“Ant-Man,” the latest comic book superhero recruited for the big screen by Marvel Studios, is also, you guessed it, the smallest. Instead of blowing up a city — this genre’s climactic hallmark and its most tiresome trope — “Ant-Man” opts for a little girl’s bedroom. As opposed to several costumed crusaders of varying abilities and charisma, this movie provides just a few. We’re also spared another incoherent, global conflict, such as the one depicted in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Here, the trouble is domestic.

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In the way of vapid spectacles, created to generate ungodly revenue and maintained by an unreasonable sense of hype, there are worse entertainments than “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the latest box-office explosion from Marvel Studios and the sequel to the superhero recruitment promo “The Avengers.” Consider the boxing match this past weekend between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. It was the fight of the century right up until the first punch was thrown. The rest really is history: something from the past that will be vaguely recalled by some, if only for the price of the Pay Per View ticket. “Age of Ultron” won’t break your bank, but its true cost is still brain damage.

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iron man 3 couch

A version of this review originally appeared on May 9, 2013 in the Lock Haven Eagle Eye, Lock Haven University’s student newspaper.

The “Iron Man” movies have always been prone to whimsy, distinguishing themselves from the macho brouhaha of “Thor” and the annoyingly sincere patriotism of “Captain America,” but the latest installment in the franchise finds itself bordering on the absurd with tonal changes so abrupt and a disregard for some key characters that it never quite finds a balance, a central conflict on which all its disparate parts can converge. The movie is even episodic at times: one moment Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is his usual quick-witted arrogant self, cracking jokes after a spectacular rescue, and the next he is in a hardware store hundreds of miles away filling up multiple shopping carts with ingredients for some makeshift weaponry.

But maybe such disparities and randomness reflect the undercurrent of existential disorientation that one of the movie’s conflicts implies: How do we live in a post-9/11 world? But of course, we’re talking about an alternate universe here. The Marvel version of 9/11 was depicted in last year’s “The Avengers” which featured a New York City decimated by an alien invasion. “Nothing’s been the same since New York,” Stark tells his great love Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), expressing his struggle with enduring world-saving traumatic experiences. In short, Tony Stark has post-Avengers stress disorder. He suffers from occasional anxiety attacks and even becomes a danger to his loved ones as he tries to figure out what kind of man he is.

Who is Tony Stark and who is Iron Man? the movie constantly asks. Are they one and the same? Is one subservient to the other? Who is Tony Stark without the armor?

The movie has an answer to these questions but whether or not it earns such certainty is up for debate. Nonetheless, Stark’s struggle with PTSD reflects our own culture’s struggle with defining ourselves in a post-9/11 world—a weighty theme for a comic book movie, but then again the “Iron Man” films have always been much more ambitious than the rest in the Marvel universe.

In fact, “Iron Man 3” might just be the most thematically ambitious Marvel movie since the franchise’s debut, at least on an elementary level. The movie depicts—but doesn’t quite explore—the depths of political corruption, the dangers of powerful corporations, and even some daddy issues when Stark finds himself mentoring a precocious youngster in probably the most entertaining segment of the film.

Despite its thematic ambition, “Iron Man 3” is ultimately a folly, a movie too concerned with spectacle than character. Although, there’s not much in the way of jaw-dropping spectacle either, except for one scene in which some important political figures free fall from a plane to their imminent deaths unless Iron Man can devise a clever way to rescue them. To say that he does is not spoiling anything. He is Iron Man after all, and he’s the property of Disney.

There are simply no stakes in “Iron Man 3.” Its target audience doesn’t allow for the kind of trauma or maturity of character worthy of investing one’s emotions. In short, we’ve seen it all before. After audiences have been bombarded with excessive explosions and near-deaths in the last two entries, compounded by the excesses of this movie, distinguishing between their plots is a difficult task.

The plot of “Iron Man 3” is easily forgettable. The story revolves around an Osama bin Laden-esque terrorist named the Mandarin (an endearing Ben Kingsley), and Tony Stark’s attempts to prevent the Mandarin from executing more terrorist attacks. There’s a bit more to it than that, including a few clever twists—some of which are inconsequential considering we aren’t ever given a good reason to care in the first place.

In the end, “Iron Man 3” is exactly what is to be expected of an “Iron Man” movie. It’s even a little bit better than its predecessor, but only a little. Though “Iron Man 3” tries to justify its absurdity, its fragmented aesthetic, with some self-aware dialogue and Tony’s fragile emotional state—”I’m a hot mess,” he stresses to Potts in one of the few powerful scenes—it never quite hits the mark, becoming just another routine summer blockbuster whose profits will no doubt guarantee a sequel.

Working as an electronics salesman at my local Target store grants me the vantage point to observe and study humankind in its most primal state, in its saliva-inducing desire for mere things.

During every shift, I witness the crude awe in people’s faces after a successful sales pitch in which I’ve delineated the life-altering features of the iPad, or the benefits of having a retina-incinerating 70 inch HDTV. Marveling at recent technological advancements is not hard or uncommon, especially for a jaded junkie like myself, but understanding the almost-religious devotion Americans have for very expensive pastime enablers is something of a struggle. Some of us pay thousands of dollars to sit at home and stare at something for hours on end. Others pay just as much for portability, for the chance to stare at something on the go for hours on end. We have an aversion to boredom it seems, and an unhealthy affinity for distraction out of a fear of going insane during the microsecond of sensory deprivation — which some of us call peace — between turning off the TV and reaching for the tablet. Luckily, we no longer have to wait for our devices to boot up. Imagine five minutes alone with ourselves. Disturbing stuff, right?

I’m talking about a very specific type of shopper, one whose reverence for things is in direct contrast to the shopping tendencies of another demographic: children between the ages of about 5 and 12.

Most shrewdly, the toy department is adjacent to the electronics department in Target stores. Once again, my profession grants me the same anthropological vantage point to observe and study the younger demographic. Where adults revere the things they want, children destroy their desired toys out of an insatiable possessive instinct. A quick glance at the action figure and Barbie doll aisle in any major retailer is a testament to this claim. At the end of every one of my closing shifts, the toy department is reminiscent of the New York City depicted in the final battle of the Avengers movie. It’s as if the Incredible Hulk himself crashed through the ceiling leaving nothing behind but the juvenile debris of his rage for me to clean up after the dust has settled.

When did parents decide that taking their children to retail stores to burn off energy was a better alternative than an actual playground or any other activity suitable for such a purpose? And when did parents become so inattentive to their children’s behavior in public places?

What we need is an all-encompassing, universal etiquette for customers. It can come in pamphlet form or can manifest itself as an unspoken agreement. Either way, the shopping experience should not facilitate the emergence of our inner savages. We live in the 21st century and shopping carts are not trash cans. The distinction has always been quite clear to me.