“Iron Man 3” and “No” (2013)

Whenever something in America explodes and kills people — which is to say, frequently — a healthy number of my fellow citizens look for the shadow hand of conspiracy. A gunman in a Connecticut elementary school? False flag attack to set the stage for gun bans. Two bombs along the route of the Boston marathon? False flag to turn people into patsies for the security state.

I hope Shane Black was taking the piss out of all that with his screenplay for “Iron Man 3.” The best twist in this ropey, 20-minutes-too-long movie comes at the start of act three, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) breaks into the compound believed to house the terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin. For 80 minutes we’ve known the Mandarin as an inscrutable bin Laden manque who hacks into TV networks and issues explanations for his latest attacks on the homeland. Fans of the comics recognize the Mandarin as one of the series’ original villains, going back 49 years. But the lair Stark stumbles into is a TV studio, built around a bed that at the moment contains two strung-out women. “The Mandarin” is a British actor — like Ben Kingsley! — who finishes taking a shit, warns no one to use the bathroom, and immediately reveals everything he knows to Stark in between drug-induced naps. All along, The Mandarin was a phony threat concocted by a government contractor whose master plan is…

… well, that’s where “Iron Man 3” lost me. Can anyone explain the master plan of Killian Aldrich (Guy Pearce)? He’s developing an unstable superhuman serum (it’s explained much better in Warren Ellis’s comics) called Extremis, and he created the Mandarin to cover up the serum’s occasional explosions by portraying them as terrorist attacks, but once he’s pulled off the ultimate attack (murdering the president) he’ll have a pliable new president and he’ll “own the war on terror.” So he wants to get rich? To sow chaos? I had no goddamn idea. This is why I’d never make it as a supervillain. Once I acquired the capital to build multiple stately homes and a high-tech army, I’d call it a win and retreat to some Carribean island with a reliable rum-making tradition.

“Iron Man 3” is basically a mess with a very well-acted and funny character study embedded in the middle, like the melody line in a Penderecki suite. Superhero sequels typically fail because no subsequent stories can outdo the wish fulfillment and discovery of the origin stories. But Tony Stark makes his own armor, own powers, and each movie’s loaded with new gadgetry that we see developed in real time, with a clock running down. In “Iron Man 2” it was the quest for an arclight that wouldn’t slowly poison Stark. In “Iron Man 3” it’s a slapsticky suit that can find Stark wherever he is, and attach to him, in ways that violate all knowable laws of physics. (How do the pieces fly? How can a simple car battery recharge the suit?)

It’s fun. So is the ample time Stark spends sans armor. “Superhero loses power” is typically the set-up for scenes of said hero being useless — Clark Kent getting his ass kicked in the “Superman II” diner, Peter Parker’s webbing failing to launch. Stark feels sorry for himself for a few minutes, then transforms into McGuyver, building whatever he needs to defeat a series of Extremis junkies. He encounters one of the least annoying kid sidekicks in movie history (largely because he’s totally self-aware that he’s a cliche.) He runs along girders jumping into suits as he needs them. (More physics issues with this, though — how are these suits which could withstand Thor’s hammer easily exploded by a hot-blooded super soldier punching them once?)

Anyway — all of that works, Kingsley is terrific, several bones are thrown our way in the form of actual action scenes for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). There’s a fun ongoing gag about The Iron Patriot, the armor acquired by the government in the last movie, being sent around the globe on pointless searches for terrorists. But the momentum of Stark’s story isn’t matched by a plot that makes sense.

“No” has exactly antithetical problems. Its plot has to make sense, because it happened. In 1988, after 15 years in power, Augusto Pinochet was convinced by an increasingly faithless military junta that he should hold an election. If he won, he would be legitimized as Chile’s president for eight years. If he lost, he’d start the country’s transition back to democracy and step down within a year.

I’d be interested in a movie about Pinochet’s own campaign. We see flashes of it here, in enormous boardrooms where generals beg second-rate consultants to turn Pinochet into a likeable, electable politician. (“Use his eyes,” says one of them. “He has terrific eyes.”) But the movie’s really about René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a youngish consultant with left-wing sympathies whose work on soda ads gets him hired to run the “No” campaign. Bernal plays him as a quiet idealist who refuses to explain himself, or even to get excited at the possibility of overthrowing Pinochet. As the narrative builds, we understand why — he has a young family, and he’s clearly terrified of the consequences if he loses.

A large amount of screen time is handed over to the original ads. They play for camp now, but you can see why they worked like you can see why Barack Obama’s campaigns have worked. “No” chooses a rainbow for its logo, and Saavedra designs ads that sell “happiness.” A colleague wants a campaign theme song. “No,” says Saavedra. “We need a jingle.”

Saavedra’s conflicted calm is something you don’t often see in political movies. Other characters get to explain the gravity of a potential loss or the need to put footage of the Mothers of the Disappeared in the campaign ads. Saavedra stays bland. His girlfriend calls his work “a copy of a copy of a copy,” and he clearly knows that it is, but he cynically expects it to work. The filmmakers don’t pass judgment on this; when the government’s “Si” campaign tries to parody the “No” ads, its strategists also fret that they’re making “una copia de una copia de una copia,” and they fail.

It’s a powerful story. I’m just not sure the writers picked the best avatar with which to tell us.