Marvel Studios is devouring filmgoers’ money with all the appetite and efficacy of Ego the Living Planet… but it’s not as if they haven’t earned it. Among other successes, they’ve made a fantastic show of thoughtfully matching their classic comic properties with star-crossed cinematic soul mates. Who better than Kenneth Branagh to unleash the proscenium-rattling mythic heroism of THOR? Or Joss Whedon to embody the fragile and volatile ad hoc family that composes THE AVENGERS?
And who better than Shane Black (LETHAL WEAPON), self-conscious and overblown action auteur, to capture the smarts, ‘splosions and swagger of Iron Man? Did someone just say Paul Verhoeven circa 1988? Okay, maybe – but let’s pretend the question was rhetorical and focus on how totally fun IRON MAN 3 turned out.
It’s clear from the outset that the events of THE AVENGERS have played hell with Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) psyche. As Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) dutifully wrangles Stark industries, an insomniac Tony cloisters himself in his lab, chattering up JARVIS and churning out suit designs. Meanwhile, a theatrical, camera-hogging terrorist calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has declared war on Western values, and sets off a number of deadly, mysterious explosions throughout America. As the government scrambles to respond, re-branding War Machine [the armored alter-ego of Tony's pal James Rhodes (Don Cheedle) in the previous film, remember kids? - Editor] as Iron Patriot, Stark is pulled into the conflict, forced out of his home, and set on a nationwide search for his new foe.
With IRON MAN 3, director and co-writer Black has turned in a film that’s both playful and poignant. Black’s often meta, always-smirking style hits strong off the bat with a voiceover by Downey that more than recalls the pair’s last collaboration, the madcap modern noir KISS KISS BANG BANG. From there, the film unrolls effortlessly in a series of massive, deftly choreographed action setpieces and dry, sardonic Stark-isms.
Bent on exploring Tony’s deepening anxiety that Iron Man has less to do with his own personal chutzpah than with the arc-powered awesomeness of his rocket robot onesie, Black’s best decision is a second act that finds Tony, sans suit, in full-on inventor mode, MacGyvering his way through a gauntlet of elegant, rejoinder-laced action sequences. Many of these pit Stark against the Mandarin’s henchmen, powerful men and women with strange, pyro-active regenerative powers.
Between Tony’s own gnawing self-doubt and the ultimate truth about the terrorist cell, IRON MAN 3 could be posed as an exploration of post-traumatic stress, and the ways in which damaged individuals reassemble their lives – or fail to – in the wake of violent trauma and personal crises. The movie also throws a wicked spin on the always popular theme of superhero/supervillain vs. secret identity (you know… who’s more real – the man or the mask?) by exploring – both thematically and quite literally - the difference between an alter-ego and a surrogate.
Needless to say, it’s all generously laced with the franchise’s go-to fixations: corporate responsibility, the military/industrial complex, and how cool it looks when lots of stuff blows up and fire goes everywhere.
The internet’s been a muddle of enthusiasm, reticence and confusion at the casting of limey Ben Kingsley as the classically East Asian antagonist the Mandarin. Personally, I thought both Kingsley and the character were wonderful, though I can envision fans of the comic being less kind to the film’s treatment of this classic Marvel adversary.
Guy Pierce, meanwhile, plays Aldrich Killian, an oily, despicable scientist I wanted to punch in the neck three times harder than Pierce’s oily, despicable scientist character in PROMETHEUS (a good thing!). Don Cheadle reprises his role as Colonel James Rhodes - Stark buddy,
The biggest character disappointment is Pepper Potts. Given that my favorite scenes between Tony and Pepper occurred in THE AVENGERS, when the two were doe-eyed and cozy and spitting blazing Powell-and-Loy-worthy repartee, it’s a bummer to find that, in the wake of Tony’s trauma, the relationship is suffering. Given Pott’s established headstrong practicality it would have been nice see her do more than get mad at Tony and play the distressed damsel. It takes some of the air out of an otherwise breezy film.
And don’t ask me to explain the Mandarin’s plan. It’s a paragon of over-machinated supervillain schemes – all byzantine convolution with just enough shiny, moving parts to distract viewers from its clear lack of endgame and at least one major, self-defeating contradiction. Then there’s the predictably out-sized final fight – a bright, blustery toy advertisement that even Black can’t save from feeling wholly expected and a hair too long.
No – it’s certainly not as good as THE AVENGERS, but as an exercise in sheer summer blockbusting, IRON MAN 3 is a clear success. (Note that I did see the 3-D version; to quote Rainier Wolfecastle, “The goggles do nothing!”) Feeling simultaneously more epic and more personal than the series’ disappointing previous entry, it’s a breathless, crowd-pleasing bit of pop filmmaking that leverages all the sweetest parts of predictability in expanding the current filmic iteration of the Marvel Universe. (3 out of 4 Stars)