So, how do you follow The Avengers, when you only get to do so using 1/6 of the team?
The answer is very simple in theory, though harder to execute in principle: just get out there and make a good movie. And Iron Man 3‘s not just a good movie; time will tell, but right now I suspect it will eventually be considered the best Iron Man movie. Not because it’s the darkest – though it is; unless you count every offscreen World War II death in Captain America, I believe this has the highest body count of any Marvel Studios film, and most are by gunshot. No, it’s the best because they seem to have learned from giving Joss Whedon Avengers, and possibly from seeing Sam Mendes put his stamp on James Bond as well – getting a distinctive director and letting him do his thing is a plus, not a minus.
I had some concerns that Shane Black was going to be on a tight leash on this one – at the press day, no one-on-one interviews with him were permitted, just two-on-ones with Marvel’s Kevin Feige in the room, which is an unusual arrangement for director interviews. But aside from Disney apparently putting the kibosh on any scenes of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., like you didn’t know) being drunk, it doesn’t seem like too much creativity was stifled: this feels like a Shane Black movie, albeit obviously a PG-13 one. It also feels like an Iron Man movie, complete in itself and a completion of the character’s arc; even the now-obligatory post-credits scene is a throwaway joke rather than a blatant lead-in to the next episode. The movie’s already huge internationally, and Marvel will want Downey back, but if they had to, they could leave the character here without leaving anybody too dissatisfied (though a Bond-like tag at the end of the credits simply says, “Tony Stark will return). After all the blatant sequel set-up considerations that killed part 2 for a lot of people (I still liked it, but it does not work as a standalone), this should come as a pleasant surprise.
Black, best known for writing humor-laced action flicks like Lethal Weapon, and directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has a smartass streak that’s perfect for writing Downey/Stark dialogue, and an affinity for depressed heroes with demons who can nonetheless be both funny and kickass when they need to be. Here, he gradually strips away every advantage Tony Stark has – the mansion, Jarvis, the suit, the devotion of Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and even the self-confidence: he suffers from panic attacks triggered every time adoring fanboy kids come up to him and ask about the Avengers. Yes, flying a suicide mission into space with a nuclear weapon, then miraculously surviving and crashing to the ground would give a real-life hero PTSD, but that’s not something you normally see action heroes onscreen worrying about. So it’s a nice touch, and maybe even a convenient teachable moment for the young children of our newest military veterans.
So while Tony is losing all his tools and having to survive on brains and some surprisingly good fighting skills we never really knew he had (and how did he get those, anyway – private ninjitsu lessons at SHIELD HQ?), a terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) emerges, periodically hacking into live TV broadcasts to claim responsibility for random bombings. With iconography that’s a hodge-podge of various real-life anti-American villains from Castro to Bin Laden, and an unclear accent that just sounds like fake-American (he is not a “turrrrerist,” he says, he is a “teeachurrrr”), this is quite a different Mandarin than the one in the comics, which may bother purists. But once his arc is fully played out, it should satisfy fans of superhero movies, who have never seen a comic-book arch-foe quite like this. There are very, VERY subtle hints that he may be connected to the terrorists who capture Tony in the first film (Yinsen makes a cameo in an early scene set in 1999), but no explicit references are made to that. To say more would be spoiling. [If you WANT to be spoiled, Wikipedia has the complete plot synopsis. I suggest not going there.]
Don’t you mean ARE no such THINGS, Sir Ben?
Aside from Mandarin, the movie is basically the Extremis arc from the comics, involving a regenerative nano-whatsit that can help people regrow severed limbs and give them the ability to spew fire and melt things. On the downside, like the blipverts in Max Headroom, it occasionally causes unlucky recipients to simply blow up. Meanwhile, War Machine (Don Cheadle) has randomly been given a patriotic paintjob and renamed Iron Patriot, I guess because having a superhero around named Captain America just wasn’t sufficient. Further proving this is the Marvel universe and not ours, William Sadler is the president, with Miguel Ferrer as his veep.
Perhaps to mitigate all the terrorism, PTSD, shooting and self-doubt, we get Insidious‘ Ty Simpkins as a ten year-old who befriends Tony in rural Tennessee (don’t ask – it makes sense in context). While this sounds on paper like a blatant studio mandate to keep the whole enterprise kid-friendly, it works onscreen in large part because Simpkins doesn’t shy away from playing certain traits annoying rather than cute, and Downey maintains his sarcastic edge, stopping just short of being truly mean to the tyke.
In other significant roles, Guy Pearce is adequate if not exceptional as Stark rival Aldrich Killian, though he’s hilarious in an acne-riddled flashback sequence. Rebecca Hall as Tony’s former one-night stand Maya Hansen gives a far more interesting performance as the conflicted creator of Extremis, but it’s also Gwyneth Paltrow’s time to shine, as she actually gets to take part in the action this time from more than just the boardroom and the bedroom.
Without giving away too much for those who don’t know the Extremis storyline, the movie is ultimately not as much about real-world events as it may seem at first; one could argue it’s at least as much about selling toys, if not for the disappointing fact that very few of the tie-in toys are anywhere near as cool-looking as the multiple armors which eventually come into play in the film. And speaking of toys, yes, the story is set at Christmas, a Shane Black hallmark as well as a cheap shortcut to contrast happy surroundings with inner turmoil. Fear not, though: at heart, this is all about having fun, and that is delivered in spades – you’ve seen bits of the air rescue scene in the Superbowl ad, and there’s a spectacular stunt involving Cheadle near the end that uses the increased depth of 3D to phenomenal effect (you’ll know it when you see it).
It’s only May – or will be by the time you see it – but cinema Santa came early. Joy to the nerds – this movie is as good as its photoshopped posters were amateurish.