The last time Robert Downey Jr. suited up for adventure without his super-powered pals, the result was a stalled, inferior sequel that made many question how sustainable the Iron Man franchise actually was. Everything that was enjoyable about the original Iron Man – quippy dialogue, exciting action sequences, and an energetic, devil-may-care feel – vanished in Iron Man 2. And so, Marvel had a lot riding on Iron Man 3 – its responsibility was nothing less than to revitalize the franchise, deliver a massively entertaining popcorn flick, and ensure that people would be asking for more Iron Man for years to come.
Luckily, director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) came through with flying colors. He made many great moves with his addition to the franchise, including a change in tone and terrific plot twists. The script (which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce) is smarter than most, highlighting Tony Stark as a real character and setting up worthy adversaries for him instead of resting on its laurels with big-budget special effects and the movie’s all-but-guaranteed box office success.
The threequel picks up a few months after the Battle of New York featured in The Avengers. Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), once a smug billionaire with playthings of mass destruction, is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Suffering PTSD after an encounter with a Chitauri wormhole, Tony can’t sleep. He spends his days in isolation, tinkering away in the basement of his cliffside Malibu home, drifting away from his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). When agents of the Mandarin, an elusive terrorist played by Ben Kingsley, attack him at his home, destroying the personal world he has fought so hard to protect, Stark suits up again to strike back. Along the way, he uncovers the secrets of a top secret super soldier experiment called Extremis and crosses paths with remorseless scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).
This third installment in the series is noticeably darker and more serious than its predecessors – the villains of the film are remorseless sociopaths, and Stark’s trademark playboy lifestyle has been shoved aside to portray Stark as a damaged man after the events of The Avengers. Black succeeds in moving the movie along at a breakneck pace, and the story is never heavy or grim enough to forsake its fantastical comic-book origins. The film’s only big flaws arrive in the form of its villains; though the Extremis mutants, glowing with molten heat, are terrific to look at on the screen, their motivations leave a little to be desired, and Pearce’s Killian ultimately becomes a little too megalomaniacal for the film’s own good. However, the finished product is so sleek and fun that it’s easy to overlook the film’s weaker aspects.
Black’s greatest tricks in Iron Man 3 are the sharp plot twists that he conjures up, especially around the Mandarin. The movie’s twists lend it an intelligence that both of its predecessors lacked; for the first time in the entire Marvel franchise, I felt intellectually involved in a superhero movie. As much as it is a fun, go-for-broke comic book spectacular, Iron Man 3 also has a lot on its mind, about politics, about identity, about the nature of heroism, and in particular about America’s War on Terror. Stark says early on in the film that, through his own arrogance, he has created “demons,” and the idea of individuals creating their own adversaries to have someone to fight is a non-too-subtle comment on American foreign policy that manifests itself in a huge way with the Mandarin’s storyline. To say anymore would be spoiling one of Iron Man 3‘s biggest and best surprises.
Black directs his action sequences with a pedal-to-the-medal urgency that the previous films lacked. The Mandarin’s assault on Stark’s home with attack helicopters is a heart-pounding, harrowing sequence, as Stark struggles to utilize his latest invention (armor that literally flies at him piece-by-piece, knocking him around a fair deal as it attaches) while his home crumbles around him. When Stark comes across mutated Extremis soldiers, glowing with molten heat, the ensuing battles decimate entire towns and one large jet but never lose their sense of immediate danger. And the finale, as Iron Man and his suits face off against the Extremis mutants on an oil tanker, is a jaw-droppingly ambitious, endlessly inventive piece of movie magic.
Iron Man 3 benefits from Black’s penchant for spur-of-the-moment humor; Stark’s one-liners have never been better, and he doesn’t even have the best ones. There’s a terrific sight gag with an impeccably-timed turning helmet and hilarious deliveries from everyone from Stark to a nameless Mandarin henchman (after watching Iron Man decimate his fellow henchmen, the poor guy begs, “Don’t shoot, please! Honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird”). Iron Man 3 also features one of the most fun and unexpected pairings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; when Stark crash-lands in a rural Tennessee town, he is forced to team up with Harley, a precocious, potato-gun-wielding kid (played by Ty Simpkins) who gets a fair number of great lines of his own.
All of the performances in Iron Man 3 are terrific. Downey Jr. finally gets to show off his dramatic range in this installment, presenting a more haunted Stark, plagued by nightmares and terrors he can’t accept. His manic energy is less of a playboy swagger this time around than an ineffective mask behind which he hides his crippling insecurities and anxieties. Watching him struggle to stay functional throughout the movie adds a human element to the larger-than-life character. Funnily enough, he spends less time in the suit in this outing than in the previous installments (it can even be remotely controlled at this point), but that doesn’t necessarily feel like a bad thing. When Stark infiltrates the Mandarin’s hideout using only weapons he cobbled together from a Home Depot, it’s more exhilarating than anything he does while inside his armor. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the idea Iron Man has transcended the suits and weaponry – Tony Stark, in his transformation from playboy to selfless hero, can truly claim by the end of the film that, even without his suits, he will always be Iron Man.
Kingsley walks a delicate line with his Mandarin, but it’s a beautifully measured, consistently surprising performance, and as he growls lines like “You’ll never see me coming” with a Joker-meets-Colonel Kurtz malevolence, you can tell that Kingsley is having a blast. Guy Pearce, at his nastiest, plays Killian with a sneering viciousness. Whereas the Mandarin is more a physically jarring villain, Killian appears as a wolf in sheep’s clothing but is ultimately no less deadly. Paltrow makes the best of the little she has for most of the movie, but she emerges as a kick-ass heroine reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the glorious finale. Don Cheadle, as Tony’s iron-clad buddy Colonel Rhodes (known to the press as War Machine and Iron Patriot), brings a physical spryness and nervous energy to the role that Terrence Howard (who played Rhodes in the first Iron Man) clearly lacked. Sadly, Rebecca Hall is woefully underutilized as a botanist involved with the Extremis program, barely sticking on screen long enough to register. Finally, Simpkins is a terrific addition as Harley, making me hope that Marvel finds a way to include him in future movies.
Iron Man 3 proves that there’s still a lot of life in this franchise, though it will be hard for other directors to top the thrills and smarts of this installment. Black’s blistering, boisterous direction and intelligent script ultimately elevate this threequel above typical blockbuster fare. If Marvel wants to keep their franchises fresh, they need to try to replicate this movie’s success by thinking creatively with their directors and storylines. Because it’s brave, smart, and surprising, but most of all because it’s overwhelmingly entertaining, Iron Man 3 is a ride well-worth taking. A-
Image Courtesy: ScreenCrush.