Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau
Running Time: 130 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
With Iron Man 3, the creative powers behind the franchise acknowledge what audiences have known for years: Tony Stark is more interesting than Iron Man and the movies should be about him. He's also kind of an arrogant jerk who never once gets put in his place or receives any type of comeuppance for his showboating. It's even fair to say that out of all the superheroes, Stark is the only one who lives a charmed existence and has yet to learn there can be consequences for self-serving behavior. This third, and best, installment in the series, explores those consequences. But the bigger story might be that we have a Marvel film that's actually about anything at all.
With a new director and screenwriter at the helm, it's a drastic departure from its misguided 2010 sequel largely because it seems interested in giving the hero some inner turmoil for a change, engulfing him in a plot that's enjoyably crazy by superhero standards and even contains a twist that's justifiably generated some discussion. My biggest problem with the previous films were how goofy and sunny they were, and on more than a few occasions obsessively preoccupied with advertising other Marvel properties. The only thing writer/director Shane Black seems concerned with here is telling a good story, with the results definitely coming through on screen. It's a shame this probably isn't the closing chapter of the Iron Man saga, because it would at least be a fitting one.
The film opens with a flashback to New Year's Eve 1999 when billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his latest one night stand, scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), are approached by nerdy, disabled inventor Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), offering them a job with his fledgling company, Advanced Idea Mechanics. Stark not only rejects the offer, but thoroughly embarrasses and humiliates him. Killian isn't heard from again until now, showing up for an impromptu meeting with Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to pitch Extremis, a regenerative treatment that's been proven to help the physically crippled recover from injuries. At the same time, a rash of domestic bombings are being orchestrated by a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who leaves chilling and confounding video messages in the vain of bin Laden. With Tony suffering from PTSD and devoting more time to perfecting the technology of his many Iron Man suits, the government calls on former War Machine Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to don the suit as the re-branded "Iron Patriot." But when it's clear that a vengeful Killian and the Mandarin are linked, Tony is pulled back into the fray, despite hardly being in the state of mind to deal with it.
One of the many things this movie does better than its predecessors is effectively close the gap between Tony Stark and his alter ego. As entertaining as Downey's been throughout as the billionaire playboy, the weak link in the entire series has always been when he puts on that suit because there's just been no escaping the fact that it becomes just like every other superhero movie. Or more accurately, like every other Marvel entry, which at this point are starting to seem interchangeable. IM3 solves this problem by wisely having him spend most of the film's length as Stark. But a defeated version, whose arrogance has finally caught up with him, as evidenced by the reemergence of two characters from his past he casually, and arguably cruelly, dismissed.
Even Pepper can't seem to stand Tony anymore, as he seems more interested in refining all the Iron Man suits he can remotely activate than paying her any attention at all. This leads to one the film's smartest scenes early on when one of those suits try to attack Pepper, marking the first time in the entire series where the suit actually seems to serve a thematic function in the plot that strengthens the characters motivations. He basically leaves Pepper for his Iron Man persona, despite being too emotionally shaken and mentally fragile from the last film's events to actually step back into the armor. He spends most of the film in limbo, having to seek motivation from an 8-year-old sidekick named Harley (Ty Simpkins). Even that, which should feel like a storytelling crutch, strangely works because Downey and the kid play off each other so well.
Since Downey is Stark for most of the film and can operate the suits remotely there are only about two big action set pieces in the film, and because of that, they actually mean something. While the entire plot revolving around Killian's technology is a little ludicrous in the sense that his motivations waiver and its results look kind of silly when visually rendered on screen, Pearce brings much needed gravitas and sliminess to the role, taking it just seriously enough while still playing it with a slight wink. Opinions will vary on the big twist involving the Mandarin but count me among those who think it's one of the riskier creative choices made in a movie universe not exactly known for them. Without completely spoiling it, the direction of the character takes a left turn that brings to mind themes out of Wag the Dog or Capricorn One. It's unlikely an actor of Kingley's caliber would have signed on for fluff so it's a relief when the script turns what could have been a stock villain into an actual CONCEPT that represents our own fear and paranoia. Kingsley, of course, rises to the occasion with with a deliriously loopy performance that's amongst the strangest work he's done.
After being underutilized in the last film, no one can complain this film doesn't get as much mileage as possible from Gwyneth Paltrow, who takes the next logical step in the story as Pepper Potts, completing the character's transformation from loyal assistant and girlfriend to Tony into a more active participant in the action this time around. The biggest surprise is that the transition works really well. Cheadle's James Rhodes has always been the odd man out so it's ironic that in the installment they finally acknowledge his limitations as a character, he leaves somewhat of a mark. Rebecca Hall is also solid as Tony's ex-girlfriend and scientist, Maya, who despite having little screen time, is a surprisingly well developed character serving just the right function for the story. Even with few lines, James Badge Dale is memorably menacing and thuggish as henchman Eric Savin, providing the muscle for Extremis.
The only notable absence is behind the camera, as the first two films' director Jon Favreau reprises is on screen role of Tony's bodyguard turned "Head of Security" Happy Hogan, while handing over directorial duties to Shane Black, who's best known for writing Lethal Weapon and helping resurrect Robert Downey Jr's career in 2005 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Apparently, this was a good decision since whatever Favereau brought to the franchise isn't missed at all here. Not only are the action scenes the best they've been in the series (climaxing in a pretty spectacular final showdown), but the movie's actually funny and dryly sarcastic in a way it hasn't been before, almost as if it's finally in on the joke. The stuff with the kid and even a Iron Man fan with a Tony Stark tattoo seem like deliberate attempts to send up fanboy culture. It definitely helps when you have a screenwriter who's less interested in making a conventional superhero movie than just doing something fun and crazy, as is demonstrated by that bizarre Mandarin twist.
While I'd like nothing more than this to be the last installment of the series and for RDJ to move on to more creatively fulfilling projects, we're kidding ourselves. As long as there's money to be made, it'll continue and everyone involved will miss the opportunity to exit on a high note. But at least this entry gave the actor something slightly different to do and attempted to explore the character in a way the previous two didn't. That little bit helped, allowing him to turn in his most interesting work yet as Stark. It won't be confused with Zero Dark Thirty anytime soon, but there was at least a concerted, if mostly successful, attempt to incorporate some timely issues into the script in an inspired way.
The biggest relief comes in knowing that this movie is about Tony Stark rather than plugging whatever Avengers, Thor, Captain America or The Incredible Hulk sequel Marvel is shoveling down our throats next. We're so far past the saturation point for these it isn't even funny, only making it harder for them to mean anything going forward. As usual, there's that obligatory post-credits sequence they can't resist, but at least it involves an actor and character we don't mind seeing. It's a good thing Iron Man 3 works, because amidst recent sub-par efforts, it's nice to be reminded what a superhero movie should look like when everything comes together as it should.