How will Marvel’s universe ever be the same after “The Avengers”? There’s bound to be a vocal percentage of viewers who walk out of “Iron Man 3” thinking, “why didn’t he just call his superfriends in the end?” It’s a good question, one that Drew Pearce and Shane Black’s script doesn’t ignore, but never satisfyingly answers. Yet that doesn’t seem to matter. The bigger question that Marvel has addressed is whether it could effectively narrow the scope of its universe again after “The Avengers” blew it open—and the answer is yes.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) hasn’t been the same since his near-death experience in a intergalactic wormhole at the end of “The Avengers.” In fact, the words “New York” have become a trigger for his newly discovered anxiety attacks. He has spent his funk by building an inordinate amount of Iron Man suits, and specifically a remotely operated suit that he can summon through a biological tracking system. When a terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) emerges, hacking U.S. airwaves to spread fear and causing thermal explosions, Tony calls him out on his cowardice, a move he immediately regrets.
As the script continues to introduce all the players in this third iron-clad outing, from Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian—a think tank manager Tony spurned 13 years ago—to Don Cheadle’s Col. Rhodes who has a new gig as the stars-and-stripes-studded presidential bodyguard Iron Patriot, the film appears as a sloppy mess likely to meet the same fate as “Iron Man 2.” Only when Tony begins to pursue the mystery of the terrorist bombings do all these seemingly disparate pieces begin to come together into what’s actually a rather clever story.
Story structure aside, the script does boast plenty of Stark quips in case you worried the directorial turnover from Jon Favreau to Shane Black would alter the tone of the franchise. Not even close. If anything, the “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” director pushes the boundaries of political correctness with some of the dialogue, especially in the scenes in which Tony finds himself teamed up with a 12-year-old boy.
“Iron Man 3” digs deeper into the psychology of Tony Stark, at least more than you’d expect from a blockbuster. Rather than open with an action sequence to get the ball rolling, we get a flashback to when Stark met Pearce’s Killian as well as a genetic engineer named Maya played by Rebecca Hall. Things don’t really begin to pick up until Tony has his mansion blown into the ocean.
Not unlike “Iron Man 2,” the film’s action is largely reserved for the grand finale. Still, the amount of special effects shots is probably tripled, and the action sequences when they do come were written to be as unique and memorable as possible, with a skydiving sequence taking the cake. “Iron Man 3” hits big whenever it makes the effort to do so, proving again how Marvel Studios holds a quality entertainment standard rivaled by few.
The “Iron Man” films (and this is partly fault of the comic) lack truly excellent villains. This film sets up Tony Stark’s greatest nemesis in the Mandarin, but complicates it in a way you’ll never see coming considering how studios and writers have flocked toward villains in the mold of Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”
The movie gambles in that way and in other ways not all audiences will recognize. Take the boy for example. If the film failed on the whole, it would forever be remembered as “the ‘Iron Man’ movie with Tony Stark and that kid.” That’s dangerous territory. If “Spider-Man 3” had worked, everyone wouldn’t refer to it as “the one with emo Peter Parker.”
Nothing gambles more than the script, which spends a lot of time setting up the premise for what it hopes will be an effective payoff. So much of the film seems anecdotal until you see how the pieces fit. Even then, there’s no guarantee the audiences will be compelled by the completed puzzle, but “Iron Man 3” goes bold enough to surprise in a good way.
The humor definitely misfires at times and the sense of danger doesn’t pervade the film from start to finish, but considering how must third installments have sputtered (“Spider-Man 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”), it’s testament to a number of quality components at work behind the scenes, not excluding “The Avengers,” which clearly reenergized Iron Man as a solo character. Without it, no way “Iron Man 3” opens with nearly $175 million after the critical disappointment toward the second.
Few actors have truly created and owned a character like Downey Jr. and Tony Stark. Without him, Iron Man is just a second-class superhero in Marvel’s canon. He single-handedly launched Phase One of Marvel Studios’ plan and gave audiences a multi-dimensional hero with both despicable and lovable qualities. If he powers down the suit after “The Avengers 2,” it’ll be the end of an era.
Iron Man 3
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall