Robert Downey Jr.

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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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.