iron man 3Dir. Shane Black
(2013, PG-13, 130 minutes)

The first thing that came to mind while watching Iron Man 3 was how much better superhero movies need to get about women. Just one day ago I watched the terrific second part of Feminist Frequency’s critical analysis of the problematic roles of women in video games, and here is a movie that makes her point for her.

There are two major female roles. The first, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), more or less runs Stark Industries and manages Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) dysfunctional life, but before long she is damseled by the screenplay – that is to say, she is kidnapped and rendered helpless so that male characters can fight over her. Pepper gets two moments of heroism, but both are the result of technology or augmentation inflicted on her by male characters.

The other is worse: Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) is a brilliant scientist developing a method for hacking the genes of living organisms, but the character and her decisions are mostly driven by the fact that she had a one-night-stand with Tony back in 1999; more than a decade later, her greatest defining characteristic is that Tony never called her again.

Regressive gender tropes aside, Iron Man 3 is a solid film, better than the second, not quite as fun as the first. But after two Iron Men, an Avengers, a couple of Hulks, and a very unfortunate Thor, this Marvel comic book universe has come to feel more like assembly-line product than stories or characters. They come out at regular intervals and are touted as events, but as Mark Harris recently tweeted, “It’s hard to get excited about a $175 million opening for a film whose sole reason for existence is to have a $175 million opening.”

In this one, Tony is suffering post-traumatic stress following the events of The Avengers – though he has avoided any psychological consequences from the near-death experiences from his two pre-Avengers movies. The country is currently under attack from a terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), while a scientist with the can’t-not-be-a-supervillain name Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) tries to partner with Stark Industries for his own genetic experiments.

Lots of stuff blows up real good. But the film, directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), knows that Iron Man is more interesting when he looks like Robert Downey Jr. than when he looks like a special effect, so the star spends a great deal of the film outside of his suit. However, once the mechanics of the plot take over, there’s less time for character development than for quips and exposition.

Oddly, the character of greatest interest to me this time around was Jarvis, the artificial intelligence voiced by Paul Bettany who serves as Tony’s all-purpose assistant, butler, and remote control, but whose sarcastic, knowing, sometimes passive-aggressive tone suggests, ironically, that the disembodied voice might have the most interesting inner life of anyone in the film.

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