Just look at that lazy, smug bastard.
Marvel’s first post-Avengers cinema foray is out, reviews are in, we’ve been to see it (and if you haven’t: here there be spoilers), the smoke has cleared, and the Thor sequel is coming down the pipes soon. But something feels off. Why am I kind of dreading the slew of upcoming Marvel Universe sequels to films I entirely enjoyed?
First off, none of this should have worked in the first place. Iron Man took the lead and delivered what I still consider to be the absolute pinnacle superhero origin story on film. In my opinion, that movie was without flaw. I didn’t truly believe that Samuel L. Jackson was going to cameo as Nick Fury and announce an Avengers team-up until I saw it onscreen with my own two eyes. “Holy hell, it’s happening…no goddamn way.” was my cynical immediate response. But with Marvel now in control of most of their characters’ movie rights, a big part of me believed and was more than thrilled at the prospect.
The Incredible Hulk scored again, somehow doing what the talented Ang Lee could not in making a definitive film starring Marvel’s jolly green badass. And Tony Stark showed up at the end to further tease the team-up. What Iron Man 2 lacked in story, it made up for with an amazing cast that added more fuel to the fire of a cohesive cinematic universe filled with classic comic characters interacting with one another, and ended with an epic shot of mighty Mjolnir.
Thor was going to be the trickiest character to adapt as classical mythology figures in comic book adventures make for a rough sell. Just ask DC where their proposed Wonder Woman film and television series are at. But Marvel pulled it off with a stylish mix of science fiction, fantasy combined with a classic fish-out-of-water love story. Captain America was as predictably straightforward as one would expect his origin story to be, but it featured some surprises and came off quite nicely while setting the stage for the culmination off it all, leaving nothing left but for some awesome writer/director to somehow, some way bring all of the heroes we’d met along the way together to make the most epic comic book action flick of all time. Like that could happen.
That totally happened.
The rest is, of course, history. Marvel Studios did the impossible by convincingly introducing their heroes individually in a series of outstanding films and then bringing them all together with minimal recasting for an unbelievable team-up film that killed the box office while appealing to hardcore comic nerds and casual popcorn film audiences alike. If they could do that, they could do anything. Marvel had the best run qualitywise of any connected film series I can think of, and they did it almost effortlessly by simply sticking to the themes and concepts of their nearly limitless source material with a little extra flair thrown in. There was no reason to doubt that they could do it all over again. Until now, that is.
Iron Man 3 had a fresh new director with a long history of writing quality action flicks, was going to feature the debut of his most menacing nemesis yet, had positive buzz, and looked to be downright epic. Then I got to the theater and was greeted by an opening sequence set to the mega-cheesy dance pop strains of Blue (Da Ba Dee). I don’t care if it’s an American Pie film; there is no movie that can’t be made less tonally serious and more lame by including that song. Were they asking too much for the rights to the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or what?
And it wasn’t just a bad music choice in the opening scene. The rest of it was full of Christmas music. In a summer blockbuster. That actually happened. Gone altogether was the Tom Morello/Black Sabbath-fueled heavy metal soundtrack to match the heavy metal action. Hell, even Joss Whedon had Stark rep some AC/DC and Sabbath in The Avengers. Consistency, man! That was a big part of what made Marvel’s Phase One such a resounding success. Director Shane Black appeared to be much more interested in doing whatever he felt like than serving the franchise as a whole, and that was clear from top to bottom.
Cue Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy for maximum badassery!
But all the explosions in the trailer! This one’s got to be the ironest Iron Man yet, right? Not so much. Stark spends most of his armor time dicking about in a prototype that doesn’t really work, learning about the stupidity of using AI and then ignoring it (even after it menaces his lady in his own bed), and occasionally dragging his inert crap suit around like it was made of paper maché. His coolest action moment is entirely iron-free and the only real heroism he pulls off while controlling it is literally playing Barrel of Monkeys (his words) with freefalling politicians. Wee.
But dat villain! The Mandarin, Tony Stark’s legit arch-nemesis, reimagined as an international terrorist! That’s got to be cool, right? Well, if you’ve seen the film, you know they took it in a different direction that served as a rather clever artistic/political statement, although given the tone of the rest of the film I’d guess they just saw it as an amusing punchline. Either way, after ratcheting up the tension like they did and then just turning the whole thing into a joke/twist, it left a massive narrative void that was filled with a bunch of nondescript yellow glowy people led by another nondescript yellow glowy guy that’s not so much a supervillain as he is yet another Stark Industries business rival who seems to lack perspective for such a supposed genius. If anyone is out of yawns, I’ve got some extras you can have.
And now we’ve got to talk kid sidekicks. Has there ever been a single instance a child in the cast making a superhero story better in any way? Well, yes; Kick-Ass, but Hit-Girl was nowhere to be seen in this one. Stark may not have given the kid his own armor and called him “Iron Boy”, but that would have been the next logical step. Cloying, cheesy, unnecessary, cliché, and just a plainly weak decision on the part of all involved. Please never do that again, every writer ever.
The grandiose finale had its moments, but it also pretty much makes Tony Stark as Iron Man a nonentity. Why does he need to don his armor ever again? He can just have a million suits of armor on autopilot fight for him and then just blow them all up for shits and giggles. Why? Because it’s romantic? Because audiences like it when stuff goes boom? While I agree wholeheartedly that this should be Shellhead’s final solo foray, I think having him swear off the armor altogether was maybe a bit premature when you consider that whole Avengers thing.
Market research shows that six-year-olds believe 1000 Iron Men are 1000 times cooler than one.
I remember reading that Avengers director Joss Whedon’s reaction upon watching Iron Man 3 was “what am I supposed to do now?” At the time, I took as the statement as figurative praise implying that the film was so epic he felt like he wouldn’t be able to top it. It turns out he was being literal. It’s like following X-Men: The Last Stand. When somebody makes such an unholy, illogical mess of a franchise, it’s got to be a bitch to have to be the one to pick up all the pieces and essentially try and unwrite the stupidity. Why would Marvel allow this kind of nonsense in a series with a continuous, interlocking narrative?
Cameos? Marvel Universe references? Well, they mentioned New York during the film. That’s a thing, I guess. Remember those great post-credits sequences that always teased things to come and got you all pumped up for the next film? I waited through the entire obnoxiously long film credits including a baffling 70’s-style montage that was completely out of tone with pretty much anything in modern film outside of tongue-in-cheek neo-grindhouse flicks. And what did I get? A really lame joke sequence featuring Mark Ruffalo. That’s it. Go home, suckers. I suppose even a dumb cameo moment is better than nothing, but just barely; especially after staving off sleep through some ten minutes of credits. You know damn well they could have done better.
This one line could have saved the entire film for me.
So yeah, I wasn’t super-pleased when I left the theater. That’s not to say I hated Iron Man 3. I mean it’s probably one of the better examples of the “Curse of Three” in which the third film in a great nerd franchise suddenly tanks the entire thing -usually to the point where a reboot is necessary- but it’s still a clear-cut example of it in my eyes. But the damage that was done here was more than just your average underwhelming film. It planted the idea in my head that future Marvel films may only get worse from here.
By the laws of typical major studio cinema, Thor probably shouldn’t have turned out great in the first place and Captain America is not the most exciting solo superhero, but they both worked the first time out on the strength of Marvel’s focus on consistency and quality control. After Iron Man 3 I feel that previous focus may have been shattered. With more Thor and Cap coming up, I wonder if they are going to be able to return to form and deliver great sequels for two of Marvel’s more challenging heroes when they weren’t even able to do it with one of their easier/cooler ones.
I know that the film has no shortage of fans (in fact, I’m probably the minority on this), but here’s what I’d like those who disagree to do for me: find a copy of the recent Japanese animated Iron Man film, Rise of the Technovore, and watch it. I then want them to come back here, look me in the virtual eyes, and tell me that filming that story in live action would not have made for an infinitely better film than Iron Man 3. This is me daring them the do that with a straight face. In fact, I don’t want to wait. Just watch the trailer and then try it.
Maybe I’m overreacting (and I hope I am), but seldom does a film series bounce back once the quality starts slipping. The blame may be on Disney’s shoulders, as they have a pretty terrible history with live action films and are legendary for cutting corners (read: quality) wherever they can. The timing is certainly suspect. Or maybe I’m just looking for something to whine about. But either way, I seem to have lost much of my enthusiasm for upcoming non-Whedon Marvel film projects, and that loss of enthusiasm happened while I was in the theater watching Iron Man 3. And no part of me will be surprised if and when Whedon abandons his Avengers duties and departs, either.
By all means, tell me I’m wrong. I hope you’re right and Thor: The Dark World is so awesome it makes Lord of the Rings look like The Golden Compass. I hope Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes me laugh at myself for being such a pessimistic ass and that Guardians of the Galaxy is so cosmically epic that it opens up the whole science fiction facet of comics in a way that Green Lantern failed to do. But it’s probably a good idea to keep your expectations in check. You know, just in case.