We tend to forget this, but when Iron Man came out in 2008, it was far from a sure thing. This was the story of one of Marvel’s lesser-known characters; someone who wasn’t known in the mainstream. It was being directed by Jon Favreau, whose biggest hits had been lighter comedy/kid fare like Elf and Zathura. And it starred Robert Downey Jr., a highly-acclaimed actor whose personal troubles had become the stuff of legend in Hollywood. In short, there was every reason to expect that Iron Man was going to fail. Not only did it not fail, however, it was such a massive triumph that it helped launch Marvel’s wave of movies. Downey’s career had a massive resurgence. Millions were made. Now you can’t go into a movie theater without passing by posters for every comic book franchise coming out in the weeks ahead.
At the center, the reason for all of that is that Iron Man was and is a really good movie. It struck the right balance between the armored superhero and the man who wore the armor – again, given credit to Downey for that. Unlike other superheroes, Tony Stark’s path is one of redemption – desperately trying to make right all the evils he and his company have wrought upon the world. Even the decision to have Tony reveal his “Iron Man” persona at the end threw the gauntlet down for this wave of Marvel movies. There would be no goofy, comedic “hiding your dual personalities” storylines from friends and families. These would be heroes out in the open for all the world to see and know. Allies and enemies would know where to find them.
Iron Man 3 is the natural conclusion to the story that began in that first movie.
As the movie begins, Tony is stuck in what could be argued is a PTSD-like state due to the events of The Avengers. He cannot sleep. He spends all his days designing and building new “Iron Man” suits. Anytime the subject of the New York invasion is brought up, he descends into anxiety attacks. He’s withdrawn from the world, his company and his girlfriend, Pepper Potts. This has left Pepper all alone to run Stark industries – a juicy target for former partners like Aldrich Killian of AIM. Meanwhile, a new terrorist is out, doling death and destruction around the globe. His name is The Mandarin and from the Far East to the West Coast, his bombing attacks, guerrilla-style broadcasts and warnings of future deaths have put him in direct conflict with the US government and its best asset, Col. James Rhodes, the newly-christened Iron Patriot.
For a movie that is set in a world where demigods, super-soldiers and alien armies can appear out of nowhere, Iron Man 3 is an incredibly grounded tale. The villain is a human terrorist – enhanced, to be fair, but human nonetheless. The means for super-powering themselves may be outlandish technology, but human technology. The heroes are not above making mistakes nor are they invincible. At its core, the conflicts in this movie are all of a human nature – regret, desperation, vengeance and redemption.
Now and then, the character of Tony Stark is the focus of the story and Robert Downey Jr. embodies him perfectly. The series has made it clear that the trials that he must face are often a result of his previous cavalier, care-for-no-one attitude. Tony Stark was, simply put, an asshole for much of his life and he’s still paying for it years after his redefining transformation into Iron Man. In this case, it’s his action during that infamous convention in Bern – the one Yinsen mentions in Iron Man – that set the plot of this movie into motion. (Aside: cool touch to bring back Shaun Toub to call back to this scene).
The wrinkle that Downey and new director Shane Black throw in this movie is the effects that the battle in New York City against the Chitauri has had on Tony Stark. He is struggling with coming so close to death — having accepted his fate during the climax — and then not dying. As a result, Tony cannot sleep and cannot think of doing anything but improving his Iron Man suit designs. He becomes a man possessed with improving his design, including how to remote control the suits and even unto grafting nanotechnology onto his body that can link him to the suit. In fact, this movie will feature a lot of Iron Man out of the suit. But given how much we like Downey as Stark, that’s not a weakness. He scales walls to infiltrate compounds. He faces off against the bad guys without his famous suit of armor. The movie makes a strong case that Tony Stark is Iron Man regardless of whether or not he’s got one of his power suits on.
Around Downey, the usual strong cast returns. I’m usually not fond of Gwyneth Paltrow, but her Pepper Potts continues to be one of the best parts of the series. She gets to do more this time around and her conflict over just where Tony’s desperate nature is taking him is important. She has watched as he’s gone from nonchalant playboy to committed superhero and defender. But she’s also the one watching what it is costing Tony to be Iron Man and her frustration stems from being unable to stop Tony from walking the paths he walks. Jon Favreau is back as Happy Hogan — this time a more manic, OCD Happy Hogan. He doesn’t do much but what he does becomes important for Tony’s quest. And Don Cheadle is back as well as Lt. Col James Rhodes AKA the newly-renamed “Iron Patriot.” Cheadle is far more comfortable this time around, specially since he’s not feuding with Tony. It’s not surprising when Shane Black takes Rhodes and Stark and slides them into his buddy-duo standard. Both of them are game for it and they come off naturally as friends who happen to be superheroes.
Three new important characters round up the cast. Guy Pearce continues to be a quality, if underrated, actor and he portrays Aldrich Killian as both a pathetic dreamer at the start and a menacing figure at the end. Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen is arguably the weakest of the three, but that’s because she just pops back into Tony’s life at a strange moment. You’d think they would have reintroduced her before she’s pulling up to Tony’s driveway. She turns Maya into a desperate dreamer; someone who cannot stop herself from going where her research takes her. Both of their paths mirror that of Tony Stark but for the choices that they made.
But it’s Ben Kingsley and his portrayal as The Mandarin that is likely to generate the most discussion. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say there is a swerve somewhere around two-thirds of the movie that is both obvious and impossible to see. That the movie is bold enough to go where it goes with The Mandarin is both amazing and surprising. Sir Kingsley is game for it. His Mandarin broadcasts are full of the modern imagery that we’ve become accustomed since the start of the War on Terror. The brooding menace that he exudes during these “lessons” is the closest I think Marvel will ever get to bringing one of these old-school villains to reach. Let’s face it: The Mandarin is like Fu Manchu; a nearly-impossible character to bring into modern times without it being tremendously offensive. I want to say more about The Mandarin, but I’ll do it at a later date to keep the surprises from this review.
Going from Favreau to Shane Black does a number of things for this movie. It adds even more humor to the proceedings. It takes place during Christmas – the Black staple. It even adds a Stark voiceover that leads to the now-expected post-credits scene. But he can’t help keep the movie from sliding somewhat during that lengthy-middle part where Stark is chasing the trail of the first Mandarin-like explosions. The movie adds a cute kid (Ty Simpkins) as his sidekick that, at least, doesn’t annoy or infuriate. And it barely touches upon wounded military retirees, many of whom are the foot soldiers of the Extremis project. But it doesn’t go any deeper into issues of abandonment of veterans. Nor does it do much with a revelation of a certain ally of The Mandarin’s in high places. They’re just means to create tension and drama.
Let me go back though and address an issue on the enhanced enemies. The movie is based on the Warren Ellis created “Extremis” storyline of the comics, where it was the latest attempt at recreating the infamous Super Soldier serum of Captain America’s. A nanotechnology-based serum, it infuses the injected that survive the process with super-strength, toughness and even the ability to breathe fire. It is borne out of the research of Maya Hansen, which Aldrich Killian has weaponized for his own ends. That explanation I just gave doesn’t appear anywhere in the movie. You’d think a movie dealing with people’s technological advances growing beyond their control would have stated it. There was actually a perfect moment in the movie to drop that bit of info – when Tony is being held by The Mandarin’s scientist. And it doesn’t get said. Given how much of the movie is spent on the mystery of The Mandarin’s attacks and Tony Stark trying to solve it, you’d think he would have gotten that revelation.
In the end, the movie is all about Tony and coming to terms with who he was, who he is and how to make amends for all the wrongs he had wrought. Most superhero stories end with the hero donning the mask/the suit/the cape to save the world and redeem themselves. Iron Man 3 is saying that being Iron Man is no redemption for Tony. If anything, it’s another mechanism for him to wreak havoc on himself and on those around him. He cannot find that redemption that he’s been looking for until he accepts himself for who he is, flaws, mistakes and all. It’s at that point that he can define his relationship to the man inside the armor as a positive one and not one born from fear.
If this is really the end of the “Iron Man” series – he’s obviously going to be in The Avengers 2 – then it is a solid send-off. Is it a great movie? It’s no better or worse than Iron Man 2. It’s a good movie that’s held up by Downey’s performance. Shane Black does a lot of good things with the characters but the story aims at saying serious things and doesn’t come close. That said, as the conclusion to the journey started in Iron Man, it more than makes up for its shortcomings. By this point, Downey is playing with house money and watching him battle, grin and enjoy every moment of the proceedings is what makes this movie what it is. The simple truth is that they have yet to top the first Iron Man in any of the succeeding films.
But don’t let that criticism stop you from seeing it. It is a fun movie and, as I said above, if it’s the last we see of the Armored Avenger, it is a good send-off. And really, you ought to enjoy watching Downey own every moment he is on the screen. If they decide to move on with the character without him, whoever’s going to come after will have bigger shoes to fill than whoever follows Bale’s Batman. I don’t know how you can be this much a jerk and still be cool. Because no one is cooler than Tony Stark.
Not even Iron Man.