When Jon Favreau kicked off Marvel’s amazing string of interconnected superhero films with the first Iron Man back in 2008, I doubt if he knew exactly what he was getting himself into. The second film (which Favreau also directed) was saddled with the unenviable task of fitting in tons of references to S.H.I.E.L.D., resulting in a disaster that felt more like a calculated piece of franchise set-up than a real movie. But now Favreau has wisely handed off directing duties to Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black, and he has reinvigorated the Iron Man series with its best entry yet. Iron Man 3 is smart, clever, fun, full of surprises, overflowing with action, and loaded with terrific moments. It’s the perfect way to kick off Phase Two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
The events of The Avengers have rattled Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He can’t sleep, spending nights in his lab tinkering with new models of Iron Man suits and worrying about protecting his girlfriend and Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). A terrorist called The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) has become increasingly brash with his attacks against the United States, threatening the life of the President and setting off mysterious bombs around the country. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has been re-branded from War Machine to the red, white, and blue Iron Patriot and tasked with putting an end to the Mandarin’s reign. Meanwhile, scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) – a socially awkward Jim-Carrey-as-Edward-Nygma-in-Batman-Forever-type who Tony ignores in an opening flashback sequence – has created a new healing technology called Extremis and is trying to speed along the next step in human evolution.
It’s no accident that the film’s first images are of Stark’s Iron Man suits being destroyed in an explosion. This movie is all about stripping Tony of everything he loves and having him start from scratch, so much so that at one point he actually builds a makeshift new suit for himself out of parts from a hardware store. It’s a much more personal, character-centric story than the previous film, and though flying through that wormhole haunts Tony’s dreams, that’s about the extent of references to other movies in the Marvel universe. The story, written by Shane Black and Drew Pearce, puts Stark’s insecurities on display and makes him question not only his superhero identity, but how much that identity defines him. It’s not so much Iron Man 3 as it is Tony Stark 3, if that makes sense.
Black popularized the modern buddy cop dynamic when he was only 23 years old with Lethal Weapon, and in the ensuing years he’s carved out a specific and recognizable writing style. He’s only directed one other movie thus far – 2005’s underseen but brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starring Downey – but Iron Man 3 doesn’t feel like a sophomore effort in the slightest. Black has been around this business long enough to know exactly what he’s doing, and he made the jump to a project of this budget and scale with ease. It’s surprising how much it truly feels like a Shane Black film, too; I don’t know if it’s because this is the first movie in Marvel’s Phase Two, making it unburdened with having to weave all of the studio’s moving parts together, or that they just allowed Black the creative freedom to do what he wanted, but fans of his previous work are really going to be happy with what he does here.
The story beats all work wonderfully within the themes and parameters of the series so far. In the second movie, scenes seemed to be thrown together with very little sense paid to character motivation; in this one, everything from the “creation” of Killian as a villain (you’ll see what I mean in the film) to the way Tony is forced to deal with himself as a man instead of as a hero feels totally organic to this specific story being told. Even the action sequences – of which there are a ton, and almost all of them are jaw-droppingly excellent – feel natural and not boxes on a checklist being ticked by blank suits behind the scenes. The destruction of Tony’s Malibu mansion is absolutely beautiful to behold, and the sky diving sequence seen in many of the trailers instantly ranks as one of the best sky-diving action scenes ever committed to film. Iron Man 3 is fast-paced and often genuinely thrilling, and though those should be given qualities for a summer blockbuster, it doesn’t always shake out that way.
Ben Kingsley’s performance as The Mandarin is one of the film’s highlights. He’s a terrorist who uses the media as his main weapon, inciting fear and inspiring anti-American sentiment in cells around the world. His iconic line – “You’ll never see me coming” – takes on a different meaning in the wake of the recent Boston bombings, but as unfortunately represented in real life events, that randomness is utterly terrifying. Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian seems like he should have been in an X-Men movie with all his talk of recoding DNA and creating the next step in human evolution, but Pearce is consistently mesmerizing playing villainous roles, so even though his character is probably the most tonally inconsistent with the rest of the characters in the movie, he still excels. Rebecca Hall also does fine work in a small role as one of his employees, but having seen her shine in other movies, it’s tough not to think she’s too good for what she’s given here.
As usual, Downey is perfect as Tony Stark, bringing a humanity and conflicted struggle to the character that we haven’t seen before. Gwyneth Paltrow finally gets a handful of moments to shine this time, and Don Cheadle seems a lot more comfortable as Rhodey here. He and Tony have some great moments together, their banter is always a highlight, and Cheadle also gets to take part in a lot more action outside of the confines of his suit as well, so it’s fun to physically see these guys actually working together instead of just hearing their voices while a whirl of CGI flies around on screen.
After a disappointing second movie and in the wake of the massive box office success that is The Avengers, the folks at Marvel seem to have righted the ship for this particular franchise. Iron Man 3 is witty, surprising, and spectacular all the way through to its fantastic end credits sequence. It’s sad to think that Downey can’t play this character forever, but it’s also intensely satisfying to know that we’ll always be able to cherish this movie, which is as close to perfect as an Iron Man film can get. Until next time…