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.