Funny, irreverent, ballsy and occasionally maddening, Iron Man 3 kicks off Marvel’s Phase Two with a bang, but not without some missteps along the way.
[THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering from severe anxiety attacks. He can’t sleep and spends his nights compulsively working on his Iron Man suits while ignoring the needs of his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Soon, Tony has bigger fish to fry when a mysterious and theatrical terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) takes to the air-waves to threaten the United States and claim responsibility for a series of bombings around the world. When Tony’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is injured in one of these attacks, Tony personally challenges The Mandarin to a fight on national TV. This ultimately proves unwise as the terrorist leader responds by launching a spectacular gunship assault on Stark’s sea-side mansion, smashing it to pieces and knocking it (and Tony) into the ocean.
Broken and stripped of all his gadgets, except for one malfunctioning suit, Tony must find the strength and resourcefulness to stop the evil mastermind before it’s too late. But in order to do that, he’ll have to contend with fiery, regenerating super-soldiers whose extraordinary powers derive from a virus called Extremis developed by two scientists from Tony’s past, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall).
If this all sounds a bit convoluted, it is, but it works surprisingly well thanks to the sure hand of writer/director Shane Black, who takes over the franchise from Jon Favreau. Black injects the film with his trademark dark and irreverent humor and isn’t afraid to take serious risks and move the series in a different direction. Some of his creative choices pay off big time, while others are less successful.
Comedy has always been an important part of the Iron Man franchise, but Black brings it to a whole new level, using humor to parody the action-movie genre and undermine its clichés. This is a ballsy move for a director working on an established mainstream action franchise, but it works wonderfully. One excellent example of this is a brief diversion to Tennessee when Tony temporary teams up with a precocious 10-year old boy. However, their relationship is not what you would expect and Black takes the much maligned cliché of the kid sidekick and manages to make it fresh again. Instead of sentimentalizing the relationship between Stark and the boy, Black moves in the polar opposite direction. Tony is often playfully cruel towards the boy, who throws the same irreverent attitude right back at him. When the boy tells Tony that his father abandoned him, Tony responds, “It happens. Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.” Later, after helping Tony reactivate his suit, the boy, giving his best puppy dog eyes, asks, “So you’re gonna abandon me like my dad?” to which Tony, smiling, responds, “Yeah” and unceremoniously drives off, leaving the boy alone in the snow.
Black’s irreverent humor carries over into the action scenes too. Near the end of the film, Tony, running out of ammo, asks Rhodes to pass him a spare magazine, to which Rhodes responds, “They’re not universal, you know.” Here Black is clearly making fun of action movies in which the heroes seem to have an unlimited supply of ammunition and are sharing ammo clips that should be incompatible. This winking, playful self-awareness permeates the film, but never becomes overbearing. Black knows his limits and fortunately resists his urge to shatter the fourth wall.
Perhaps the most obvious change from the first two films is that in Iron Man 3, Tony spends a lot more time outside of the suit, either playing detective or running around with a pistol. His major internal conflict in the film revolves around the question “is it the man or the suit that makes the hero?” It’s a refreshing approach to the character. At the beginning of the film, Stark considers his suits extensions of his body, inextricably intertwined with his identity. This concept is literalized by Stark’s latest armor, the telepathically summoned Mark 42, which represents a movement towards man-machine synergy. It is only when Tony is forcibly separated from his armors that he is finally able to recognize his true potential as a hero in his own right and the action scenes actually evolve to reflect Stark’s growing psychological distance from his suits. He goes from wearing the Iron Man armor, to piloting one remotely, to summoning an army of autonomous suits that fight independently of him. Again and again the film reminds us that Iron Man is, after all, more flesh and blood than machine. The suits are expendable, but there is only one Tony Stark and he is still Iron Man with or without his fancy gadgets.
The film’s powerful Extremis-enhanced baddies are, at first, a welcome change from the more grounded armor-based villains of the first two films. However, the over-the-top Extremis powers feel a little out of place and just aren’t interesting or novel enough to stand out. As a result, the super-soldiers quickly begin to feel like rejects from X-Men or Ghost Rider. Adding to this problem, the main antagonist, Aldrich Killian, shares the exact same powers as his Extremis minions, which I found very disappointing. It just felt so uninspired and redundant and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Killian was just a one-tricky pony. There’s really only so many times you can watch a guy heal himself or warm up his lava hands before it starts to get kind of old. His constant regeneration also kept reminding me of a much better movie villain, the T-1000 from Terminator 2, a comparison which certainly did not do this film any favors.
Guy Pearce is initially effective as the malevolent scientist, delivering just the right amount of suave attitude and calculating menace. However, once the extent of Killian’s powers are revealed, even Pearce can’t save the character, who plunges into camp, at one point inexplicably spitting fire at Col. James Rhodes. Adding to these problems is Killian’s almost complete lack of character development and the film’s inability to adequately define his motivations and grand plan. Yes, there’s some mention of his desire to control both sides of the War on Terror to sell more Extremis bioweapons and there’s even a personal grudge against Tony thrown in for good measure, but it’s all much too vague and muddled to be anything more than a MacGuffin. Unfortunately, Killian is never able to rise above the level of a one-dimensional cartoon villain.
Although Black plays it safe with Killian’s character, who adheres to standard super-villain tropes, he makes a surprisingly gutsy move with his treatment of The Mandarin, a long anticipated villain considered to be Iron Man’s greatest foe. The marketing campaign for Iron Man 3 has been building up The Mandarin as a powerful comic book nemesis of the caliber of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. However, this marketing campaign is, in fact, incredibly deceptive as The Mandarin turns out to be nothing but a puppet—a clueless actor named Trevor who is performing a role at the behest of Killian, the real bad guy, who barely appears in the marketing materials at all. This twist is brilliant in its sheer audacity and its subversion of the expectations and conventions of the superhero genre. Although it risks infuriating the comic book’s rabid fan base and potentially derailing the entire movie, somehow, it works within the thematic context of the film.
However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a twinge of disappointment when I learned the truth about The Mandarin. In his few moments of screen time I found him to be a much more compelling character than Extremis-enhanced Killian and I can’t helping feeling that this was something of a missed opportunity to create a truly memorable villain.
All in all, Iron Man 3 is an enjoyable comic book movie with some great action scenes and the balls to try something new, even if it’s held back from greatness by its bland villains and some narrative hiccups. With its unusual treatment of the The Mandarin and emphasis on parody it is sure to be one of the more controversial and divisive comic book movies of recent memory.
Runtime: 130 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/iron_man_3/
Official Website: http://marvel.com/ironman3