People are going to poke and prod at the good and bad of IRON MAN 3, the first post-AVENGERS work from Marvel Studios and the first of a new group of films from the comic book company that makes up what they're calling "Phase Two," which presumably ends with AVENGERS 2. But what ultimately makes this fourth appearance of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) so satisfying is deceptively simple. It's not the more satisfying humor, action, plot, characters or direction (courtesy of co-writer Shane Black); it's that this is the first of this latest round of Marvel movies (aka Phase One) that doesn't feel like it's leading up to something.
Sure, technically it is leading to another Avengers movie, I guess. But it doesn't feel like simply a prologue. Hell, even the post-credits tag is more of a pure comedy piece than a transition to another film that in turn would eventually take us to Joss Whedon's next film. IRON MAN 3 is its own, beautifully self-contained story. If anything, the filmmakers have opted to make this a film that arises out of and deals with history, rather than leading us into the future to a movie we won't see for two years. Here, Stark is dealing with the very real emotional and psychological repercussions of nearly dying in a worm hole into another universe and then hurtling down to earth (barely saved by the Hulk, if memory serves). He's also come to realize that he's deathly afraid of his lady love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), becoming a target because of the world knowing his identity.
When we're re-introduced to Stark, he's withdrawn into the world of tinkering, creating upwards of 40-some varieties of his Iron Man suit and leaving the global crime fighting to his pal Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) under the armored guise of the Iron Patriot (the renamed War Machine). Potts is busy running Stark Industries, with overprotective chief of security Happy Hogan (previous franchise director Jon Favreau) by her side.
As is established in a Switzerland-set prologue, Stark had a brief dalliance with a lovely scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who was experimenting with finding a way to tap into the regenerative capacity of DNA so that one day maybe a particular formula (called Extremis) could be made to help humans re-grow body parts. But her formula was wildly unstable and usually resulted in small-scale explosions. At the same Swiss convention, Stark and Hansen meet the overly nerdy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has established a scientific think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics (or AIM) and wants Tony to join. Stark blows him off, but years later Killian shows up at Stark Industries looking for Potts to propose having her company join forces with AIM on continuing to find a more stable version of Extremis; she doesn't like the weaponized possibilities of the program and takes a pass.
At the same time, a new and clearly insane terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has embarked on a series of seemingly random bombings in the United States, which are almost impossible to investigate since no bomb fragments have ever been found. And the latest attack in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood results in Happy getting badly injured and put in a coma. Enraged, Stark threatens to kill The Mandarin, and as a result his seaside mansion is blown to pieces and he is almost killed.
What happens next in IRON MAN 3 has largely been kept from trailers and commercials (with the exception of the multi-IRON-MAN -suit finale). His suit badly damaged, Stark is flown by his faithful computerized companion/operating system Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) to Tennessee to investigate the history and source of these explosions. With the suit in dire need of repair and recharging, a huge chunk of the middle of this movie features Stark out of costume but still fighting crime and doing a bit of detective work with the help of Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), a local kid who isn't shy about asking Tony about New York and the Avengers and falling out of a worm hole in space—all of the things that send Stark into the fetal position as he has a severe panic attack.
It's fascinating to watch Black and Downey find a way to expose and exploit Stark's weakness (other than all of that shrapnel in his chest), after three films where he basically runs around as cocky and invincible as one can be. I'll admit, when I saw a kid come into the story, my heart sank. His very presence in this film could have gone all kinds of wrong, but Simpkins carries it through beautifully, and the exchanges between him and Downey are funny and touching at times.
I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that Pearce's Killian isn't the nicest of guys after all, and he's managed to find a way to turn Hansen's healing formula into something ugly and dangerous. Pearce's good looks, wit and big dreams of domination perhaps make him more suited to be a villain in a James Bond (or Austin Powers) movie than a comic book bad guy, but when he gets particularly nasty in the final act, it all kind of makes sense. And how does this rejiggered Mandarin work out? Pretty damn well thanks to a balls-out barmy performance by Kingsley.
In other hands, this particular favorite among Iron Man comic book readers over the years might have gone very wrong (and I have no interest in saying exactly where things do go for this character), but Kingsley takes the character and eats him alive to embody a particular type of crazy. And if you don't dig the direction that Black and co-writer Drew Pearce take the Mandarin character, I may have to put a dunce cap on your head.
Just from a geeky standpoint, I love how Black and Co. used the suits here—sometimes as armor with a human inside; sometimes as a robot run remotely; hell, sometimes the individual pieces of the armor operating as self-contained flying weapons. I sat amazed, watching the armors open at the front or back so Stark could simply jump into them in mid-air (with varying degrees of success). The flexibility in how Stark's technology could be operated and controlled has grown by leaps and bounds even since AVENGERS, and I'm guessing that won't stop.
Of course, there's a huge, lengthy battle on top of an oil tanker that pits the forces of evil against the armored suits of good to close out the festivities. But by then, the surprises and other great moments of the movie have already happened. The filmmakers have done something almost unheard of here: they've saved their deepest exploration of what makes their main character tick for the third installment of his solo adventures. IRON MAN 3 is easily the most satisfying of the three in this series, and that's taking nothing away from the first film especially, which had the unenviable task of setting up all that came after it across many other Marvel films.
I actually saw IRON MAN 3 two days in a row, and not surprisingly, the second time I noticed so many little things that escaped me with my first viewing. But the things that impressed me both times was how Downey refuses to just skate through these movies and pick up a paycheck. The man is clearly invested in the emotional content of Tony Stark, and with every scene, he gives us a little more depth and insight into what makes him tick (besides an Arc Reactor). We're told in a Stark voiceover at the film's beginning that Tony no longer drinks or womanizes, but that doesn't mean he's got it all together. By the end of IRON MAN 3, we feel confident he's a better man with a stronger grip on life and how to live it. Enjoy the ride, folks. In fact, enjoy it several times.