loki helped leaven Thor and The Avengers with just the right amount of menacing trickster humor.
Iron Man and Iron Man 2 have the opposite problem. Downey Jr. is so magnetic that no villain can match his natural charms. And it’s not as if he was paired up against lightweights. Jeff Bridges served as the villain in film one and a resurgent Mickey Rourke pulled bad-guy duties in film two.
Both men are fantastic actors. But neither one held a candle to the star. The result was a lack of dramatic tension. And so both films struggled to produce a satisfying conclusion when the charming hero and meh villain confront each other in the third act.
At first, it seemed as if Iron Man 3 managed to overcome this problem. Following the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. He’s now prone to an occasional panic attack and debilitating loss in confidence.
That leaves rogue biotechnologist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and maniacal terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to chew scenery. After a Mandarin-planned bombing severely injures Stark’s best friend and former bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Stark swears revenge.
The Mandarin strikes first, however, leveling Stark’s Malibu mansion in a helicopter attack that leaves our hero injured, his Iron Man suit damaged, and the world believing him to be dead.
Stark then wanders America trying to solve the mystery of the Mandarin: Who is he, where is he broadcasting his terroristic threats from, and how is he causing the explosions wreaking so much havoc?
Much of the film’s first two acts are fantastic. Stripped of his armor and playing a small town detective rather than a heavily shielded and armed global police officer, Stark must get by on his wits, engineering skills, and personality.
Particularly entertaining are his scenes with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a precocious small-town kid with a knack for engineering and no father figure. Using a child as comic relief is always tricky, but it works here because director and co-screenwriter Shane Black has Stark treat Harley as he does everyone else: with a hint of contempt and a demanding demeanor, but also with just the right amount of charm and wit that we, and Harley, can’t help wanting to be on his side.
Problems creep in at the end of the second act, however, when it’s revealed that Pearce’s Killian is turning members of the military into super-powered, bio-engineered, walking, talking, furnaces. Or something. It’s never really explained what Extremis, Killian’s new technology, is supposed to do. We gather it regenerates lost limbs and heals other wounds.
But for some reason Extremis also seems to give the infected the power to generate massive amounts of heat and, for one time, and one time only, to breathe fire. Take too much Extremis, though, and you o.d. and explode.
Also, the wound-healing nature of the Extremis technology is maddeningly inconsistent. Some explosions kill the Extremis-infected soldiers, but some don’t. Hack off a limb and it grows back; blast someone through the chest with a repulsor and he dies.
And then the third act ends as third acts in Marvel Movies always do: superheroes punch super-villains in mildly creative and noisy ways, with little on the line because we know exactly how things will turn out.
Which is what I mean when I say the Iron Man films are so much better when Iron Man isn’t actually onscreen. Tony Stark is a fascinating, complicated guy filled with verve and style and charm—a "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist," in his own words. Iron Man is a flying tin can that shoots missiles and is in no real danger of ever being killed.
Which would you rather watch?