It’s getting increasingly difficult to remember those innocent days of 2007 when Iron Man was a barely recognizable third-tier superhero and Robert Downey Jr. was a long-respected actor who never quite seemed to break through to the next level.
These days of course, Downey is the biggest star on the planet, while Iron Man is second only to a certain cape ‘n’cowl friend in popularity. That’s just how good Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was, a movie that sparked an empire. After last year’s record-breaking blockbuster bonanza that was The Avengers, the second Iron Man sequel sure had a lot to live up to. With the Dark Knight past, this is now the marquee superhero franchise despite a relative dearth of popular villains to call on, and expectations bigger than Tony Stark’s ego.
Other than Marvel, no one ever thought this could really be a franchise, let alone one of the biggest franchises of all time. I’d say that’s a job well done.
The film picks up shortly after the almost apocalyptic climax of The Avengers. Battling aliens, crossing dimensions, and, you know, saving the world have taken their toll on former playboy Tony Stark. The man who once partied for a living and was a genius entrepreneur on the side has now become a recluse. He’s whittled away months building an army of Iron Man suits for reasons best known to Stark, but let’s call it Martian-busting PTSD. Of course, a superhero can only stay in a cocoon for so long (see Dark Knight Rises) and so Downey soon rises to face not one, but two foes (holy guacamole!). First off, there’s The Mandarin, a not-so racially sensitive magical villain from the Iron Man comics reinvented as a bearded terrorist played incomparably by the incomparable Ben Kingsley. Then there’s a former Stark business rival played by Guy Pearce, who has created a new type of biological warfare in the form of glowing explosive super-soldiers. Pearce’s character calls the program Extremis, a name just catchy enough to head a supervillain plot and also the title of a popular Warren Ellis Iron Man comics run.
The Madarin strikes first, blowing the crap out of Stark’s mansion, wounding love interest Gwyneth Paltrow and sending Stark out to the middle of nowhere with a broken suit. Stark fixes it in a small town with the help of a precocious youngster while Pearce weaves an evil plot that Don Cheadle’s War Machine struggles to contain. Only one way this story can end, right? Bing, bang, boom, good vs. evil. You get plenty of it all, and some juicy one-liners as well.
After the Avengers set-up that was Iron Man 2 (which irked fans at the time but plays better now in context), Iron Man 3 strips the franchise back to basics. Aside from the inevitable crossover post-credits scene, there are no superhero side characters this time. This movie is all about Iron Man against the world and it delivers those goods with ease. After all, this is a franchise blessed with an ensemble too good for a summer tentpole and they come through yet again like the dependable veterans they are. Obviously Downey is more than up to the task of carrying the movie after stealing The Avengers away from a mind-boggling 20-minute super-smash-‘em-up climax. He plays Stark with all the snark and unexpected heroism we expect, while also finding a wounded soul within his crime-fighting ego.
Downey still zips along with crowd pleasing wit, but he creates a more damaged Tony than ever before. A Tony who can believably screw up and fear villainy despite, you know, just recently saving the world. Franchise stalwarts Paltrow, Cheadle, and former IM director Jon Favereau get more to do than ever before, slotting into the plot like pieces in a jigsaw rather than fan service from the sidelines (Cheadle in particular finally gets a War Machine role worthy of the character and has a gag involving a password that gets one of the biggest laughs of the movie). Guy Pearce does his smarmy bad guy thing well, even if his character is a bit stock. Only Rebecca Hall feels wasted as a plot device tying Pearce and Downey’s pasts together, however that probably only bothered me because I love Hall to bits. The scene stealer of it all just might be Sir Ben Kingsley delivering one of the most memorable and bizarre supervillain performances ever found in a comic book movie. I wish I could say why, but the joy is in how unexpected it is…so just get excited.
The reason Kingley’s Mandarin is so good can probably be attributed to the franchise’s newest helmer, Mr. Shane Black. You might not know the name, but aside from providing Downey-specific one-liners to both previous Iron Man movies, Black was one of the most successful action movie screenwriters of the ‘80s &‘90s with classics like Monster Squad, Lethal Weapon, and The Last Boy Scout to his name. After years of script doctoring, Black kicked off the Downey comeback with his directorial debut Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang in 2005 and then seems to have been waiting for Iron Man 3 ever since. Black essentially transforms the series into a ‘90s action movie: one big series of action scenes and one-liners stitched together through sneaky characterization. The movie is just over two hours long, but flows like something half the length. Black’s always had a way with unexpected narrative/action gearshifts (in Last Boy Scout it’s practically a running gag) and Iron Man 3 is packed with them.
Aside from that Mandarin surprise, action seems to explode only when least expected and every time the plot threatens to go down a boring Hollywood path it’s only an effort at misdirection – particularly when Downey befriends a small child, which could not be less sentimental. Black also crafts a one-liner like nobody’s business and with Downey in charge the pearls are spat out to perfection. He even succeeds in giving the movie a 30-minute or so stretch of robot-suit-free action that’s just as exciting as anything with Iron Man at full power. Not to mention the fact that Black finds a darker tone that is distinct from its predecessors without aping Chris Nolan brooding. Shane Black perfected the action movie tropes long ago and watching him put all he’s learned into practice on Iron Man 3 is popcorn bliss.
Inevitably there will be folks who will find material to nit-pick at in Iron Man 3, complaining that it feels like less of a superhero movie than the previous chapters and that Guy Pearce’s evil business man is a less entertaining version of Sam Rockwell’s similar chump from Iron Man 2. However, anyone who claims that Iron Man 3 isn’t an improvement on the last sequel and a worthy follow up to The Avengers is a liar, a nincompoop, a party-pooper, or a combination of all three. Once again, Marvel has kicked off the summer movie season in such grand fashion that it feels like all the blockbusters to follow over the next few months will be afterthoughts at best. Marvel stumbled onto a magic formula back in 2008 and they’ve managed to refine and perfect it ever since. Iron Man 3 works so well that you’ll wish it could somehow be a closing chapter on a trilogy. Actually given how it ends, maybe…no, that would be spoiling.
Go in with high expectations, prepare to have them met, and then empathize with Joss Whedon who now not only has to top the scale and joy of The Avengers, but the Swiss watch entertainment precision that Shane Black pulled off here. Fortunately, he’s one of few folks in Hollywood who is up to the task.