Film Review: Iron Man 3
Last summer’s The Avengers capped phase one of the Marvel Universe movies in grand style, rocketing to the number two spot on the all-time box office and earning nearly universal critical acclaim. Iron Man 3 is the first Marvel movie since Avengers, and the first chapter in phase two of the Marvel series, so in a very real sense there is almost as much expectation heaped on this movie as there was for the original Iron Man back in 2008, especially after the underwhelming second installment in the series which overburdened Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark with new sidekicks and daddy issues. Iron Man 3 is concerned with beginnings, but it’s positively obsessed with endings, and very well may signal the final performance of one of the most iconic superheroes in film history.
This time around Shane Black, best known for shoot-em-up action movies like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, takes over for Jon Favreau behind the camera (though Favreau does return as Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan). Black previously worked with Downey on the excellent noir comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 ends up resembling that film in a number of surprising ways, right down to Downey’s witty voice-over. The multi-layered action finale even includes a long segment that finds Tony Stark and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) out of armor in an old-fashioned shoot-out.
Downey is a restless actor, and it’s easy to gauge his engagement with a project from the spontaneity and verve of his performances (witness the turgid results that Guy Ritchie pulls from him in the odious Sherlock Holmes series). Here he’s having a blast. If last time he seemed as tired of being Tony Stark as Tony Stark was being Iron Man, here he’s found the faith again, buoyed, no doubt, by the more intriguing character beats he gets to play.
In the months since the alien invasion of New York seen in The Avengers, Tony’s been unable to sleep, spending his nights working on ever-more intricate Iron Man suits, seeking new ways to ensure his own safety and the safety of those he cares about. Actually, Tony’s suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is causing him to withdraw from the world to avoid crippling panic attacks. Downey is great in these scenes—he brings a visceral fear to the attacks that reveal Tony’s vulnerability while holding on to his acerbic core.
But soon America faces a new threat, in the form of The Mandarin, a shadowy figurehead of terror played by Sir Ben Kingsley, whose faithful legion of soldiers have been conducting suicide bombings around the country to protest the perceived crimes of the United States government. The film is careful to keep those specific references in the past, but it also includes some haunting imagery drawn from the war on terror (some especially chilling in the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombing). The Mandarin was Iron Man’s arch-villain in the comics, but such an outrageous Asian stereotype that it would be impossible to reproduce in a movie released in 2013. Iron Man 3’s take on the villain is fluid, and surprising, with a twist that is the greatest thing to happen in any of the Marvel movies, and proves why Kingsley was the perfect choice for the part.
Beyond Kingsley, though, the villains are more generic, and their motives less clear. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a crippled scientist who uses a neuro-biological breakthrough called Extremis (which was designed by a former Stark paramour played by Tony’s former lover, Maya Hansen) to heal his body and breed an army of indestructible soldiers. These walking time bombs, impervious to practically any injury, show just how far the series has traveled from the (relatively) down-to—earth origin story in the first film. There are exciting action set pieces throughout, and both Pearce and Hall give strong performances, but the strengths and limitations of the bad guys are so ill-defined that the film’s frenzied pace starts to seem like a smoke-screen for weak plotting.
We also get no more insight in Pepper Potts, Tony’s now live-in girlfriend, and why she would choose her role in Tony’s life. From the beginning of the series, Gwyneth Paltrow has brought an appropriate amount of wit to the role, but Pepper is still left behind to do the “housekeeping” role of keeping Stark Industries stays on course while her man is off doing more “important” work. It’s ultimately a mixed message from a character definitely meant to represent some sort of feminine empowerment—a theme that is very clearly explicated in this third installment. Pepper finally gets in on the fun, but only after Tony deliberately puts her in harm’s way.
All of it culminates in a thunderous, metallic finale filled with lots of guns, fire, and death, and the robot clobberin’ fun we’ve come to expect from the series. The mechanics of the plot keep Downey out of the suit—or with his face clearly visible—for much of the film. That’s a smart move, but it also makes it clear that Tony Stark and Iron Man are two separate characters, a division probably important to the future of the franchise.
The plot is all over the place, and a few characters, like the kid sidekick Tony picks up halfway through, could have been jettisoned for clarity (and maybe to make more time for Adam Pally’s super-fan cameraman). But those gripes seem beside the point. This is Downey’s show, and possibly his swan song. The movie is as coy about his return as Downey himself has been in the press, and ends with the actor and character both facing the same choice—they no longer have to be Iron Man, but they can still choose to be Iron Man.