The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 2 begins.
IRON MAN 3, Shane Black’s directorial contribution to the franchise, is full of Black’s irreverent humor, and while Black and Drew Pearce can write characters and quips and action sequences that will thrill and entertain all but the most jaded of audiences, there are moments in the film that don’t feel like IRON MAN at all. They feel, awesomely, like LETHAL WEAPON. Black was always one of the best script writers from the 1980s era of action filmmaking, and he’s transported that ability to superhero films in a way that fits.
It makes sense for someone like Shane Black to be involved in this. Movies like LETHAL WEAPON, and DIE HARD, and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, were our action movie bread and butter in the 1980s, and now that superhero movies have replaced them, it seems appropriate for Shane Black to be here. IRON MAN 3 may be the funniest Marvel movie yet, with Robert Downey Jr. delivering the dialogue much like he did in Black’s KISS KISS BANG BANG, and yet much more focused than the meandering IRON MAN 2.
He’s our guide to this story, in voiceover telling us about a prophetic night in 1999 in Bern, Switzerland and how a younger Yinsen (Shaun Toub) introduces Tony Stark to two other scientists. One, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), long-haired and awkward, has an idea to bring scientists together for a consortium of knowledge, and the other, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) is a botanist trying to crack DNA coding. To Stark, this meeting is soon drunkenly forgotten, but it’s this casual event that sets up the story of the film – an experimental procedure called Extremis which may be a rival to Stark’s work with his armor and arc reactor energy.
After what has happened in New York, Tony is now suffering from stress attacks. He can barely sleep, and when he doesn’t sleep he designs more and more Iron Man suits (he’s up to 42). He can’t process what has happened to him, and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) are concerned for his welfare. So is James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), but he’s too busy trying to protect the United States as Iron Patriot (a name change that Stark deems “less cool”). The country can use a bit of protecting these days, because it’s suffering from terrorist attacks by a mysterious figure known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). There have been explosions across the country, devastating ones that have killed many people.
During one particular attack, Happy is put into a coma, and Stark, full of his usual bluster, dares the Mandarin to attack him personally. So the Mandarin does, in spectacular fashion, destroying Stark’s Malibu home and putting him on the run. This sequence is one of the richest action scenes in the film, directed with intensity and thrills. Stark, now stuck in rural America without a working suit or his usual excesses, must try to figure out who the Mandarin is, before the President (William Sadler) himself is killed. In doing so, Stark befriends a young kid (Ty Simpkins) and this relationship is done in a way that isn’t full of treacle and yet hits all the right emotions.
Meanwhile, Killian and his new company AIM seem to be behind some nefarious doings of their own and Eric (James Badge Dale) with his goon squad is tracking down Stark to stop him from trying to find out AIM’s secrets. How AIM and the Mandarin are linked should best be discovered in the theater, but I will say this: I’m very happy with this particular marketing campaign. Marvel’s saved some great surprises for the fans, and the Mandarin is one of the most unexpected villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Purists may rage, but I think the Mandarin and Ben Kingsley’s performance in particular are high points for the Marvel films we’ve gotten thus far.
IRON MAN 3 can’t avoid some trip-ups. Plot motivations get a bit muddled in the second act, especially when it comes to the final schemes of the villain. In trying to make sense of it, the movie falls short, and while I’ll be seeing IRON MAN 3 again, it will be for the terrific dialogue and characterizations, not the plot. The machinations of AIM and of Killian don’t make much sense, frankly, and there will be a few filmgoers who won’t be able to get past that. But to be fair, they make as much sense as the plot in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. It’s the sheer will of the filmmakers and the charm of the performances that get us to swallow some pretty big chunks of nonsense.
Downey continues to impress in this role. Indeed, he is Iron Man, and Marvel would be wise to pay the man what he wants (at least for two more films, and AVENGERS 2). I like Stark’s reticence to jump into the fray this time – he’s seen some crazy things in New York, and they’ve shaken him to his core. All the cocky bravura is put to the side when you’re dealing with an alien invasion, and I really loved how the events in THE AVENGERS cast a shadow over everything in this movie. This is a world that has changed, and sine we’re seeing that change through Stark’s eyes it’s a great way to introduce the larger concepts that Marvel will have in store for us later on.
IRON MAN 3 is also a movie about a broken man trying to put himself together again, and Downey has always been masterful at playing roles like that. Shane Black is no stranger to characters like that either. It’s during the third act, when Rhodes and Stark team up to take down the bad guysat an oil loading dock, that I was so reminded of other Black movies like LETHAL WEAPON, or THE LAST BOY SCOUT or even KISS KISS BANG BANG, and the camaraderie between the two leads. There are several amazing action sequences in the film – the attack on the mansion, a scene where Iron Man must rescue innocent people falling from Air Force One, and the final half-hour. The 3D was more of a distraction than anything else, so I’ll be seeing this again in 2D, but Black’s trademark ramping up of the tension and his ear for great funny dialogue make this a movie worth returning to.
Gwyneth Paltrow does terrific work as well; this time she takes a more active role in things, even though sadly there are moments of damsel-in-distress for her character. I loved Guy Pearce as well – sleazy, intelligent, and devious, his Killian is a lot of fun to watch and his rivalry with Stark gives us some great moments between the two actors. Cheadle deserves an IRON PATRIOT movie at this point, I think. He’s having too much fun playing Rhodes and it’s contagious. I want to see more of that character, and I think he deserves the spotlight for once, given the right screenplay and director. Finally, Brian Tyler at last gives IRON MAN 3 the score that these films so deserve, giving Iron Man a rousing theme that fans have been waiting to hear. It's one of the finer scores in the Marvel films' catalog.
If I were to rank these, the first IRON MAN would still be my favorite of the three, but IRON MAN 3 is a close second. It’s an unexpected sequel, one that isn’t afraid to change things up when it needs to keep it fresh. Some of the plot falls apart a bit when you examine it too closely, but so what – IRON MAN 3 delivers on all the fun as the original does. Marvel, like last time, is carefully building up to something amazing in AVENGERS 2 and IRON MAN 3 is a kickass start to Phase 2 and to the summer.