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Iron Man 3 Review: Tony Stark's Darkest Hour May Well Be His Finest

By TK | Film Reviews | May 3, 2013 | Comments ()


Thumbnail image for Iron-Man-3.jpg

Iron Man holds a curious and distinctive place in the Avengers' cinematic history. Not counting Ang Lee's disastrous Hulk film (because it was made prior to there being a master plan that would gather these different heroes together), it's the first film that introduces us to this new world of superheroes. We suffered through a painful and uneven sequel, and then Iron Man exploded back onto the scene with last summers outstanding, if somewhat exhausting Avengers. Yet what sets him apart from the rest of the main cast of the Avengers -- at least those with films to their name -- is that he's the most grounded of the bunch, the most realistic, if you will. Iron Man is different because he's believable -- there are no gods, no monsters, no soldiers trapped in ice with super strength. It's simply technology. As such, the first Iron Man focused on man's abuse of the power he himself created, and it resulted in a brainy, interesting take on the superhero genre, a hero who doesn't have much in the way of power other than a staggering intellect.

The problem that then presents itself is that post-Avengers, all of this has changed. The world has changed. Now there are gods and monsters and supermen out of time, not to mention aliens and Hulks and Cosmic Cubes and even death Himself made a brief appearance. The entire game has shifted, and as a result, we're at a peculiar kind of crossroads with Tony Stark and his invention. Where does one go, in this brave and crazy new world? What will Iron Man's new enemies look like in this bizarre new landscape, where literal worlds have been opened up to us?

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black and co-written by Black and Drew Pearce, opts to take a somewhat retro approach to this dilemma, and as a result, they've created a singularly unusual picture that is thoroughly enjoyable, even if it frequently doesn't feel like a superhero picture at all. Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) having difficulty dealing with the aftermath of The Avengers, stressed and prone to anxiety attacks, growing distant from Pepper Potts (Gwynneth Paltrow), and as a result, burying himself in his work. He's even more obsessed than usual with his suits, building model after model after model as a desperate, diversionary coping mechanism. Meanwhile, old friends from his past have evolved into foes, while at the same time, the world is being terrorized by a psychotic, prophetic bomber known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsely) who is prone to terrifying viral videos filled with vague threats of further violence. Wrapped into this is a strange and horrific new group of technologically enhanced shock soldiers, normal-looking men and women with decidedly abnormal powers that present grave new threats to Tony and the ones he loves, including James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who has fully accepted the mantle of War Machine, as well as security chief and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and old flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall).

The film has a lot going on all at once, and at times the story almost collapses under its own weight. Yet what salvages it is its own patient approach -- there's a lengthy second act to Iron Man 3 that is surprisingly short on action, yet unlike the other Marvel pictures that have the same issue, here the lack of action serves the story instead of feeling like the result of a budgetary constraint. Rather, the second act is not a superhero film at all, but more of a funky little detective/spy story hybrid, with a de-suited Stark searching for clues to The Mandarin as well as the murky, ominous organization (one that comic fans will enjoyably recognize) that seems to serve him. Certainly the film opens explosively enough, complete with an all-out assault on Stark's mansion that leaves it in rubble and results in him stranded in the middle of nowhere, effectively de-powering him for a large portion of the film. Yet instead of the conceit being tiresome, it's actually somewhat refreshing. And as we slowly build towards the final third of the film, it switches gears again, becoming a sort of oddball buddy-cop film, complete with Rhodey and Stark sneaking into bad guy hideouts with handguns and quips as their only weapons. Behind it all, there remains a dazzling array of bizarre, oft-inexplicable technology and a darkly menacing meta-human villain that reminds us that we're not, in fact, watching another entry into the Lethal Weapon series (which Black scripted). Of course, once we get to the finale, the film goes absolutely gonzo with its techno-violent wizardry, and features an all-out war of a final battle that was an enjoyably dizzying experience.

The actors are all in top form, particularly Downey Jr., who gets to humanize Stark a little bit more -- there's still the brashness and arrogance, but there's also a dash of humility and tenderness to the character that he conveys superbly, preventing him from descending into caricature (as he frequently did in Iron Man 2). Paltrow continues to be weirdly perfect as Pepper Potts, the unlikeliest of actresses in this series who somehow works just right, even when she's thrust directly into the action as she is here. Cheadle's Rhodey is generally a joy to watch, no less so here. The rest of the cast is equally solid, particularly Guy Pearce as the secretive and charismatic genius Aldrich Killian. There's even a little moppet of a kid who Stark encounters, played capably by Ty Simpkins, who would normally feel like a painfully awkward addition, yet here is suitably understated as to never become annoying. But worth noting is the superb character writing by Black and Pearce, who've move the character forward towards becoming a more fully-realized human being. Stark's life is torn asunder in this film -- his home is destroyed, the love of his life in jeopardy, his friends in danger or worse. It's dark, grim, gripping stuff, and coupled with the increasing panic attacks that truly do feel overwhelming, Stark is a man beset upon from all sides. The threats come from without and within, and it's written with such depth that these darkest hours all feel genuine.

What all of this adds up to is a decidedly un-superhero-ish superhero film. This is clearly both intentional and unsurprising -- the film is based on Warren Ellis's terrific Extremis storyline, one which is notorious for focusing closely on Iron Man and not dealing much with either the character's history or the rest of the Marvel universe. And while Iron Man 3 obviously references The Avengers, none of the other players are present or even really talked about. Instead, Shane Black has eschewed all of the tropes of conventional superhero movie and opted to make an almost straight-up action movie -- that happens to have some superheroes in it. That's a bit reductive, to be sure, but during that broad swath of mystery and mayhem and fistfights and shootouts in the middle, that's exactly what the film felt like. It wasn't an unwelcome feeling, even if it took some getting used to. Even the wild, bombastic, explosion-heavy finale felt more like a high-tech action sequence rather than something taken from the page of a comic book.

Iron Man 3 is unquestionably a wildly enjoyable action film, even if it isn't always very good at being a superhero film. It's smart, it's funny, it's puzzling and weird and awful and dark in places, a film very unlike any of its predecessors. For those who have seen the Lethal Weapon films as well as Black's other directorial effort, the tremendous Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it will feel comfortably familiar, even as the more ludicrous aspects of it explode across the screen. The plot is at times a bit bewildering, and there's little-to-no explanation as to how the Extremis program creates such amazing and dangerous super soldiers other than some gobbledygook about unlocking the brain's potential, and often it's a bit frustrating that a two+ hours film about Iron Man seems to have, quite frankly, not enough Iron Man. Yet all of that is forgivable -- especially after the balls-out bonkers finale and the sheer enthusiasm that is clearly imprinted all over the it -- and unlikely to affect the overall enjoyment you'll get out of the film.




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  • -S

    > him stranded in the middle of nowhere, effectively de-powering him
    > for a large portion of the film. Yet instead of the conceit being
    tiresome,

    SPOILER.

    It did really feel conceited to me. Why is he spending time trying to recharge his armor or fix it with the kid, then building all sorts of old-school gadgetry to invade the Mandarin's house, when he could have summoned one of the dozens suits he had left in his old basement. Jarvis was offline for only a short moment, definitely online by the time he told Tony the suit was not charging fast enough at the kid's shed, so he could have called any other suit at that point. This rendered this second "Tony is depowered" act completely moot to me when the third act was in full swing.

  • Barry

    POTENTIAL SPOILERS

    Aside from the Mandarin reveal (which I am not butthurt about AT ALL), this Iron Man felt the most like the iconic 70's comic book Iron Man I grew up with. IM in those days was all about corporate intrigue/espionage, buggy armor that was never *quite* right, and Tony Stark with his back against the wall time and time again. So I have to say this movie felt like a homecoming of sorts. I've seen some bitching about the tied-up-with-a-bow ending, but I for one am very glad that those ends were neatly tied in two minutes vice two hours and the franchise can move forward.

    I guess it just remains to be seen if RDJ is game for IM4; it's almost a sure bet that Marvel will have to start the "Bonding" process to continue making Iron Man films after that point.

  • Strand

    This movie could have been a lot better if they cut 30 minutes, preferably the Tennessee detective/redneck plotline. Replace it with one minute of Tony Stark hacking a military database, tada!. Rebecca Hall was also incredibly underused and they could have folded her idealistic scientist into Guy Pearce's character.

    It was also much cleverer than I expected, yes... felt like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (where the hell is Michelle Monaghan these days?). I'm very conflicted with The Mandarin. It was hilarious, but I felt they did a disservice to the character. I also thought the special effect they used for Extremis (red glowy, firebreath etc) was godawful. And why did it give Guy Pearce double dragon douche tattoos?

  • alacrify

    Bothered by "at least those with films to their name". So Black Widow and Hawkeye, because they don't have films, justify your premise that Tony is "set apart from the rest of the main cast"? Not to mention the human element vs. superhero thing. I appreciate the review, but it seems like you had a statement in mind and wrote to it. And that surprised me.

  • Ben

    I loved this movie and I'm so glad we got a good final action sequence in an ironman movie, it's been the most dissapointg bit of the first two movies is those like 5 second action sequences at the end that do nothing, and this one was just fucking spectacular.

  • I loved Iron Man 3 and definitely want to see it again. I wasn't too eager to watch it at first because I feel a little overwhelmed with all the superhero movies I've watched/are coming out but Iron Man 3 got me straight back on board. I love how it wasn't the typical Superhero movie and the story was actually quite well developed considering the scope and the numerous characters even though I could predict what was going on. That's something I enjoy doing though if it's done well/done on purpose, giving me bits and pieces for me to predict what was going to happen. I love the twists of the movie and how there was still lots of humour. Lots of laughing going on in the cinema. I love how it didn't treat us as a mindless audience and that it wasn't just all action or all gadgets. And I really liked the villain because he had a reason to be villainous. One thing that really annoys me about villains in movies is their motives and this movie made sure that the villain backstory was fleshed out enough as well.

    Loved it heaps and I can't WAIT till the next batch of superhero movies!

  • Lee

    The humour was the best thing about this movie, and everyone was laughing a lot in our cinema. When the boy was introduced, I was expecting the usual shmaltzy 'fatherless boy meets childless manchild and sweet bond is formed,' but was pleasantly surprised by the way the film took this trope and turned it upside down in an underhand way.

    Also loved the surprise with the "Mandarin." Absolutely hilarious and unexpected.

    Downey Junior was absolutely fantastic in this movie, and there's no way it could have succeeded like it did in the hands of a lesser man.

  • Eve

    "When the boy was introduced, I was expecting the usual shmaltzy
    'fatherless boy meets childless manchild and sweet bond is formed,' but
    was pleasantly surprised by the way the film took this trope and turned
    it upside down in an underhand way.
    "

    My EXACT thoughts.

    *SPOILER*

    The "we're connected" convo (especially when Stark says it -- and that face Downey Jr. makes) had me in stitches.

  • Lee

    Hehe yes. And when the boy was looking at him with that Disney child face and he refused to fall for it. Classic!

  • ViciousTrollop

    The best part of this movie was Adam Pally aka Max from Happy Endings as Gary the Cameraman.

  • annoyingmouse

    I noticed you didn't mention Ben Kingsely very much, was he not memorable? That would be rather lame...

  • I think it's more that he's trying to avoid spoilers. Sir Ben did a fine job with what he was given. Not many people could pull it off without being over the top or unconvincing.

  • TK

    Bingo.

  • Eve

    Totally agree with Reba -- Kingsley was one of my favourite things about Iron Man 3. My god, that man can act.

  • Mr_Zito

    I watched this last week and was very surprised by it. The film begins a little worrying, but then it finds its way, like you mentioned they managed to put a kid in the movie without making it annoying, which is rare. Overall it's a fun movie, and if you recall the disaster that Iron Man 2 was, it's a pretty good movie. I don't know if it's better than the first, which I loved the first time I saw but didn't like so much when I saw it again.

  • Irina

    My only complaint about the movie is (edited for spoilers. I mean, come on now. -TK) . Did we really need fireworks that badly?

  • Irina

    Sorry, totally my bad.

  • the_wakeful

    Great review, TK. I loved the movie as well, even if the opening and closing narrations were a little cringy. One thing Joss has that Shane doesn't: he's not afraid to kill off a main character.

  • BWeaves

    "One thing Joss has that Shane doesn't: he's not afraid to kill off a main character."

    Oh, Gotopus, I just had a thought. What if Joss got ahold of GoT?

  • Well, he wouldn't have much to do, would he? GRRM is deeply invested in regular main character death already. If Whedon tried to outdo him, there'd be no one left in Westeros.

  • Vi

    >even if the opening and closing narrations were a little cringy.

    wait... you stayed for the end tag, right... right?!

  • the_wakeful

    I did, and it was awesome. It doesn't change the fact that the bookends narration felt forced and awkward.

  • emmelemm

    I somehow forgot that Shane Black was directing this, but for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang alone, he CAN DO NO WRONG in my personal book.

    Also: re-teaming with RDJ! What a concept!

  • Doric

    I was surprised how much of a "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" feel I was getting while watching this movie. The narration, the quips from characters (which the dialogue felt a lot quicker than compared to Iron Man 2), and with the situation the second act set, I was half expecting Gay Perry to show up.

    But I'm curious (spoiler possible) - what is with Shane Black and his movies taking place around Christmas i.e. Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?

  • Baboon

    Also: a removed finger. Plucky Kid snapped the armor's off in TN.

  • The Heretic

    Also, Long Kiss Goodnight. Underrated to the point it's about to be overrated as a cult classic, if not already.

  • Salieri2

    "And that's another thing. You used to be all, 'Oh, phooey, I burned the darn muffins.' Now, you go into a bar, sailors come running out. What's up with that?"

  • $27019454

    Oh!!! If Gay Perry showed up that would be epic!

  • TK

    Well, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

  • the_wakeful

    By the way, did the opening narration in this begin with the same opening narration line from Kiss Kiss? I swear to god I thought I was watching that movie by accident.

  • koko temur

    Great review. I agree. I thought it would be really hard after he spoke wheadonese in avengers to go back. Smartly they changed gears on that one instead of iron man trying to out-quip himself. with as fantasic cast as this the movie cant be unwatchable anyway, but that was a great character and writing choice.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Damn, this a stunning review. Supremely well written. I was looking forward to seeing this before, but you just upped my anticipation ten-fold.

    I'm not kissing your ass, f off.

  • MisterFroggie

    I agree with the review completely. I loved it. I honestly hope they rest Iron Man movies for a few years. I think that if Downey comes back it'll be for least Avengers 2 and maybe Avengers 3 but no more solo flicks. Dude's 48 and earned his rest. Which is fine with me as this was a good one to go out on.

    And as a guy who used to follow the comics I loved the twist with the Mandarin. But if you want a good laugh go over to Ain't it Cool News and check out Capone's review. The comment section is FILLED with butthurt nerds screaming how terrible the movie was because of Mandarin.

  • The Heretic

    In the comics, the Mandarin is a great villain, an excellent contrast to the techno-wizardry of Iron Man. A classic supervillain, if you will.

    Nonetheless, in the films, grounded by some vague techno-realism, the canon version would stick out like a character from Leave it to Beaver stuck in the Mad Men universe.

    So those butthurt nerds are complaining about their preference for canon, not the coherence of the cinematic version - which I must say made for a nice compromise.

  • Some Guy

    I think that's BS though. We've already established that gods and aliens exist, with all sorts of fantastic technology abound that makes Stark's suit about as advanced as a can-opener.

    HENCEFORTH COMETH THE SPOILERS

    While I don't mind how things panned out in the film, and thought that the villains were respectable as they were, I still think Kingsly was just a throw away villain, and ultimately so was Pierce. Black didn't have to avoid tying this movie into the recent film canon. Mandarin was clearly one of Iron Man's greatest villains, and they made him into nothing, really. A MacGuffin, really. Someone could easily have explained that the Mandarin's rings were alien weapons from the Chitauri or technical inventions grounded in real world tech ideas, like anti-gravity, zero inertia, etc. They'd be no more unbelievable at this point than a mystic hammer that channels lightening or a crazy super-shield that somehow absorbs all energy and returns to the thrower after being hurled at some baddies.

    Just sayin'

    THUS ENDETH THE SPOILERS

  • ScienceGeek

    SPOILERS. SERIOUSLY. MANY SPOILERS.
    So much of the last third of the story felt like wasted potential. I know I shouldn't expect canon in movies, but...The Mandarin is The Big Bad, ya know? It'd be like The Dark Knight Returns had Heath Ledger wipe off the face paint and start mumbling about sucking cock in back alleys for drug money. There was such a great set up, even from the first movie when The Ten Rings were the ones who kidnapped Tony, that though it was very clever from a storyline perspective, I felt really let down.
    And that pat little ending 'Yeah, fixed that whole exploding thing with Pepper, no bid deal'. Gaaah. Couldn't they have made a little bit more of that, since her getting stuffed full of Extremis was kinda a big deal? Then again, my resentment might have just been because I really liked that version of Pepper. She was fun. She's been kidnapped or attacked in 2/3 of the movies, she's earned the right to go all Hulk on the next idiot to try it.
    END SPOILERS

    For the people who haven't seen the movie: stay for the scene after the credits. Short and silly.

  • The Heretic

    Yes, but that's the larger Marvel Universe, not the Iron Man films themselves. When Iron Man shows up in Avengers, he's playing by different cinematic aesthetics, largely because the scope is much bigger than him alone. This applies to the comic book as well. Writers of Iron Man are expected to be more realistic in their exploration of science, while in the Avengers, Iron Man is a supporting character in their exploration of cosmic level opponents.

    You're right, Shane Black could've gone down that route, but the fact he didn't establishes how much the rules of the first two Iron Man films are still in place.

  • JJ

    "are complaining about their preference for canon, not the coherence of the cinematic version"

    I like that phrasing, and it makes me excited to see this one. I understand the general apprehension that comes with deviation, but given this medium's extensive and wholesale retconning? I will never buy into this brand of butthurtedness.

  • Caught this last night, and your review is spot-on. I enjoyed equally the non-'splody and super-'splodey aspects. Also Paltrow's splendid physique. She may be a wanker about her lifestyle, but that's a seriously hard body for a 40 year old mom.

  • Some Guy

    And you know it was totally her idea to be wearing yoga pants and a sports bra for what felt like a third of the movie.

  • Palas

    Those denim cut-offs in Avengers were absolutely ludicrous.

  • Cool. But personally, Avengers was rather bland & generic. Iron Man & (surprising for me) Hulk kinda saved it for me.

  • wicked.whisper

    thank god...all this time I thought I was the only person that didn't think Avengers was ....THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE!!!!!...I mean it was ok...but I think overated

  • Palas

    Agreed. It was fun, but I really didn't get what all the fuss was about. I would watch the hell out of a Mark Ruffalo Hulk movie though.

  • michelle

    Or pretty much any Mark Ruffalo movie.

  • wicked.whisper

    sorry...overrated

  • lowercase_see

    sploosh

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