The signal irony of the special-effects blockbusters that now dominate American moviegoing is this: Their dazzling computer-generated imagery has rendered them entirely interchangeable. They all feature the destruction of colossal swaths of real estate, depicted so realistically you don’t even need to suspend a moment’s disbelief. But then, who can remember which one of the 25 sci-fi megapictures from last year featured the evisceration of a Chicago office building by a snake-like alien robot? Watching Iron Man 3, the latest $200 million production, I could have sworn I’d seen its climactic battle—set in and around an oil tanker—several times before.
If I’m entirely blasé about these sequences, I can only imagine that the teenage boys (and the twentysomething males indistinguishable from teenage boys) at whom they’re aimed must be feeling the mind-numbing sameness more than I do. So what is it that makes the blockbuster experience so memorable, even now, that the moviegoing audience is willing to attend them almost en masse the weekend they open? (Iron Man 3 made $172 million on its opening weekend, an astounding 25 times more than the number two film.)
I don’t think what they’re waiting for is the infamous “money shot”— some iconic image getting blown up in a manner you haven’t seen before. Directors torture themselves to come up with new places to ruin in new ways, but they’ve pretty much run out of monuments and whole cities they can reduce to rubble. The Avengers basically trashed Midtown Manhattan, and that had already been done 15 years earlier in the dreadful remake of Godzilla, and four or five times since.
So what was it that made The Avengers last year’s most successful film? The fans didn’t return time after time to wonder anew at the smashing of Midtown. They came to hear the stolid Captain America turning to a 10-foot-tall green giant and saying, in a perfect deadpan, “Hulk, smash.” They reveled in the Hulk, out of nowhere, punching the Norse deity Thor out of the picture frame and muttering something indecipherably rude out of the side of his mouth. And they loved it when Robert Downey Jr., playing Iron Man as he had in the first two films of the name and in this newest one, responded to the villain’s declaration that he had an entire army at his disposal with the words, “We have a Hulk.”
What all these moments had in common is that they were unexpected. They had levity and grace, all the more so because they interrupted a series of frenetic action sequences that, in their relentlessness, would have turned enervatingly banal without them.
So what the audiences crave is not action-movie sameness, but character-driven idiosyncrasies. The new money shot is a character bit. The transformative moment in this regard for the summer blockbuster was the inspired casting of Johnny Depp in Disney’s seemingly ludicrous notion of turning its Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a movie franchise in 2003. Depp was, at the time, a remarkably versatile but annoyingly pretentious actor whose peculiar taste for material had made him box office poison. He grabbed onto the role of Jack Sparrow and, from scratch, built an unforgettably charismatic oddball character who carried four films entirely on his own shoulders—thus almost singlehandedly earning a combined $3.7 billion worldwide. In the process, Depp—who had never been in a big hit in his 12 years as a leading man—became the biggest star in the world.
Depp’s example inspired Marvel to hire another brilliant and highly problematic performer who had spent a decade of his life spiraling downward into multiple drug addictions. Robert Downey Jr. could not get work because he was deemed uninsurable and had stitched together a second career in TV shows and small films. In 2008, he was cast as Iron Man, and his dazzling comic heroics made him an instant superstar.
Playing a sybaritic genius who takes great gusto in enjoying the fruits of his wealth, Downey created a character no less indelible than Depp’s. Iron Man 3 marks his fourth turn as Tony Stark, and it’s remarkable that he is able to find new ways to please a mass audience—in this one, by forming an unlikely and charming bond with a 9-year-old boy in a town in Tennessee whom he treats like an equal.
People come to Iron Man 3 because they are now well trained to do so, and because, when they hear that Downey is playing Tony Stark again, they’re pretty sure they’re going to have a good time. It does not seem likely that they, or anybody else, would have the slightest interest in the film for any other reason—although there’s a decent twist in the third act, regarding the true identity of the villain, that leads to an amazing scene featuring the great Ben Kingsley.
It’s a character bit. People will want to see it again. The explosions they’ve seen already.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.