By Gary Dowell
A rare threequel that finds new ground to till rather than a rehash of what came before, Iron Man 3 proves that not only is there life after The Avengers, there’s still plenty of mileage left in the tanks of superhero-themed movies. The early buzz has proclaimed it to be the best Marvel movie yet; that’s a bit much, but it is the best of the Iron Man series.
It benefits greatly from a change in directors, with Jon Favreau taking on a producer role and being replaced by writer Shane Black (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Lethal Weapon). Black’s take on the material is less four-color comic book and more pulp espionage novel with a superhero twist. Think The Dark Knight Rises with less plot and more humor. Much like that Batman movie, IM3 strips our hero of everything he holds dear and places him in a position of extreme and relentless vulnerability.
After a brief prelude set in Switzerland in 1999, the movie skips ahead to six months after the events of The Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is living with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a swank ocean-side Malibu home and upgrading his Iron Man armor to new levels of capability.
All is not well with Tony, However; his near-death experience in New York has saddled him crippling anxiety attacks and left him so worried about his ability to protect himself and his loved ones that he obsessively modifies and redesigns his armor (he has close to four dozen stashed in his vault.) Pepper is running the company in his absence, and their relationship is suffering.
Enter former flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a biologist working for rival Aldrich Killian (a perfectly oily Guy Pearce), who wants Stark Industries to invest in his limb regeneration technology. Naturally, there are hidden sinister motives to all of this. Someone whose sinister motives are less hidden, however, is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious bin Laden-esque mastermind whose campaign of terror has the whole nation on edge.
When one of the Mandarin’s schemes leaves Tony’s friend and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Favreau) in critical condition, he publicly announces his intentions to kick ass and take names; the Mandarin responds with a helicopter attack that obliterates Stark’s home and leaves him for dead. Stark goes underground, forced to rely solely on his wits and a busted up suit of armor as he pieces together clues to the conspiracy.
Black’s sole directing credit until now was 2005′s overlooked and under-rated buddy detective action-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which also featured Downey), but he proves himself capable handling big-budget gonzo action spectacle. More importantly, his well established flair for snappy banter, light character development, and clever set-pieces is in full effect and well-used here. Oddly enough, if there is a blatant flaw to the movie it’s that the sequences of heavy metal mayhem sometimes bog down the story, especially the protracted and disappointingly generic finale in an automated Miami dock.
The role is shaping up to be the one that defines Downey’s career, and it’s one that he has worn like a second skin from the beginning. The ego and need for attention shared by both men are writ large, which makes it all the more satisfying and impressive to see both actor and his character yanked from their respective comfort zones. Black gives him room to maneuver while toying with genre conventions, especially when Tony has to accept assistance from an 8-year-old boy (Ty Simpkins); his verbal smacks keep the cuteness at bay, and he unceremoniously ditches the brat before things get too cute. Take note of this, Mr. Spielberg.
Downey also benefits from his supporting castmates. Paltrow is brought into the foreground and given more to do than operate as superhero girlfriend/kidnap fodder, especially in the two main action sequences. She even saves Stark’s ass — twice. Black’s flare for buddy-cop antics comes in handy when Downey is placed opposite Don Cheadle, who returns as James Rhodes, enough to make us wish the two had been given more screen time together. Kingsley gives yet another brilliant turn as a flamboyant villain, but he is under-used. Pearce delivers even though his character is formulaic, as does Hall even though she is stuck in the thankless role of a romantic cypher.
Downey’s contract with Marvel is fulfilled with this film, and whether or not he will return for Avengers 2 is anyone’s guess. If not, Iron Man 3 brings a satisfying close to ol’ Shellhead’s first story arc.