The first thing that comes to mind about Iron Man 3 is, “Well, that wasn’t the movie I expected.” And this, as it turns out, is a huge compliment. I admit I felt some trepidation as I sat in the theater waiting for the lights to dim for a few reasons:
- The last Iron Man outing was, while entertaining, less than stellar.
- Personally, Iron Man has been my least favorite character in the Marvel Universe.
- The Mandarin. How was this potentially polarizing and embarrassing character going to be handled?
All of these concerns were addressed in the film and dealt with in a way that was both surprising and unique.
Spoilers from here out. If you haven’t seen the film and care about such things, stop reading now.
My biggest problem with Iron Man 2 was that there was too much of an agenda. The film simultaneously was setting up the Avengers, introducing Black Widow, re-introducing War Machine as Iran Man’s sidekick, establishing Tony Stark as a sympathetic person we should care about while shoehorning in action set-pieces. In the end it didn’t give enough time to any of those things and the whole thing felt rushed and unsatisfactory. I was wary the same thing would happen here.
This time around, however, the filmmakers settled in and focused on the character of Tony Stark and allowed him to breathe. A lot has been made of keeping Tony “out of the suit” and letting him rely more on wits than technology, and this is the film greatest strength. By grounding the character (literally & figuratively) with the PTSD of the Avengers aftermath and then removing him from both his money and his toys Stark is given the opportunity to grow and become something more than rich-guy in fancy armor. It also allows Robert Downy Jr. to shine, which segues nicely into concern #2.
As I’ve said, Iron Man has never been one of my favorite characters. Iron Man has always been, to me, well, boring. And the character of Tony Stark is a bit of a douche. This is supposed to be an asset, but in reality is just annoying. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance has transformed the character. So much so that the comic books have started to look and act like him. Let’s face it, Downey is what carried the first two films and made them as successful as they were. In the wrong hands a character like this could have been a disaster. You need only look at Green Lantern to see how the role of a cocky, pretty boy could go very, very wrong.
But Downey’s portrayal is both self-assured ad vulnerable. He is a douche, yes, but he isn’t mean. That’s hard to do. A testament to this is the way that, after a few brief clips at the beginning, whenever Tony has an anxiety attack the camera is allowed to linger on him, giving the actor time and space to act. And also allowing us, the viewer, to see his pain rather than just be told about it. This is something rare for a Super Hero film. Similarly, the scenes with the child Downey is given room to be dickish and tender at the same time. This turns what could have been something saccharin into something quite different.
So let’s talk about the kid scenes, shall we? First off Ty Simpkins does a good job as Harley and plays well off Downey. Again, in the wrong hands this could have become something akin the Indiana Jones and Short Round; a situation where the kid sticks around giving the main character bad advice and generally being an annoying pain-in-the-ass. Instead, Harley does what a character like this should do – show up, help the main character with the help that is needed and then go away. He also provides the straight man to what is in my opinion the best line in the film. Harley relates how his father went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back and instead of the schmaltzy scene I expected was told things like that happen and, “Don’t be a pussy about it.” This may become my new mantra.
This brings me to the last of my concerns, the Mandarin. Yes, the Fu Manchu, laser ringed caricature that is the Mandarin. I was extremely… interested shall we say, as to how this would play out even with the great Ben Kingsley playing him. This, as it turned out, was the biggest surprise of the movie. Even with the spoiler warning a few paragraphs back I will not directly reveal the “big twist” but suffice to say: wow. Seriously, wow. Thinking on it now I suppose the whole thing was telegraphed from the beginning, but I will admit I did not see it coming.
Which brings me to villainy. Super Hero villainy to be precise. Well, to be fair, villainy in general. One of my pet peeves is what I call the “equal-but-opposite” villain. Let’s say you’re smart guy in a technically advanced super-suit, who would be your ultimate foe? Well another smart guy in a technically advanced super-suit of course. How about you’re an archer with super skills? Your enemy would be another super skilled archer. A gamma-radiated rampaging Goliath? You guessed it, you’re arch-enemy is another gamma-radiated Goliath. Or in a non-comic example, pretend you’re a genius detective with amazing powers of deduction who would be your nemeses? Well, you get the picture. I find the “equal-but-opposite” villain clichéd and lazy. And in the first two Iron Man films that’s what we got.
In Iron Man 3 we get the ‘extremis soldier’ which makes for something much more dangerous and unique. Yes, I understand fans of Warren Ellis (of which I am one) will have issues with how the extremis plot line is used in the film, but the Cinematic Universe has always been about adapting ideas from the comics rather than transcribing them verbatim. It also makes the inevitable massive climactic battle scene different and on the whole much more satisfying.
So in the end is Iron Man 3 a flawless film? Of course not. You’d be hard pressed to find any film in the Comic Book/Super Hero genre that doesn’t involve some kind of suspension of disbelief. But as a thoroughly entertaining and remarkably surprising sequel that unbelievably surpasses its predecessors, Iron Man 3 passes admirably.