Warning: Major spoilers for Iron Man 3 are revealed below.
It takes more than jokes to make a comedy. Just about every movie in American history, no matter how entrenched in severity, manages at least one or two moments of laughter. Action and adventure films stockpile their filler scenes with gags to pass the time. Dramas use humor to relieve tension. But these movies, no matter how effective in their delivery of the funny, stand independent from the designation of "comedy." Unsurprisingly, wit finds a welcome home in flashy blockbusters. Marvel Studios' fast-flying output — the first two Iron Man flicks, Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers — all vie for a chuckle here and there, with Joss Whedon's 2012 assembly especially managing a handful of hearty laughs courtesy of its superhuman heroes. But a distinction is made with Iron Man 3, which is the first of the Marvel series that can appropriately be called an action-comedy at its core.
This weekend's Tony Stark release is the second directorial feature for Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black, and we see traces of the filmmaker's intimate, down-and-dirty Gibson/Glover buddy cop films, this franchise being no stranger to the comedic methods. As per usual, Tony Stark is armed with as many sardonic one-liners as he has fancy gadgets. But it's not just Robert Downey Jr. who is a beacon of humor in this one — the world built around him seems solidified on a comic fabric.
Sure, Tony Stark faces the usual sum of grave scenarios — in fact, the emotional drama of his character takes a stalwart leap in Iron Man 3, with the character suffering from regular bouts of anxiety over the traumatic events he experienced "in New York" (remember? That thing that happened a year ago? The Avengers?). But the drama, and even the superpowered action (the big sell of these movies) never overpower the overall function of Iron Man 3: the humor. It seems odd that the primary life blood of this movie, beyond its drive to further the Tony Stark story or showcase the latest advancements in CGI, is to make us laugh. But it works.
The distinction rears itself in a major way. The general feel of Tony Stark's cover missions in Iron Man 3 isn't matted upon tension or excitement, but giggling glee. When Tony sneaks around a backwoods Midwestern town in an effort to find out just what his Extremis enemies are up to, every turn of the scenes is paved with the feel of a superior Rush Hour. Yes, there's a fair share of ass kicking, but that's just the meat: the real sell for this sandwich is its dressing.
Full characters and relationships are played for laughs here; Tony's camaraderie with preteen tech geek Harley Keener is one gigantic superhero/'90s-kid-sidekick laugh riot (the friggin' kid's name is Harley Keener... is there anything more '90s-kid-sidekick-sounding than that?!). The relationship is embedded in the same kind of flavorful back-and-forth that you'd find in every movie from Temple of Doom to Life with Mikey. In fact, there's almost no other reason why Stark finds himself in the company of this young buck. The story wouldn't be furthered, nor his character expanded any more with an adult companion by his side (granted, Harley's nubile earnestness does force Tony to address his PTSD head on). In fact, the only real reason the kid is introduced into the movie is because it's funny. Really funny, believe me.
But more characters than just young Harley are scultped around this kind of overpowering humor, including (and here's the big spoiler of the piece) The Mandarin. Yes, the haunting archenemy, as he is painted by the trailers, is actually just a figurehead: a bumbling nincompoop used as an illustration of evil by the real Extremis mastermind. Now, this sort of plot twist could have existed just fine with The Mandarin still coming off as a serious individual. But instead, they reduce behind-the-scenes Ben Kingsley character to a substance-addicted Ringo Starr-ian goofball with more riotous one-liners per minute that Tony himself. The entire existence of the character, past the reveal of his true nature, is a joke. One big, laugh-out-loud joke, that eases whatever tension the movie had been using as a facade, trickling full force, once and for all, into a bona fide comedy.
A comedy, no matter how deeply embedded in realism, exists in a very specific type of universe — one whose function and timing must play benefactor to the motion of the story and scenes. What separates comedies from dramas, on a substantial level, isn't the existence of jokes, but the opportunity for jokes. Comedic movies live in a world where jokes don't just happen, they control and manipulate the happenings around them. In humorous dramas, jokes are peppered into scenes. In comedies, scenes are constructed upon jokes. And this is exactly what distinguishes Iron Man 3 from its predecessors.
Yes, The Avengers had some great visual punchlines. Yes, Iron Man had some memorable quips. But Iron Man 3 is different. It's universe doesn't take itself seriously. Black has so much fun with his movie, throwing scene-deconstructing turns in at every chance (an Extremis shoot-out is halted when one of the villainous employees tells a gun-wielding Tony Stark that he doesn't even like his job and promises to quit). While you might be heading to the theater expecting something exciting and tense, action-heavy and thrilling, what you're getting is instead a joyful, laugh-laden romp. Some might find this a blow to the severity of the Marvel series, but it's a victory. Yes, Iron Man 3 still tells a good story, and still has some colossally adventurous scenes. They just take backseat to a more important agenda: laughter. And if you're going to have a full fledged action-comedy, you might as well use Tony Stark and Iron Man to do it.
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