Can movies be programmed to be hits? A May 5 New York Times article profiles Vinny Bruzzese, a statistician who offers his consulting services to Hollywood and claims that yes, they can. Using past movies as points of comparison, Bruzzese might, for instance, advise screenwriters to nix a scene in a bowling alley, because such scenes “tend to pop up in films that fizzle” (sorry, The Big Lebowski). Or he might point out that audiences have historically preferred “guardian” superheroes to “cursed” superheroes.
As far as I know, Bruzzese wasn’t involved in the scripting of Iron Man 3. But his method epitomizes the way studios turn freshness into formula, a process that’s painfully clear in Marvel’s Iron Man series.
Back in 2008, it’s doubtful any statistician would have endorsed a superhero flick with a star who was known mainly for manic, improv-fueled performances and drug-related misbehavior. Never mind that the superhero himself was an arrogant, alcoholic weapons tycoon.
But audiences fell in love with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and with good reason — he was a funny, relatable, messed-up guy who just happened to fly around in a near-invulnerable metal suit. A snark machine and a tinkerer, he was the perfect superhero for the internet era.
The formula that worked then still works. Iron Man 3 is a perfectly OK superhero movie, with epic action and smart comedy. (Director and cowriter Shane Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon, knows his way around both genres.) But the elements that were once daring are starting to feel statistically approved — and tired.
Take the setup, which recalls The Incredibles. By slighting his biggest, dweebiest fan, we’re shown in a prologue set in 1999, Stark inadvertently created his latest nemesis. That’s Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a biotech entrepreneur who may be linked to an international spate of bombings by a theatrical terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
The unctuous Killian also attempts to come between Stark and his girl, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who are having relationship issues. Suffering from PTSD after the events of The Avengers, Stark takes refuge in his fleet of armored suits when Pepper would rather be cuddling a human being. This angsty subplot comes to a head when Stark’s hubris inspires him to do something stupid. The fallout relieves our hero of most of his shiny toys and puts him firmly on a (statistically approved) redemption arc.
All this makes sense in character terms, and it’s a thrill ride, but it’s also supremely predictable. (Only one twist feels fresh, largely because of Kingsley’s talent.) When Stark finds himself stranded in flyover country, for instance, it’s hard not to groan when his savior is a plucky preteen (Ty Simpkins). Bruzzese could tell you that kids plus metal men equal big box office (remember Real Steel?). Of course, since this is Iron Man, Stark ribs the kid mercilessly. Their hard-edged banter is a welcome deviation from the Disney formula, but standard for this series — and it, too, gets tiring over the long haul.
The movie encourages us to feel like jaded, irreverent hipster-millionaires when we laugh at Stark’s wit, and then to respond like kids on a sugar high whenever something smashes or explodes. It’s a weird combination of higher-brain and lower-brain wish fulfillments — and, the more movies that formula generates, the more calculating and unsavory it feels. Iron Man was a breath of fresh air; now the series desperately needs one.
All Hollywood formulas started out as gambles that paid off big time. But if we let the statisticians run things, we might soon find those innovations in short supply.