In my review of Iron Man 2 back in 2010, I wondered whether its follow-up would be able to avoid the fate of so many other “threequels.” Would Iron Man 3 defy the odds and maintain the standards set by its predecessors, or would it join the ranks of such franchise hobblers as Superman III, Spider-Man 3, and X-Men 3: The Last Stand?
I’m pleased to report that Iron Man 3 is a worthy addition to the series. It doesn’t surpass the original 2008 film or even last summer’s blockbuster The Avengers (which I tend to think of as Iron Man and his Amazing Friends), but it’s an improvement over Iron Man 2—don’t get me wrong, I liked that second movie and still do, but upon subsequent viewings, I came to realize that it occasionally lost its focus and seemed to want to serve more as a launching pad for future Marvel movies. In contrast, this new film is very much an Iron Man movie—well, not so much Iron Man as Tony Stark. He spends far more time outside of the armor than he spends inside of it. And let’s face it, that’s to be expected when Stark is being played by Robert Downey Jr.
What can I say about Downey that I didn’t already say in my reviews of Iron Man 2 and The Avengers? He simply OWNS the part of Tony Stark, and if the folks at Marvel know what’s good for them, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep him happy and in the fold for years to come. Yes, it’s inevitable that someday the role will have to be recast . . . but they should try to put that off for as long as possible.
In Iron Man 3, Downey gets to show a new side of Stark, a vulnerability resulting from his traumatic experience in The Avengers (that film is referenced several times, very amusingly in some instances). He also shows that even an adorable kid can’t upstage him—he’s just too quick, too witty, and he won’t allow too much sentimentality or cuteness to creep in.
His chemistry with returning co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Jon Favreau, and Don Cheadle is as strong as ever. Paltrow, as Stark’s one true love Pepper Potts, ends up in stereotypical “damsel in distress” mode at one point, but she also gets to share in the action much more this time around, which follows recent developments for the character in the comic book series.
Favreau, as Stark’s security chief Happy Hogan, has some great moments. It’s nice to see Favreau still involved with the series, even though he’s relinquished the director’s chair (he retains an executive producer credit).
As Stark’s best friend and frequent partner in armored crimefighting, Colonel James Rhodes/War Machine (here renamed “Iron Patriot,” much to Stark’s chagrin), Cheadle seems like he’s having a ball. He doesn’t have all that much to do until the last act, but there are some really nice character moments throughout.
The newcomers to the series include Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, a scientist who once tried to forge an alliance with Stark but has since found remarkable success on his own. Pearce is effective and compelling, but I preferred Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane in the first film, and even Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in IM 2—I thought he was a riot. But Pearce is definitely a step up from Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko—Killian is far more interesting and has much more personality.
I was particularly impressed with Rebecca Hall, who plays Maya Hansen, a beautiful female scientist with a past connection to Stark. She re-enters his life at a most tumultuous time and, as you can imagine, sparks fly between her and Paltrow’s Pepper. Hall delivers a strong, grounded performance and holds her own in her scenes with Downey and Paltrow.
Incidentally, both Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian were introduced in a comic-book story entitled “Extremis,” which this film is loosely based upon. All I’ll say about the comic book is that I found it to be a highly effective cure for insomnia. The movie is a vast improvement.
Both the print and film versions of the story center on a biotechnological advancement developed by Maya called Extremis, which can be used to heal—and even rebuild—the human body. Whether it works—and the potential dangers of its misuse—becomes of utmost importance to Tony Stark and the people closest to him.
On top of that, Tony makes himself the target of a terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin, who is using human operatives to blow themselves up across the United States. The Mandarin sends his forces to attack Stark at his Malibu home, resulting in one of the film’s most riveting sequences. This mysterious figure, whose existence had been hinted at and foreshadowed in the previous two films, finally emerges from the shadows in the form of Ben Kingsley, dressed in flowing robes, sporting a beard reminiscent of Osama bin Laden’s, and wearing a distinctive ring on each of his fingers. Kingsley’s performance is thoroughly entertaining, and I’m interested in seeing how comic-book purists react to the cinematic depiction of this character, who is one of Iron Man’s oldest and most popular foes. While I like Iron Man, I’m certainly not a die-hard fan, so the liberties that the filmmakers took with the Mandarin didn’t bother me all that much.
I should also mention Ty Simpkins, who plays young Harley Keener, the boy who encounters Tony Stark when he’s at his lowest point. The kid is very likable and interacts extremely well with Downey. The interplay between them is a lot of fun to watch, especially since Downey never lets things get too sappy between them. In fact, Stark treats the kid pretty much as an equal, which means he’s not above pulling some really dickish moves on the boy, and it’s hilarious.
Iron Man 3 was directed and co-written by Shane Black, who first came to prominence when he wrote the screenplay for the original Lethal Weapon. He also wrote and directed a wonderful little film from 2005 called Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which starred a pre-Iron Man Downey alongside Val Kilmer. Black manages to make Iron Man 3 feel very much connected to Favreau’s films, as well as The Avengers, but he also brings his own sensibilities to the table. For one thing, there’s a little bit of Lethal Weapon-style interplay between Downey and Cheadle during the big climactic action sequence. And this film is without a doubt the most violent of the Iron Man series—probably of all the Marvel movies in general. There’s also some really creepy, disturbing imagery, so parents with kids under the age of 13 should take that into consideration before bringing the little ones along.
It’s not a perfect film—it feels like it’s about 15 minutes too long, Stark doesn’t spend enough time in the armor for my tastes, a couple of the big plot twists were a little too obvious (I saw them coming from a mile away), and the main villain’s master plan isn’t really clear. (Maybe it will become so after another viewing.) But the performances are strong, the action sequences and special effects are spectacular—wait till you see the scene involving an attack on Air Force One—and there’s a lot of great character stuff.
I saw the film in 3D, and didn’t think it really enhanced the experience all that much, so my advice is to save a few bucks and see the standard version.
Oh—and as usual, stay to the very end of the closing credits. You’ll be glad you did!
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2013.