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Okay, I was too tough on Iron Man 3

Our chief film critic A.A. Dowd revisits the one C+ he's never lived down
Okay, I was too tough on <i>Iron Man 3</i>
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Screenshot: Iron Man 3
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In my nearly nine years at The A.V. Club, I’ve written about hundreds of movies. And yet the review of mine that’s come up the most—in the comments, on Twitter, even in real life—is the second one I ever wrote for the site, during my second week on the job. They say you only get one chance at a first impression. This was mine—the moment when a large block of the A.V. Club audience first saw my byline, getting a taste of the sensibilities of the new film editor. To certain readers, I will always be the guy who gave Iron Man 3 a C+.

Who was this hopeless snob tearing down a movie everyone was excited for, a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang reunion in the form of a quippy superhero sequel? My predecessors—folks like Scott Tobias and Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson, who had built The A.V. Club into a daily destination for movie obsessives—had been mostly positive on the early entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More than that, they had established themselves as pop-culture omnivores, cinephiles who appreciated popcorn fare as much as art films. Fair or not, my Iron Man 3 review seemed to suggest, right out the gate, that I was actively hostile towards the former, and to comic-book movies especially.

That C+ followed me, at least in the days before Kinja decimated the site’s robust commenting culture. When I gave Star Trek Into Darkness a B a couple weeks later, it prompted a chorus of, “Wait, you really liked this more than Iron Man 3?” Several more weeks passed, and I gave a C+ to another highly anticipated techno sci-fi event, Elysium; business as usual, they all sighed, for the curmudgeonly critic. The rap had stuck so hard that I was getting credit for colleagues’ middling reviews; imagine my surprise to learn that I had thrown a C+ at Man Of Steel, too. (To be fair, I would have, had I covered that one myself.) Even my unqualified raves raised the specter of a lower grade, as readers quipped that I had only the two As in my pen name to spare. “C+ C+ Dowd,” they rechristened me, cleverly.

As with many caricatures, there’s some truth to this one. I can be a tough grader. Doing this job has only strengthened my conviction that most movies are neither great nor terrible but somewhere in between—you know, which is what the C+ fundamentally signifies. The silver lining of my stinginess is, I hope, that when I do go nuts for a movie, it counts for something. Be as selective with your As as I’ve been on this beat, and they function as a megaphone of enthusiasm. That’s the idea, anyway.

I also understand that my scarlet C+ didn’t really have that much to do with Iron Man 3. It was about the transition from one era of The A.V. Club into another (history is repeating itself in that respect) and about the hard business of warming to a new critic in the absence of the ones you’ve learned to love and trust. The C+ jokes were my hazing, a roast of passage from a loyal constituency. And if there are readers, current or lapsed, who genuinely still associate me with an opinion I expressed during the Obama administration, there are likely many others who have found some fondness for my critical outlook—or at least found more recent reasons to despise it.

Still, I’ve absently wondered over the years if I was wrong about Iron Man 3, the movie that instantly made my not-entirely-unfair reputation as a killjoy. Recently, on the cusp of my exit from The A.V. Club, I decided to find out—to rewatch Shane Black’s high-flying smash for the first time since 2013, and also revisit the short review (this was right before the print edition of The Onion stopped, putting an end to hard word counts) I wrote back in my salad days at a dream job I had somehow landed. Had I, as readers insisted, been too hard on chapter one of phase two of the Marvel storytelling plan that was consuming the box office and movie culture at an alarming rate?

The answer, I must begrudgingly admit, is yes. On belated second viewing, Iron Man 3 did not reveal itself to be some classic of the genre; like just about every Marvel movie, it’s too beholden to the formula of its overarching franchise to become a true vision, a work of comic-book-movie art like The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2 or Logan. But it is a better piece of blockbuster entertainment than I said it was in 2013—a little wittier, a little weirder, a little more successful at coloring outside the lines of Marvel’s template. At its best, it plays less like its predecessors and more like a James Bond movie written and directed by a guy very gifted at making dumb action movies feel smart.

Plenty of what I didn’t like about Iron Man 3 on first viewing I still don’t like. The action, with the exception of that one great midair rescue sequence teased during the Super Bowl, is unmemorable. “Borderline incoherent,” to quote my review, was definitely overstating the point—it’s rare that you can’t track who’s fire- or laser-blasting whom in this film. But Black wasn’t immune to the CGI glut of the MCU, and time hasn’t been especially kind to the majority of his set pieces, including a big, nocturnal, drone-backup climax that sends a bunch of weightless animated figures racing across a green-screen oil tanker.

And I still think the movie is inelegantly plotted; like too many entries in this forever franchise, it struggles to tend to all the balls it has to keep in the air—to balance an old supporting cast of sidekicks and love interests with a new ensemble of allies and foes, to tell its own satisfying story while operating as a continuation of the arc The Avengers lent Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) the previous summer. The first act is surprisingly clunky in its laborious setup. And you can occasionally see the phantom impression of multiple drafts and Marvel Studios committee input—especially in every scene with Rebecca Hall, who was originally intended to be the film’s villain and who is way overqualified for the fairly incidental role she ended up playing instead.

Yet this time through, the pleasures of Iron Man 3—the stuff that delighted readers angry at my lukewarm take—came into sharper relief. Nine years ago, I wrote that “Black’s most endearing experiment… is divorcing Iron Man of his iron. Never is the film livelier than when its hero, stranded in the boonies without access to his toys, has to rely on quick thinking and the kindness of strangers.” And truly, the film does seem to spring to life, like the disembodied components of Tony’s totaled suit, when the action shifts to a wintry Tennessee. In The Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans) had asked who Stark would be without his tech. Iron Man 3 tries to provide an answer, through the tried-and-true strategy of making its hero an underdog again.

It also reconfirms what the first film suggested (and the second film had tried, messily, to capitalize on): that it’s Downey’s motor-mouthed playboy shtick that endeared everyone to these movies, not the scenes of his digital golem-avatar zipping across the sky. Black, who made it big in the late ’80s and early ’90s with his scripts for banter-heavy testosterone fests like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, does his damndest to twist Iron Man 3 into one of his brash star vehicles. He keeps Tony out of the suit because he knows we really came to bask in Downey’s egomaniac wit and sarcasm. And he provides the actor bon mots worthy of that megawatt charisma.

On first viewing, I was disappointed that Shane Black had made a Marvel movie instead of forcing Marvel to make a Shane Black movie. Twenty MCU entries later, his Iron Man 3 looks like one of the more successful (and mildly idiosyncratic) attempts to wrestle one for him out of the mandate of making another for them. “Hints of the filmmaker’s personality poke through the Marvel house style,” I wrote. But there’s actually quite a bit of Black wedged between the boilerplate: the voiceover framework, the Christmas setting, the wisecracking scenes between Downey and Don Cheadle that suggest a buddy-cop flick smuggled into the movie’s margins. The most Blackian element might be the salty/sweet rapport Tony develops with a local urchin helping him off the grid. “Dads leave, no need to be a pussy about it,” our hero says to a literal child—a line I’d bet big money Black had to fight to keep.

And I still love the big reveal about Ben Kinglsey’s looming terrorist threat The Mandarin. The ending of the first Iron Man established its eponymous character as a celebrity superhero—a crime-fighter balancing his world-saving exploits with his life in the public eye. To that end, it was smart to confront Tony with a mirage of a villain: a bad guy literally invented by and for television. It’s also just a great, funny twist—and all the better for how much it pissed off some Marvel fans. (This franchise could stand to toy with canon, and the expectations of the diehards, a little more than it usually does.)

So, yes, I was a little tough on Iron Man 3. Anticlimactically, I must now report that it deserved a B- or maybe a B. What stopped me, I think, from going a little higher on the film is something that’s not in the review but might be the animating subtext of it: my own creeping fatigue at the Marvel industrial complex. The movies before The Avengers had all felt, to an extent, like they were building towards something. With Iron Man 3, it became clear that there was no end in sight for this franchise—that these movies were going to just keep coming, no matter the size of the crossover events they periodically fed into.

What I was really grappling with, between the lines of my mixed review, was the ominous feeling that movie culture and the job of being a movie critic was going to be dominated by shiny, zippy, quality controlled product like Iron Man 3 from here on out. That unarticulated anxiety is the kernel of truth in readers labeling me a superhero-movie hater.

And on some level, I do think the obsession with this one grade for this one movie was a preview of what all critics, not just me, would deal with over the years that followed: the accusations of being out of touch, of not appreciating the crowdpleasers “real” audiences have consumed in droves since. Am I suggesting that every person who ribbed me about Iron Man 3 was a frothing fanboy? Of course not—in part because some of those doing the ribbing were my own coworkers! But I do think one of the defining tensions of my line of work this past decade has been the increasing demand that critics mirror back audiences’ affection for these gargantuan spandex spectacles—or else! I got a taste of that conflict early on, and I’ve been receiving periodic doses of it ever since, particularly when I’ve dared to jump back into the Marvel-verse and assess the merits of a new toy off their assembly line.

Anyway, there are worse legacies than being the dissenting opinion on a generally well-liked Hollywood hit—even if that opinion was a little crankier than it ought to have been. I have one more film to review for The A.V. Club, and by coincidence, it’s another highly anticipated movie about a billionaire superhero with cool gadgets. “Your last review for the site has to be a C+,” former editor-in-chief Josh Modell jokingly told me over lunch a few weeks ago. For the sake of my own viewing pleasure—and my mentions—I hope I’m unable to fulfill his sardonic request. But there would be some symmetry in that, wouldn’t there? One last C+ for the road.