Depending on your attachment to the comic book source material and other such Iron Man media, you may find the changed gears of this threequel (no doubt a big result of the director switch from Jon Favreau, merely reprising his role as Happy Hogan and executive-producing this time, to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black), to be either refreshing, or frustrating. What’s objectively true is that this is a witty, inspired and ballsy big screen follow-up that brings back the hallmarks of the Iron Man movie franchise, being a noticeable improvement over 2010’s more uneven Iron Man 2. A word of warning to Marvel Comics fanboys and fangirls though; The playful and daring tweaking of the source material in this movie creates drastic new twists and character directions with established personalities from the comics, which may be genuinely rage-inducing for Iron Man purists. The movie is still great, but you’ll have to swallow a few controversial developments in the script to recognize that.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the Armoured Avenger, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, this time suffering from post-traumatic stress following the events of 2012’s revolutionary and universally adored crossover movie, The Avengers. His company CEO and girlfriend, Virgina ‘Pepper’ Potts (once again played by Gwyneth Paltrow) has since moved in to Stark’s California estate, which has created tension on account of Tony’s insomnia and incessant overdone attention to building new Iron Man suits. Meanwhile, Tony’s best friend, Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (again played by Don Cheadle) has become a symbol of the American government with an increasingly more widespread patriotic following than Tony, with his War Machine moniker being changed to the friendlier ‘Iron Patriot’, and his armour being re-painted red, white and blue as a result. The combination of all of these things has started to create anxiety problems for Tony, complete with suffering attacks and generally being a recluse. This leaves him open to being put to the test like never before, when a ruthless international terrorist, The Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley), leader of the terrorist cell, The Ten Rings, who kidnapped Tony and inadvertently led to his Iron Man transformation in the first movie, comes knocking at Tony’s front door.
As you can see, this third movie is left to try and keep a lot of balls in the air, particularly with regards to how much The Avengers has widened the scope of the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe that the Iron Man movies are a part of. The big New York battle against The Chitauri at the climax of The Avengers, as well as the presence of some of the other Marvel cinematic heroes like Thor, are referenced in passing, though none of the other Avengers, or even S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury, ever actually appear on screen. This is welcome, because it allows Iron Man 3 to avoid the issues of its 2010 predecessor, which was largely burdened by having to lay most of the foundation for The Avengers. Instead, the movie wisely keeps the focus squarely on Tony Stark, and how the events of The Avengers have affected both himself, and those in his life.
In fact, as much as Iron Man 3 is indeed a story centered squarely on Iron Man himself, it’s also a big chance to shine for some of the supporting characters, most notably love interest, Pepper Potts. Pepper actually gets to be in the Iron Man suit during one sequence (a nod to her current superheroine identity of Rescue in the Marvel funny pages), and even participates in the climactic action scene, to a much greater extent than she did in the first movie! Rhodey is sidelined much more until the second half, which will likely disappoint War Machine fans, even if Shane Black’s screenwriting experience with Lethal Weapon is well-served here, creating a more effective climactic team-up for he and Tony than was present in Iron Man 2. There’s also a new child sidekick character introduced for the middle portion of the movie, who surprisingly ends up stealing the show in many respects, particularly with how effectively the child actor plays off of Robert Downey Jr. Lots of clever and daring things are done with the heroes in the movie, making Iron Man 3 constantly feel like a strong vision, and that gives the movie a lot of weight and power, sometimes moreso than the first two movies managed.
Where audiences will be more divided is with the villains, particularly avid Marvel enthusiasts. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin creates a portrayal that is probably the best possible portrayal that anyone could ask for with such a ridiculous, dated character. The Mandarin is an impressive foe in the comics, but, being a Chinese megalomaniac with ten alien rings that have magic elemental-manipulating powers, he wouldn’t really work on the big screen as he is in the comics, and that’s before you recall that he began as a gigantic Cold War-era metaphor for Communism! The movie does something very clever with The Mandarin, at least, when taken on its own merits, which is a very strong commentary on the power of the media in our modern world, which unbiased movie buffs will love. On the other hand however, Marvel purists may get very angry when they see the direction that this character eventually takes, especially if they’re attached to the comic book version of him. For what it’s worth however, Ben Kingsley plays the part extremely well, even if those waiting three movies to finally see The Mandarin on the big screen probably won’t get quite what they were expecting here.
One thing that Marvel enthusiasts may be more excited about is that Iron Man 3 takes very heavy inspiration from the ‘Extremis’ story arc of the comics. For those unaware, this was a story that blended the comics’ Iron Man technology with nanotechnology, essentially allowing Tony to spawn a suit from his bone marrow. The movie doesn’t run quite that far with the Extremis story, but it still takes the opportunity to be more fantastical than Jon Favreau’s prior two movies. This was also likely the largest reason for Favreau’s departure from the director’s chair, since he went on record during the Iron Man 2 press rounds to claim that he is avidly against doing a movie based on Extremis, believing that it’s too ridiculous. To a degree, he is right, though given that Norse gods and aliens have now made their way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point, it’s easier to give the Extremis elements some leeway.
This is also the movie’s excuse to introduce Advanced Idea Mechanics, a.k.a. A.I.M. for short, a prevalent terrorist organization in the Marvel comics. In Iron Man 3, it’s re-imagined as a scientific organization headed by Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce), and also employs a pivotal Extremis arc character, Maya Hansen (played by Rebecca Hall). Other bit Marvel characters show up as A.I.M. agents powered by the Extremis technology too, which has been re-imagined as a defective cell repair product (because it worked out so well when Curt Connors tried it in last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man), one that gives its hosts the ability to generate intense heat, when it doesn’t blow them up in a violent molecular explosion of light and flames anyway. How the movie ties all of this Extremis business in with The Mandarin is actually extremely clever, and more importantly, it gives Tony a very different threat to battle against in a solo film, beyond just another disgruntled asshole in a suit. Yes, it butchers the source material, but at least it offers something equally appealing in exchange.
Of course, one can’t talk about the finer workings of an Iron Man movie without touching on the special effects. Despite this only being Shane Black’s second directing credit after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he does a remarkable job with the movie’s big effects-driven sequences. The climax, which incorporates an entire legion of Iron Man suits as teased in the previews, is actually spectacular, perhaps being the best in the Iron Man movies to date! The Mandarin’s initial attack on Tony’s estate is also extremely well-done, both exciting and destructive! Even the Extremis effects can often feel very chilling and surprisingly believable, even if they are undeniably less realistic than the technology of the prior two movies, and are sometimes intentionally played for ridiculous giggles, as is Tony’s new technology that allows him to just summon chunks of his suit from a distance. On that note, the effects-driven humour is actually outstanding, as is the very witty dialogue, and you can tell that Black, who also co-wrote the movie’s script, is really having fun putting his own unique stamp on the Iron Man movies!
Even with all of its high points however, Iron Man 3 is certainly not without some flaws, beyond some of the controversial character changes that will no doubt anger Marvel purists. It is disappointing to see characters like Rhodey and Pepper so frequently sidelined beyond pivotal sequences, and some may feel let down that Tony actually spends very little time in his Iron Man armour. Even outside of his armour for most of the movie, Tony remains a lot of fun to see in action, but it’s also difficult to argue that the script is reaching for several plot elements. Tony is supposed to be a brilliant man, but even with his arrogance to consider, some of the actions he does to incite the plot and provoke the villains in Iron Man 3 are absolutely idiotic! It’s also somewhat annoying to see that any lessons he may have learned in his previous solo movies and The Avengers also appear to have been swept under the rug in Iron Man 3. The character is just back to being a selfish prick, albeit one with understandable stress and anxiety problems after his battle with The Chitauri in The Avengers, and he comes dangerously close to being genuinely unlikeable in several scenes. It’s understandable that we enjoy Robert Downey Jr.’s performance simply because he’s so good at making Tony a selfish prick, but Iron Man 3 sometimes runs too far with it, and just makes it annoying as a result.
Another big downside to Iron Man 3 is the 3D, which is actually rather weak. It doesn’t really ruin the movie or become distracting, but nothing interesting is done with it either. It just kind of hangs there. Some of the action scenes do get a bit of a boost from the 3D job, but it’s definitely a noticeable step down from the surprisingly impressive post-3D conversion that was on display in The Avengers. Like The Avengers, Iron Man 3 was converted to 3D in post-production and not shot in 3D to begin with, but it seems like the movie just wasn’t shot to accommodate a 3D presentation at all. Again, you won’t exactly feel cheated if you’re a real fan of 3D, but if you don’t really care for 3D movies, you don’t really lose anything by just watching Iron Man 3 in 2D either.
All in all, some elements of Marvel’s latest cinematic blockbuster may be controversial and divisive, especially for conservative fans of Marvel comics, but the movie still represents a very strong start to Marvel Studios’ ‘Phase 2’ of movies. It’s definitely a better movie than the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 2, though whether it manages to surpass the excellent first Iron Man movie is debatable. At the very least however, it’s equally comparable. The change in directors has given the Iron Man movies a fresh new flavour, and the result is a daring and highly witty sequel that feels both smartly-executed and confidently-conceived. Despite the dark and distressing nature of the trailer sequences, the movie is much funnier and more light-hearted than you would imagine, and even if there’s a lot of smart commentary in the script, Iron Man 3 still functions very well as an entertaining superhero popcorn flick. It even packs in a very amusing scene after the credits (be sure to stay for it after the conclusion!), which may not tease any future Marvel movies, but will definitely get quite a few chuckles as a payoff of a potentially annoying monologue device that Shane Black saw fit to layer the movie with.
Said credit crawl also comes with the notification, ‘Tony Stark will return’. Good. His movies continue to entertain!