People always say, “Third time’s the charm.” However, that rule doesn’t always apply to comic book movies. If a franchise is lucky enough to make it to a third outing, the filmmakers have forgotten what made the series successful in the first place. Superman 3, Spider-Man 3, and X-Men: The Last Stand are glaring examples while Batman Forever was the start of Batman’s descent into campy nipple-dom. Christopher Nolan broke from the trend with The Dark Knight Rises and Marvel does the same with Iron Man 3.
Iron Man 3 opens in 1999 where the old, arrogant playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) attends a conference in Switzerland. He parties with a pretty geneticist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and ignores Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a nerdy and lame-legged scientist. In present time, Stark should be standing on cloud nine. He helped fight off an alien invasion and he’s now living together with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in his cliff side Malibu mansion. Instead, Stark is suffering from insomnia and a newfound sense of inadequacy following the events of The Avengers. Next to the enormous green rage monster and the god of thunder, he’s just a “man in a can.” He suffers from anxiety attacks and takes refuge inside his Iron Man armor, which has become his high-tech security blanket. He spends sleepless nights tinkering in his workshop and building dozens of suits designed to deal with every danger he could possibly imagine. Danger comes with a savagery Stark hasn’t dealt with before as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), leader of the terrorist group, The Ten Rings, steps up his attacks on America. Meanwhile, Killian has remade himself as a suave, Richard Branson-looking entrepreneur. His think tank, A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics), has developed a super-soldier serum dubbed Extremis, which turns human beings into living bombs. When one of them goes off in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Stark brazenly issues a challenge to the Mandarin on live television. The bad guys respond by reducing his house to rubble and forces Stark to rely on more than just his suits.
Jon Favreau, who directed the previous Iron Man movies, returns as a producer and in the supporting role of bodyguard Happy Hogan. Favreau has passed the torch onto Shane Black whose career trajectory mirrors the troubles of Robert Downey Jr. and his onscreen alter ego. Black became one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood off the back of his debut scriptLethal Weapon. However, he became persona non grata after costly failures like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Black reappeared with his directorial debut, the neo-noir comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring Downey. Their relationship would lead to Black serving as an unofficial consultant on Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Both Favreau and Downey credit Black with paralleling Tony Stark’s moral quandaries with those of Robert Oppenheimer. Though Iron Man 3is far and away Black’s most daunting production yet, Marvel Studios has become enough of an efficient factory that it almost doesn’t matter who is at the helm as long as they are halfway competent. The look and feel of Iron Man 3 fits right into the merry Marvel method of movie making. It’s slick without being overly stylish in a Michael Bay or Guy Ritchie sort of way. Iron Man 3 is more action packed than either of its predecessors. There’s a thrilling sequence where Iron Man forms a human chain to rescue passengers sucked out of Air Force One. The climax features dozens of armored suits (including one of my favorites, the Silver Centurion) battling an army of Extremis powered soldiers on an offshore oil rig, a classic supervillain hideout. Stark’s latest iteration, the Mark 42, can be remote controlled and donned in creative fashion.
The screenplay by Black and Drew Pearce consists of several Black trademarks such as the Christmas setting and a voiceover narration by Downey that stops and rewinds ala Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black’s flair for witty banter is paired perfectly with Downey’s penchant for off-the-cuff one-liners. Iron Man 2 was criticized for its preoccupation with building towards Avengers rather than telling a standalone story. That’s been corrected here with a more focused sequel with only passing references to Thor and SHIELD. Everyone involved made a concerted effort to metaphorically return Tony Stark to the cave from the first film. Stark crash lands in rural Tennessee where he uses the tools at hand inside a ramshackle garage and befriends a doe-eyed, precocious boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). This section of the film could have easily veered into mawkish Spielbergian territory, but the sentimentality is constantly undercut by Downey’s irreverence. The script brings up the notion that we as individuals and as a nation have created our own enemies, but never digs deeper than surface level. Don Cheadle’s Rhodey (remade as the Iron Patriot) is sidelined for most of the movie and Rebecca Hall is wasted a bit in the underwritten role of Maya Hansen. On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow gets the chance to become more than just Stark’s sounding board. Pepper Potts is thrown into the action frequently and even puts on the armor for a brief moment. Yes, she plays the damsel in distress, but she also gets to do some saving of her own.
Perhaps, the most intriguing character in the threequel is Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, the Mandarin. A yellow peril villain in the vein of Fu Manchu, Mandarin has been updated and re-imagined as an uber-terrorist appropriating an iconography of infamy. He’s Castro, bin Laden, Qaddafi, Genghis Khan, and Colonel Kurtz all rolled into one. Sir Ben Kingsley portrays the Mandarin in unique fashion with a booming and authoritarian staccato; all accentuated by ominously constructed video threats. However, a twist to the character will have comic book fans launching into conniption fits.
Iron Man 3 not only kicks off the summer blockbuster season, it’s the beginning of Marvel Studios’ Phase 2 and the course will be exciting judging by the early results. Other comic book threequels suffer from being over long and burdened with too many characters, but Iron Man 3 never feels bloated and moves at a quick clip. This is a fun and vibrant tentpole release bolstered by an exceptionally heroic score from Brian Tyler, one of the best done for Marvel Studios. Iron Man 3 is a return to form for the Iron Man series and a worthy successor to The Avengers. Rating: 8/10