When the trailer for Iron Man 3 came out (posted above), I and many others were expecting the film to be a darker, grittier version than the previous two. I thought this was a curious step to take, considering the amount of humor and lightheartedness the films have established thus far. The trailer featured Tony Stark waxing philosophical while everything he loves is burned to the ground, set to heart-wrenching, epic music. It almost likened Tony to the Bruce Wayne presented in The Dark Knight franchise. The film presented in that trailer, however, is very much different from the one shown in theaters. While there is a certain level of melodrama, the film is actually even more comedic than the first two and uses that humor to create a highly entertaining blockbuster reminiscent of the joyous action flicks of the ’80s and ’90s, namely Die Hard. It is perhaps no coincidence that, like Die Hard, the film also takes place around Christmas and satirizes many of those self-serious action tropes.
The film begins with a flashback to a New Year’s Eve party in 1999 in Switzerland [kudos to the “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” song choice]. Tony is examining the work of Maya Hensen (Rebecca Hall), a young scientist who has invented a neurological regenerative treatment called Extremis. We are also introduced to Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a neurotic scientist who tries to recruit Tony and Maya to his company, who laugh him off. There is a certain level of predictability in how Killian’s story progresses, which is one of the problems with the film, but the film also presents itself in such an entertaining, clever way that certain obvious plot choices are easily forgivable. In the present, Tony is having panic attacks after the alien invasion at the end of The Avengers. He is not able to sleep and it is ultimately starting to cut into his work. This is part of why he pompously tells the the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), the world’s newest threat to come and fight him at his residence, providing his full address. To say that he and supercomputer JARVIS are not ready for such an attack is an understatement, as his entire headquarters goes up in flames.
What follows is perhaps one of the most rooted-in-reality sequence of scenes in Marvel movie history, as Tony is forced to create weapons from scratch in a small country town. This is the film’s best sequence, especially with the inclusion of little Harley (Ty Simpkins), a 10-year-old boy obsessed with Iron Man. Tony ultimately comes to discover the implications of the Extremis treatment and goes to great lengths to try and stop the threat it poses on American citizens. I won’t spoil too much but I will say that both Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce have the time of their lives in their respective roles, chewing up scenery in every single scene, especially Kingsley. I know many comic fanboys will be disappointed with the twist with his character, but I found it to be one of the best aspects of the film.
Taking over for Jon Favreau, Shane Black does a good job directing the film’s many action set pieces, and infuses each scene with the same style of biting dialogue that Joss Whedon perfected in The Avengers. We’ve seen many of the action sets featured here in countless action films, but Black uses that perception to his advantage. Weapons fail to work, devices malfunction, suits break and batteries die, just like they do in real life. Black is at his best when these types of realistic electronic and human errors flow organically with the story being told. The airborne scene in particular is one of the most pulse-pounding sequences we’ll see this year with beautiful choreography and seamless transitions while still being inherently realistic. When he is able to set these incredible action sequences in our own world, and not the much more heightened movie world, the film succeeds.
Robert Downey, Jr. delivers probably his best performance as Tony Stark yet here. Tony could have very well slipped into unlikable, douchebag arrogance in lesser hands, but Downey knows when to pull back and when to let his cocky grin shine through. The evolution of Tony has been a complex one, especially by superhero movie standards, and he is at his best when he’s at his most vulnerable. This is why Iron Man 3 succeeds as a trilogy ender for his character. Like a Greek tragedy, he goes from having everything to having nothing over the course of these films, and his story is compelling through all three, especially this one. Disney and Marvel definitely chose right in Shane Black, but I wonder if his excellent characterization of Tony may have been at the expense of the film’s female characters. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts has been a stronger-than-average “supportive wife” figure, but her story feels even more secondary here than in the first two. Similarly underwritten is Maya, though I have a feeling the studio cut out some of her scenes. There was potential there but it wasn’t fully realized. Even characters like Rhodes (Don Cheadle) feel awkwardly underwritten, used more as a sidekick/prop for Tony’s journey. Ultimately though, this is IRON MAN, so it would be risky to devote a significant amount of time to other characters, out of fear of losing the audience, but I do think the film could have been even stronger with fully-realized sidekicks and villains. Despite all of this, however, Downey really does excel in this film. It’s a testament to his charisma as an actor and his ability to have chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with while also winking, figuratively, to the audience. At one point in the film, Tony resolutely states that, no matter what happens, he is Iron Man. It has always been and will always be a part of him. I can’t help but wonder if Downey feels the same way. The role made him one of the world’s most bankable movie stars. The film has already done gangbusters at the box office here and around the world, so I’m sure Disney is going to push for an Iron Man 4, but I really hope Downey turns it down. Without spoiling anything, Iron Man 3 truly feels like a fitting ending for the character, and if it ends here he will have left on a high note. I have hopes that it will end here.
Though, I thought the same thing about the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, and look how Disney handled that.
MVP: Robert Downey, Jr.
Lead Actor: Robert Downey, Jr. (it won’t happen, but he deserves attention)