When Marvel began its Avengers experiment with cinematic continuity, all the way back with the original Iron Man, few could have expected it to have morphed into such a gigantic web of interlinked universes. After a slew of other solo films from Thor to Captain America the universes finally meshed together in the bombastic record-smashing The Avengers. Now Marvel is spouting that they’re moving into ‘Phase Two’ of their universe spinning extravaganza, with Iron Man 3 spearheading the whole next slate of comic book fun.
I’ll be honest. I went into this expecting a fun little kick into the next phase of the Marvelverse crammed with easter eggs and hints. What I got instead was an ode to a comic book legend and some of the finest character study I’ve seen in a good while. Iron Man 3 isn’t perfect, it has chinks in the armor that keep it from truly being exceptional, but goddamn if it ain’t one Starktastic blast of superhero mash.
[This review was originally posted last week for the UK release of Iron Man 3. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.]
Iron Man 3
Director: Shane Black
Release Date: April 25, 2013 (UK), May 3, 2013 (US)
Rating: 12A (UK), PG-13 (US)
Iron Man 3 begins post-Avengers as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is left with visions of the wormhole, his PTSD symptoms clogging in through panic attacks. The film shows him becoming this insecure insomniac who dwells in metals, building tens of suits in a matter of days, instead of getting a good night’s rest. Now with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in his boudoir and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) back on his side he tries to find some stability. This is all ruined under a new terrorist plot headed by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who is slowly trying to turn the war on terror absolutely sideways. Stark is left outgunned, outnumbered and half-dead from the Mandarin, who begins to twist the knife into America through the use of Extremis; a genetic invention created by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) that could potentially give absolute immortality to its users. Along the way, Stark dodges and puts to rest all of his demons and must wrestle with the philosophy of his own new identity.
Let’s get this out of the way: Iron Man 3 has issues. The film’s wrestles with PTSD and Stark’s trauma almost slips into the flippant realms, but having Stark hide in his suit away from anxiety attacks smartly pulls it back. Some of the main twists will be incredibly divisive, I personally absolutely adore the direction they went in, but the ‘one-liner’s keep being barked out even at the highest point of drama often gets tiresome and the post-credits tease really isn’t worth the wait, though it ends up working in the film’s favor for a reason I shan’t spoil. These are, however, some of the little niggles at what is otherwise a solid threequel. You don’t get much of those these days. The film doesn’t spend itself a la The Dark Knight Rises just sucking up its own self-indulgent juices, nor does it spend its time knee-deep in tonal nosedives alike Spider-Man 3. This is a focused, self-contained affair that ambitiously takes the characters to entirely new emotional plateaus.
I’ll be honest about the Iron Man films: they’re a mixed bag. The first film was Marvel’s first confident stamp into its own universe and, in my opinion, it truly is one of the greats in the hall of superhero cinema. The second film, however, largely spent its plodding time having Tony Stark just wait around for The Avengers to happen. It suffered by having to be the bridge between those films. Iron Man 3 doesn’t have the problems of Iron Man‘s lack of a third act and it strays away from Iron Man 2‘s middle that just has Tony talking to himself in his Malibu palace. Iron Man 3, from start to finish, is paced to almost perfection. You’re never a few miles away from a great bit of character interaction or some fantastic action scenery that, at some points, has Tony using pieces of the suit rather than the whole shabang. It gives the whole action sequences a real physical flavor, something which the computer-generated-crammed Iron Man 2 just couldn’t deliver. The finale is honestly quite something, but the final ten minutes is incredibly muddy in its approach to finalizing the emotional twists. It somewhat achieves its aims, but how it deals with one of the villains comes across as a bit hammy and disappointing; which may leave a sour taste.
What sets Iron Man 3 apart from there rest of the superhero bunch is its exploration of character. The film’s opening is basically the greatest opening to any Marvel film, choosing to bleed straight in to the life of Stark. Tony really went from this snarky badass to this multi-faceted and complex being with a slew of internal issues and unique behaviors. The film is helmed by some absolute action-comedy auteurs from Shane Black to Downey Jr. Even The Mandarin gets in some laughs here and there. I’ll say this too; the film uses a child actor and some of these happen to be my favorite moments from the film. Iron Man 3 also delivers its action pieces in such a clear way that no bit of scenery or camera movement gets in the way of just relishing in the absolutely incredible display of physicality and special effects. This film really does mirror its main hero; a marriage of the future tech (the suit) with the humanity (the characters).
The performances all round are the best of any Marvel flick. Paltrow and Rebecall Hall (playing Tony’s ex) have this bubbly chemistry on-screen as the two female leads. Guy Pearce just seems to slide into the role of Aldrich with suave panache. Don Cheadle’s comedic timing might be the best of the bunch and though he ends up being a slightly tertiary character he ends up coming into his own by the polo-shirt-filled third act. The two true standout performances, however, are that of Ben Kingsley and Robert Downey Jr. Kingsley captures the absolute terror of the Mandarin from the voice to the mannerisms, delivering the most horrifying performance since Ledger’s Joker. Yes I just said that. Robert Downey Jr., however, with Iron Man 3 seems to solidify his portrayal of Tony Stark. Joss Whedon commented recently that it was easy to write Tony Stark given that, once he heard Robert, the actor and the character are “basically the same“. Downey, by this third picture, now makes sure that there really isn’t any alternative to him as Tony Stark. He gives an electrifying and very human performance, especially in Stark’s PTSD scenes, while balancing that against his fantastic comedic abilities.
Iron Man 3 stutters. Quite a bit if we’re being frank. The final ten minutes and the plot’s main points will divide people, but that’s what great pictures do. Some of the structure and script fails to hold up and its attempts to dive into some meta-narrative are met with wishy washy execution. Iron Man 3, thankfully, doesn’t dwell on its past or on the greater Marvel universe though. It’s an incredibly squashed solo venture, and a bit of an odd choice to lead the pack of Marvel’s next films. What’s incredibly clear, however, is that the blendage of 80s spy thrillers, even the soundtrack is reminiscent of it, with the genre tropes of the superhero flicks, and with a dash of some of the finest talent, creates a standout in the whole sub-genre. It would be exceptional if it ironed out some of the bits of script that don’t gel, the loose structure and the timing of the ‘plot’ upsets and yet, for a third outing, I can’t really think of a better superhero threequel. It’s lesser than the almost untouchable Iron Man, but it is far superior to Iron Man 2. Iron Man 3 delivers all kinds of punches, but the ones that truly last are those that involve the characters and the collision of comic book mythology with, quite honestly, some poignant and surprisingly profound human touches.