Just a forewarning to anyone reading this: If you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet, then DON’T READ my review until you have ‘cause we are packin’ up and heading to spoiler territory. Basically, don’t read this and then whine about me spoiling the movie for you. You will not get any apologies from me.
So, Iron Man 3, the kick-off of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 2 (click here if you don’t know what the hell that means), finds our snarky hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) suffering from PTSD-like symptoms after the traumatic events of fighting off an alien invasion in The Avengers alongside Gods, Super Soldiers, Green Monsters, and Super Spies. Seems legit, right?
Stark is still kickin’ it with his main squeeze, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is living with him in his swanky cliffside Malibu mansion. Aside from his psychological issues, Stark seems to be living well and is obsessed with building Iron Man suits, which he constantly calls his “hobby.” Other familiar returning faces are Jon Favreau (director of the first two Iron Man films) as bodyguard Happy and Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine, a.k.a. Iron Patriot. It’s a good assembly of returning actors who have all done well in the franchise thus far.
Joining the cast are Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, leader of the villainous organization A.I.M. (disguised as a technology corporation), Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, inventor of a regenerating technology called Extremis (more on that later) and one-time fling of Stark’s. Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley plays the “Mandarin,” one of the primary rogues of Iron Man in the comics, who brings the biggest (and most controversial) surprise in the film. Rounding out the lot are James Badge Dale as a particularly menacing ex-Soldier and William Sadler as The President.
The biggest asset that Iron Man 3 had going for it is writer/director Shane Black, who was one of the highest paid screenwriters of his day (i.e. ‘80’s and ‘90’s), responsible for the action classics Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Black went into a self-imposed exile for almost a decade, re-emerging on the scene for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the 2005 detective thriller that served as a comeback vehicle not only for him, but also for the recovering Robert Downey Jr., who had fought (and seemingly beat) substance abuse problems that stunted his career for a long while.
Black’s signature style of intriguing characters, witty dialogue, and creative action make for a tremendous combination to introduce to a comic book franchise. So, when Black was announced as the man to helm the third entry of the franchise, my expectations lit up like a Christmas tree (Pun intended. But, only for people that would get the reference). I knew that having Black onboard would bring something truly original and fun, chock full of the kind of dialogue and smarts that make for the best action romps.
So, did he deliver here? Yes and no.
Here’s the problem that I didn’t think about when handing over a superhero franchise to someone like Shane Black. His originality (despite whatever stereotypes you want to write off with his work) is both a blessing and a curse. For Iron Man 3, Black dispenses all of his usual charms, but the issue is that he goes a little too far off the reservation for a franchise that has grown well beyond being a standalone film. For all its tremendous casting choices so far, Marvel was bound to take one on the chin as a result and I think Iron Man 3 is that punch. However, it’s merely a critical one, as the box office has already exploded with Iron Man money, more than enough to deflect any criticisms of the film.
So, what’s the problem? Well, for one, the story is kind of a mess. Derived from Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s Extremis story, the plot becomes a bit incoherent in terms of logically explaining the illogical. The power of science fiction (which is ultimately what superhero comics are) is that it blends the science with the fiction in a way that makes it believable within the context that it exists in. It doesn’t have to be believable in the sense that we must believe it could really happen, just that it can happen in the universe we’re watching.
The issue with taking bits and pieces of an existing story and tossing it into another is that you lose the full impact of what made that original story so special. That doesn’t mean you can’t make something successful anyway, but it’s never going to have the same impact (look to The Walking Dead for an example of this).
Extremis is a regeneration formula that gives regular people a heat-generating superpower allowing them to heal the most vicious wounds (think Wolverine on fire), originally crafted by Maya Hansen and then exploited and developed by Aldrich Killian, who begins building an army of Extremis Soldiers. For what? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but it has something to do with taking over the world (The original comic goes much deeper into this, tying terrorism deeply into the story and giving a true motive to the villain, even if it’s born of extremism).
So, if Killian is doing all this, then what’s the deal with The Mandarin?
Well, this is where the formula runs into trouble. In all the trailers and ads The Mandarin has been seen as a dark and sinister villain, building on the “Ten Rings” organization we’ve seen since the first film. For comic fans especially, it’s been a source of great anticipation. Finally seeing Iron Man’s greatest villain in the flesh was to be a huge treat. But, alas, the good idea fairy struck the Marvel U and one of the biggest cases of cinematic cock block emerged.
Turns out The Mandarin is a patsy. Or at least, the Ben Kingsley one is. In a pivotal, game-changing scene, Stark tracks down and confronts “The Mandarin” only to find out he’s nothing more than a drunken stage actor working for Aldrich Killian. Why the deception? Well, because deception, duh. Apparently, Killian’s goal was to create a terrorist persona (a la Osama Bin Laden) that would create a diversion for world authorities to focus on, while he built his Extremis army. Also, the temperamental Extremis serum can explode its users spontaneously, which allowed for The Mandarin to make a quick video and claim responsibility, when it’s really just a smokescreen for an “oopsie” explosion. Sound confusing? Well, it unnecessarily is.
Now, the use of Kingsley as a patsy Mandarin isn’t a complete farce, as in the end it’s revealed that Killian is the actual Mandarin, but the only thing he has to show for it is some dragon tattoos on his body and a claim that “I am The Mandarin.” No magical ten rings, no Asian heritage, and a character mash-up we’ve yet to see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Essentially, what this twist serves is to show that for all its integrity thus far, the folks at Marvel aren’t devoid of sacrificing it. Making Killian into the Mandarin is the kind of switcheroo that comic fans hate. However, it’s a switch that doesn’t mean jack shit to your average moviegoer. They have no clue who the real Mandarin is, nor do they care. So, ultimately, the tables have been turned on the comic fans with this one. It’s a nanny-nanny-boo-boo moment that Marvel got away with and the uber fans will just have to live with, even if they light up the message boards with hate-filled venom.
Now, does this kill the entire movie? Absolutely not. Where the film fails is through pacing and a few creative choices, but it succeeds greatly everywhere else. Downey Jr. has another magnificent turn in his career-defining role of Tony Stark and he plays the character with a deft touch, made even more enjoyable with another team up with Black. It’s my hope they’ll work together again on a different project, as it’s a match that works well. Paltrow is much less whiny here (and seen a lot less, surprisingly), Pearce is menacing and strong, but not given anywhere near enough back story to make him a classic villain. Kingsley is pretty damn funny, which isn’t what most people expected to think about the “Mandarin,” but there it is.
One of the things I liked about Iron Man 3 that stood out was the villain’s. Down to the henchmen they’re way more fun and lively than your standard fare cardboard cutouts. Case in point, James Badge Dale, who plays the lead henchman for Killian, is evil enough that I actually hated him and wanted to see him get his due. It’s rare that I feel that about a bad guy in a film anymore, but Dale is such a mean asshole that I couldn’t wait to see his demise. That’s Black at work there, as he’s always been able to flesh out his henchmen (see Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua in Lethal Weapon or Taylor Negron’s Milo in The Last Boy Scout) and I was happy to have that anticipation.
There are three standout action scenes in the film. The attack on Stark’s mansion, which is executed with destructive style, the Air Force One mid-air rescue, which is both rousing and tense, culminating in a perfectly executed sequence that deserved an ovation, and the high-flying finale that finds an army of Iron Man suits vs. an army of Extremis soldiers. The finale is the most satisfying, as it really makes ample use of Stark’s many, many cleverly-designed suits. The fight sequences are so much more inventive and fun than any from the previous Iron Man films (and those are still good, mind you). Watching Stark jump from suit to suit while fighting off Extremis soldiers is a blast to watch and brings the full power of Stark’s genius into play. All his time in the garage paid off and so, too, does the final battle.
One of my primary complaints of the first two Iron Man films was that the finale’s never quite reached a level of satisfaction befitting of the journey. They either ended too soon or simply never got to a place that equaled a payoff. Black seemed to recognize this and gave an epic, creatively orchestrated sequence that left me perfectly satiated. In addition, we see Pepper get in on the action a bit, as she is kidnapped earlier in the film, injected with Extremis, and unleashed in the end, giving her quite a bit more to do than be a damsel in distress.
There’s a lot of rumbling about the ending, which finds Stark blowing up all his suits (a “clean slate” he calls it) and having a surgery that removes the shrapnel that caused him to create his iconic chest arc reactor in the first place, which he tosses off the cliff of his destroyed mansion. He also solves the issue of Pepper being injected with Extremis with voice over, which was a weak cop out in my opinion, but it didn’t wreck the movie. Leaving the serum inside her would’ve made for an interesting development for her character to be sure (in the comics she has her own suit called “Rescue”).
Stark drives off into the proverbial sunset, sans armor and arc reactor, with an open road ahead of him. He leaves us with the words, just as he did in the first film, that he “IS Iron Man.”
Now, for some reason this bothered a lot of folks. I can see how losing the arc reactor may be an issue, but this kind of stuff happens all the time in the comics. And, furthermore, Stark restating that he IS Iron Man isn’t just a simple statement, it’s a development. It’s the completion of an arc (pun intended again); Stark has finally realized that he’s not Iron Man because he wears the suit. He’s Iron Man because he made it. He has come to grips that the suit (and the arc reactor itself) weren’t what defined him and he didn’t need the shrapnel to remind him of who he was. It was he himself that defined the suit. The open road at the end leaves a wide path to take Stark forward in a new direction, rather than leaving him stuck in the same gear.
Director Joss Whedon will have a lot of fun (re)building Iron Man for The Avengers 2 (due May 1, 2015) and I’m excited to see how he deals with Stark’s new stance. It creates a wonderful opportunity to carry the character forward, rather than simply having him show up to do his thing and move out. As for the completion of the saga, instead of folks being so concerned with whether or not Robert Downey Jr. will portray Stark in proceeding films (he’s expected for The Avengers 2, but nothing beyond that…yet), I think they need to enjoy what he’s already given. As the rock of the franchise he’s left four consistently great performances in his wake. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for the ambassador of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will continue to grow with or without him. Whether he sticks around or not, Downey Jr. has sealed a tremendous legacy with Iron Man 3 (and potentially beyond it) that is befitting of his legacy with the character.