Tony Stark wrestles with his inner demons while contending with monsters of his own creation in Iron Man 3, a thrilling sequel that proves that just because your protagonist is brooding, it doesn’t mean that your film has to be. Director/co-screenwriter Shane Black takes the torch from Jon Favreau and keeps the flames burning bright, working with co-scribe Drew Pearce to maintain the series’ playful tone without neglecting our charismatic hero’s struggle, and delivering spectacular action set pieces that put us right in the chaos of the moment.
The story in Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers. Having previously entered another dimension in order to save New York City, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) remains deeply haunted by the experience. Unable to sleep, he throws himself into his work with such intensity that it begins to take a heavy toll on both his mental health and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony has only started to appreciate the gravity of his problems when an enigmatic terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) hijacks the airwaves and threatens to bring America to its knees with a painful series of “lessons” that even President Ellis (William Sadler) won’t be able to ignore. When Tony’s former security guard Happy Hogan (Favreau) is badly injured in an explosion caused by one of the Mandarin’s agents, the vengeful playboy issues a public threat that results in his home being completely destroyed in a devastating attack, leaving him to face his enemy with only one badly damaged prototype suit. Fortunately, Tony isn’t on his own, and with the help of Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and a young boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins), he pieces together the mystery of the Mandarin, whose final “lesson” promises to be the most painful of all.
Back in 2008, comic-book fans praised Iron Man not just for Downey’s electric performance as Tony Stark, but for its skillful handling of the title character’s origin story and its unconventional villain. Though many decried 2010’s Iron Man 2 as a step backward for the series, the first sequel’s ramped-up action and humor still made it highly watchable, and provided a bright counterbalance to Christopher Nolan’s melodramatic Batman universe. With Iron Man 3, Black and Pearce marry the thrills and comedy of the first two films in a way that feels entirely organic to the franchise, and force their hero to confront a number of challenges that bring out his character in a way that isn’t always possible when he’s protected by a high-tech suit of armor. In the second movie we got a sense that Stark was really coming into his own after embracing his identity as Iron Man; here, Stark has been violently shoved out of his comfort zone by forces beyond his control. As a result, he must rely more on his brilliance and innovation than his firepower, and for that reason alone Iron Man 3 is a much more interesting film than its immediate predecessor.
It’s made all the more entertaining by the fact that Black and Pearce repeatedly toy with our expectations of what to expect from a superhero movie. For example, any relationship between a superhero and a child is typically handled with the utmost sensitivity; here, Tony is nothing short of an ass to the kid who inspires him to use his own ingenuity to confront the Mandarin, calling him names and even wisecracking about the fact that he was abandoned by his father. Further, while Black and Pearce’s handling of the Mandarin may upset some comic-book purists, in the context of the film it perfectly highlights the writers’ point about the power of illusion, and though Kingsley is a formidable menace when threatening the president in front of the entire world, as an actor he’s at his absolute best when the character he’s playing is at his absolute worst. Yes, there are plenty of surprises in Iron Man 3, but the biggest one may be just how well the film works even when the titular hero is nowhere to be found. Though that’s largely a credit to the screenwriters, there’s no question that Downey Jr. is the big draw here. That said, Guy Pearce, James Badge Dale, and young Simpkins all turn in memorable performances, while Paul Bettany continues to be the behind-the-scenes MVP as the voice of Jarvis, Stark’s trusty artificial-intelligence sidekick.
The longest film in the series by a handful of minutes, Iron Man 3 certainly doesn’t feel like it thanks to its briskly paced screenplay and the wise decision to place some of Iron Man’s most heroic moments toward the end of the movie -- such as a dizzying action sequence involving Air Force One and a stunning final battle in which we’re never quite sure who has the upper hand until the last possible moment. It’s the latter scene in particular where Black and Pearce show their strengths as writers by boldly dropping in humor when the stakes are highest. Those unexpected laughs, combined with some well-earned character drama, are precisely the factors that make Iron Man 3 resonate not just as an electrifying comic-book film, but as a strong finish to a solid trilogy as well.
Whether or not Downey Jr. chooses to continue the role of Tony Stark in The Avengers 2 and beyond (his official contract expires with this movie), it will be fascinating to see where Marvel Studios chooses to take the character after the provocative place they leave him at the end of Iron Man 3.
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- Released: 2013
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Tony Stark wrestles with his inner demons while contending with monsters of his own creation in Iron Man 3, a thrilling sequel that proves that just because your protagonist is brooding, it doesn’t mean that your film has to be. Director/co-screenwriter Sh… (more)