In a movie where flying metal meets flying metaphors, “Iron Man 3” is like rooting for a good hammer. Billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark makes it possible to pilot a fleet of Iron Man outfits by remote control, while he munches In’N’Out burgers miles away. “Iron Man” has become “Iron Drone.” The real metaphor here is the empty suit.
Among the faithful, that change won’t lead to tears for teenage theater hands to soak in mops. Most fans of the first two Marvel Comics films will see this as technological advancement. But I find Tony Stark’s absence from the action, to manipulate Iron Man’s movements from a living room like he’s watching a Jazzercise video, upsetting. In the battle of Good and Evil, Good stays an unchivalrous distance from the fight. What is heroism without mortality, if risking your life to save someone no longer requires risking your life?
That’s a strange, and perhaps harsh, way to look at a film that for its two-plus hours of run time entertains more than its popular predecessors. The original was saved by an energetic Downey performance. The second one was an outright disaster mitigated somewhat by interesting thematic undertows. For the third film (and its obligatory 3-D-ness, because, c’mon, Hollywood rules state that third films have to be in 3-D) Downey is back in prime quirky form, at his best tossing out one-liners with a ten-year-old orphan inventor from Tennessee. The bad guys are disabled veterans turned into human bombs at the direction of an evil think tank and a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who isn’t all that he seems. The visual effects are sharp, overwhelming and give the people what they want.
Does it entertain, or does it distract? And do the effects, convincing as they are, transform visceral action into vicarious spectacle? Iron Man runs on time. It ticks. It tocks. But does it beat like a heart?
As Stark’s pal Colonel Rhodes, Don Cheadle gives a familiar speech to Stark about two hostages––you can save one or the other, but you can’t save both. From that moment, you know that they’ll save both. No stars will lose their lives in the process. I remember reading a review that pointed out that this is the difference between The Dark Knight and other superhero movies – there are real consequences to Batman’s choices that don’t exist for other Superfriends. The Superhoeros take either/or situations and make them an “and,” and it robs them of moral consequence and responsibility. In a film of empty suits, this may be the emptiest.