Iron Man 3 (2013) Review

Is Iron Man 3 the best of the Iron Man trilogy? That is a matter of taste. But it is undeniably – and invigoratingly – a better film than Iron Man 2, which was a big old sloppy mess.

We return to the adventures of buckethead sometime after the events of The Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is shaken by his near-death experience in New York. Suffering post-traumatic stress, Stark, being no ordinary man but a super genius, infuses his work with his paranoia, building over 40 new Iron Man suits and obsessively hiding himself inside them. When an international terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) wounds Stark’s erstwhile friend and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Stark promises revenge. The Mandarin dispatches his super soldiers to hunt down Iron Man, trained killers enhanced by a regenerative drug called Extremis, whose frightening power leads Stark to the truth behind the terrorism.

This latest installment of Iron Man replaces director Jon Favreau with Shane Black, director of Lethal Weapon, and the series has improved accordingly. That’s not an easy feat to pull off. The third film of a trilogy is rarely its most auspicious installment, and comic book movies are especially susceptible. The Dark Knight Rises, Spider-Man 3 and X-Men United all fell into that trap. And why? Perhaps the need to go bigger with successive sequels overplays the spectacle and the characters are lost trying to introduce the new while servicing the old.

But I submit to you that third films disappoint because they squander the potential of their premises. Iron Man 3 is a rare success because it lives up to everything its predecessors established while driving deeper into the heart of what makes Iron Man so interesting. Christian Bale and Tobey Maguire were Batman and Spider-Man respectively but they were playing those roles as written. Robert Downey, Jr. gave Tony Stark his loose charm and improvisational style and turned the first Iron Man, an otherwise by the numbers hero flick, into a fun surprise. The sequel suffered from a serious lack of direction, simply pointed Downey at the “plot” and said go. In 3, however, we have a genuine story, and that gives both Downey and Stark something real to deal with. Downey gets to actually act. And funny as the guy is, he’s also a great actor.

When I talk about not squandering the potential I mean the following things: 1) The previous movies matter, and that includes The Avengers. Being a billionaire playboy inventor is one thing but actually becoming this symbol, this hero, affects the man. Stark is hurting psychologically in this movie. He must grapple between who he was and who he is, and what he’s done and what he can continue to do. 2) His relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a solid one, and unlike Peter Parker and Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s films, they support each other. Stark’s obsession with his suits damages the relationship we’ve watched grow over the last three films, and that is not done cheaply. And 3) the potential of this comic book world is manifested by showing us why Tony Stark deserves to be called a super hero.

Yes, Tony Stark is Iron Man but he earns the “super” in this movie. There are several moments in this film – not just one, not just two – when Stark’s genius is put to actual use, where he actually does superheroic things. Downey is not just an endless quip machine; he has real problems to solve and bad guys to stop; and I think we can count a comic book movie a success when the guy sitting next to you in the theatre is pumping his fist in the air and going “Damn!” I know it sounds basic but there is a right way and a wrong way to do these things and Iron Man 3 does them very right.

Tony Stark is smart, and he gets to be a smart guy action hero in some truly awesome action scenes. Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes also has a lot of fun moments in this film and he, too, is utilized superbly.

Are there similarities in the plot of 2 and 3? Yes. In fact, 3 almost feels like a remake of 2, with Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian scientist standing in for Sam Rockwell’s Hammer. But hold the two side by side and everything just matters more in this one. The absurd things Downey says service not just the joke but also the story, the Extremis enemies are a perfect match for the iron suits (and aren’t just CG cannon fodder like Hammer’s army), and even the kid (yes, this film has a plucky kid in its second act) proves a great partner to Stark as wounded mechanic.

Marvel’s gambit was tying its comic movies into a single universe, which can bring a lot of extra baggage. But there is an intriguing side effect to this. If the various Marvel franchises were stand alone, there would be no call for change, a trend toward stasis. But as long as these characters continue to inhabit each other’s films, they are forced to acknowledge what has happened inside them and – though it may alienate newcomers – if Iron Man 3 is any indication, this serialized storytelling will give us richer, more meaningful adventures.

Be sure to stay after the credits.

Based on Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby and Extremis by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov

Iron Man 3 (2013)
PG-13
Director Shane Black
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
130 Minutes

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