Iron Man Three (2013)
Directed by Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Jon Favreau, Ty Simpkins.
For people worried that the individual Iron Man series within the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe was in trouble, have no fear: Iron Man is back on track because Shane Black has got your back.
Iron Man Three (yes, that’s what the end credits call it, and therefore it’s the official title) starts off the Marvel Movie-verse Phase 2 with a self-contained story that feels like a great five or six-issue comic book arc. You remember: the kind that Marvel used to pull off in the days before they “evented” everything to death with Skrull infiltrations and Norman Osborne conquering the world. I hear that currently the mad robot Ultron is doing the heavy lifting for Marvel’s crossover event. Maybe this means we’ll see him in Avengers 2.
This compressed approach for Iron Man Three was the correct choice coming off the huge success of The Avengers; the new Iron Man flick needed to show that Marvel’s individual heroes could still carry their own installments — their own magazine titles, so to speak — without the support of crossover mania. With Iron Man Three as the best of the Iron Man movies so far, it promises that Thor and Captain America will have superior returns in their own follow-ups. That will be quite a feat for Cap, considering how great Captain America: The First Avenger is. But it’s in the realm of the possible, as Shane Black shows everyone with Shellhead the Third.
This is a movie that will also ignite a huge debate over its changes to the comic canon. (Wait, what do I mean “will”? The battle has already started in a forum near you.) Although the script by Black and co-writer Drew Pearce uses the popular Warren Ellis Extremis storyline from 2005–06 as a starting point and features one of Iron Man’s main villains, The Mandarin, they have fashioned a story that stays true to its own internal character logic and freely jettisons major sections of Marvel Comics history both to goose the audience and give them unexpected thrills. It’s actually a touch annoying to write a standard “review” in the modern Internet spoilerphobe understanding for a film like this where I have to dodge talking about major plot points. The thrill in writing about a movie like Iron Man Three comes from getting geeky and detailed about how it toys with famous characters and undercuts expectations.
But I’ll play by the rules here — for now. You do deserve to see Iron Man Three knowing only as much as you’ve seen from the marketing. And that means I’ve negated the rest of what I am going to say. Nonetheless, onward…. and I do promise a minimum of “spoilers.” (I hate that word. Can we ditch it? I’ve found out “spoilers” before and yet not had the film “spoiled” for me. We need a better term. How about “twists”? There you go: we’ve already got a good word. Occam’s Razor Rules!)
Tony Stark survived the battle of New York, fought with aliens and an Asgardian god with adoption issues, and briefly flew through a dimensional portal. Understandably, Mr. Stark has some anxiety issues from it. The world has gotten way weirder since the time Stark tangled with his father’s old business partner over possession of a new power source. And lingering in Stark’s ears must be Captain America’s dead-on criticism that he isn’t anything without the metal suit. Now here is a Tony Stark that I can completely understand. The boozy jerk who slowed down the middle section of Iron Man 2 to almost a full stop was a poor center for a movie, but the panic-attack ridden jerk here is a breath of fresh air, and not just for Tony Stark, but for Robert Downey Jr. Re-uniting with Shane Black, who directed him in the sly Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, gets RDJ back with the right snap that isn’t all self-aware smug.
Tony Stark has gone just a bit lunatic from his Avengers experience, building nine hundred suits of armor for every contingency from gods to Galactus (yes, I know Galactus technically isn’t under Marvel Studios’ banner; I just like the alliteration). Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow in her best Marvel performance yet) is about all that holds Tony together while he blazes through triple all-nighters playing with his armor in the basement of his Malibu mansion.
Then along comes the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and an army of human fire bombs pumped with the Extremis virus… and suddenly Tony Stark’s beach home ends up at the bottom of the Pacific and an already stressed billionaire winds up walking around the snow-coated woods of Tennessee dragging a useless Mark 42 armor behind him and requiring the help of a cute kid named Harley.
Cute kid = kiss of death. Right? Nope, not here. Not with Shane Black on duty. It’s a testament to Black’s skill with comedy that comes from the characterizations instead of the sitcom one-liner mentality that the scenes between RDJ and child actor Ty Simpkins are among the film’s best. Tony Stark never goes sentimental with the kid, and even hurls out some (hilarious) insults to him that also work as insults to himself. The best snub deals with father abandonment issues and sounds like it’s flipping off the most boring hour of Iron Man 2. That all of these scenes take place against a blue-collar Christmas background is just another Shane Black touch, as is the humorous flashback narration from Stark, which starts with him fumbling his first line with his ego barging into his way.
The scene with the strongest Shane Black stamp is Stark getting into an argument with some AIM goons who have him strapped up to a bed frame. It’s a great exchange that feels like two misfits from a 1990s action film (The Last Boy Scout immediately comes to mind) flexing tough with the current style of cinema hero. Shane Black has always had a flair for fleshing out what should be minor thug characters. On a related note, two of the lower-rung villains, Stephanie Szostak as Ellen Brandt and James Badge Dale as Eric “Coldblood” Savin, make great impressions given the small space they have literally to burn up the screen.
Robert Downey Jr. didn’t get to show much chemistry with Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2, where Cheadle felt more like a placeholder after Terrence Howard departed the role. But now Cheadle gets to step fully into the part of James Rhodes without any baggage, and he and Stark feel like a classic buddy-combo during the massive finale. Rhodes now wears a Captain Americanized version of the War Machine suit re-christened “Iron Patriot.” (In the standard Marvel U, the Iron Patriot is an identity taken on by, I kid you not, Norman “Green Goblin” Osborne.)
Breaking away from the previous two films that pit Iron Man against other blokes in metal suits, the hero this time faces fiery exploding people, the results of Aldrich Killian’s Extremis experiments that were supposed to update the human brain, but instead turned folks into human bombs. Back in 1999, during a drunken New Year’s party, Tony Stark rejected a young Killian’s proposal to join his organization AIM, Advanced Idea Mechanics. It seems that years later a frustrated Killian sold out his explosive accident to the highest bidder: “The Mandarin,” an Usamah bin-Laden clone with an Asian-fetish who loves making video collages to threaten the U.S. president and who speaks like he’s auditioning for the part of Macbeth.
But this is a world where everything has gotten flipped around, and where Ben Kingsley gets to bite into a role much juicer than anybody expected from, well, what looks like an Usamah bin-Laden clone. The movie isn’t content with simply plastering down a criminal mastermind from the old Stan Lee playbook of the ‘60s, and Kingsley nails the fresh material given to him. I love every aspect of Sir Ben’s performance, and the knighted Oscar-winning actor must have loved each moment he got to launch into character.
In the rest of the acting department, I’d like to give a brief shout out to two actors who probably won’t receive much attention in the swirl of everything else around Iron Man 3. Jon Favreau does a great turn as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s former bodyguard and chauffeur, who now views himself a security guru. Freed from the responsibilities of the director’s chair, Favreau seems relaxed and having a great time; much like Paltrow as Pepper Potts, he pierces to the heart of Stark’s conflicts without pushing too hard. And then there’s Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, an employee of Killian’s and Stark’s one-night stand from New Year’s Day 1999. I’ve loved Hall as an actress since she appeared in The Prestige and outdid Scarlet Johansson, and I wanted even more from her here. I can’t have enough Rebecca Hall in any movie, and she needs a breakout starring role. Should we ever get a Tarzan film again, she should play Jane. You hear me, Hollywood? Yes, even over Jessica Chastain.
The Iron Man series has never excelled in the arena of action: the first film delivered about the right amount and then slowed down for an adequate finale; and the second film only had a good opening fight and then simply gave up, collapsing into a huge CGI mess at the end. Iron Man Three is an uptick, although the climax is a wash of colorful things blowing up at night around an oil platform, a background we’ve seen for plenty of action scenes going back to Diamonds Are Forever. It isn’t a disaster of a finale, however, because of how RDJ, Cheadle, and Paltrow work together, and the crazy investment Guy Pearce puts into his dramatics. It also gives future Blu-ray owners something to pause on as they try to identify the uses of Tony Stark’s wardrobe of battle suits. (“So, is that the anti-Thor armor?”)
The best action beat gives Iron Man his “Superman” moment, where heroism is not about slugging super-powered bad guys, but pulling off the rescue of innocents against ridiculous odds. You’ve seen hints of it in the trailers: an attack on Air Force One sends passengers hurtling into the air, and a faulty Mark 42 armor has to try to rescue them all. This is, bar none, the best “hero” moment for Iron Man in his three individual films. It boosts the movie with the energy of hope that otherwise might get lost in a tale about international terrorism and genetically engineered suicide bombers.
Tony Stark spends a great deal of time out of the suit in Iron Man 3, with the remote-control armors taking care of many major scenes. But the movie counters what might have been a dull move by keeping Stark in constant danger and needing to rely on out-of-suit heroics. When Tony Stark has to storm a compound outfitted only with what he could cobble together from Home Depot, he suddenly turns into a James Bond/Q combination and it’s a blast. Kicking butt in an invincible armor suit is one thing; taking down terrorists with a Supersoaker from Walmart is something else.
If there’s one fanboy complaint I can make, it’s this: why aren’t the employees of AIM wearing those fantastic Jack Kirby “beekeeper” outfits they always wore in the comics? And, if AIM is now out of the bag in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that means it’s… MODOK time!
Marvel Phase 2 has blasted off, and Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, cannot arrive fast enough.
Presentation Note: I watched the film in classic 2D, the hip new way to see movies. Post-conversion 3D is a plot devised by the Red Skull.
Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author who knows Godzilla personally. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his story “The Sorrowless Thief” appears in Black Gate online fiction. Both take place in his science fantasy world of Ahn-Tarqa. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, the prologue to the upcoming novel Turn Over the Moon, is currently available as an e-book. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.