In my fantasy world, every summer weekend brings a new pop achievement to movie theaters. These aren't just spectacles, they're important; they stand up over time and they move audiences for generations to come, successful as entertainment and as art. Your brain, your heart, your soul, your aesthetic sensibility, your politics, your values, all full-throttle engaged by creative people with nothing to sell but well-executed personal visions.
Iron Man 3 would like to sell you a car. Maybe an energy drink. Definitely a future ticket to the next Avengers film. It's a gigantic product in the service of other products, a malleable enterprise that ingratiates itself to both you, multiple corporate entities and China (they shot extra footage with popular Chinese actress Fan BingBing that will play only in that country). It's a thing made to sell other things.
And that's fine. It can still be entertainment. And sometimes it is. But it's not the pop art masterpiece my fantasy world needs. Not even close.
When the numbers in the title start to rise in a franchise, the element of surprise becomes a valuable commodity. So in terms of plot I'll tell you that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a little shaken from the events of The Avengers (but not so rattled that it affects the precision sculpting of his beard-stripe) and he suffers from panic attacks. He was always neurotic so that's not such a big deal. But Earth-grown villains have been working overtime while Iron Man was busy battling space-bads and someone called Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, acting like no one's watching) is wreaking havoc, terrorism-style. Meanwhile, a biological agent that regrows missing limbs has been developed by extreme-nerd Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Too bad it also blows up the people implanted with it. You could say everything and everybody is unstable here, even Stark's ongoing romance with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, whose oil-and-water chemistry with Downey is one of the franchise's ongoing pleasures). And then stuff happens.
That stuff comes with writer-director Shane Black's imprint. And there's a lot of his trademark (PG-13-ready) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang style going on here: the fast-paced banter and crazy explosioning, the bluntly sarcastic line deliveries, everything you already know about the man right down to his Christmas obsession. It's what gives the film its energy. Black is the reason for the season and Downey is his Santa Claus.
But the movie never stops remembering that it's got a big money obligation to meet and that involves a serious tradeoff. A big product from a big studio with big expectations riding on it almost automatically means that my original wishful definition of pop art masterpiece (or even pop art prettygoodsterpiece) isn't going to be satisfied. That's just not how the world spins. These kinds of movies are less directed than they are engineered by various teams of creatives and executives and marketers to guarantee smooth performance. Once its made its way through those gates it's less like an offering to cinema and more like the Audi Tony Stark drives around. No real danger is on the menu because that would involve death and that's not happening; the villains don't pose a coherent threat because that might be insurmountable even for Iron Man; confusing battle sequences where the camera just gets shaken around like a snow-globe are glossed over because there's a Downey punch line coming to make you forget that what you just watched didn't make any sense; it's like that.
So distract me (okay, delight me) by throwing a piano at a helicopter all you like; kill bad guys with exploding Christmas tree ornaments. I like those mini-spectacles. But in the end, that's all they are and that's not quite enough. Summer is no excuse.