Marvel Comics has always done superheroes right. They have long grounded their heroes in the real world, with real problems which the reader can relate to. Marvel Studios has continued that tradition with their current film series. The heroes and villains of the Marvel cinematic universe are based in reality, and are even less fantasy oriented than even their comic book brethren.
That has been the core, and ultimately the success, of the Iron Man film series. It would have been easy for Marvel to simply slap together a special effect driven hero in an iron suite who fights bad guys in spectacular, explosion driven fashion. However, the heart of the film series has always been based on the human frailties of the Tony Stark character.
In Iron Man 3, Stark, played by the perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr., is still dealing with the events from last summer’s Avengers (which is required viewing for understanding where Stark is at in this film). Stark has become obsessed with the enemies the world now faces, with aliens and god-like beings being added to the list. (Yes, I understand the irony of this statement after I just wrote about the realism of the cinematic Marvel universe, but these are still comic book movies.) Stark is compelled to keep building new sets of Iron Man armors, as if to build one for every possible contingency that he may ultimately face.
Ironically, Stark’s obsession with building new armors to protect the one thing he can’t live without, the woman he loves, Pepper Potts, played once again by Gwyneth Paltrow, is driving a wedge between them. Potts wants Stark to be the man, not the superhero, and Stark is having a hard time telling the two apart anymore. As a result, Stark is having trouble sleeping and has become prone to anxiety attacks.
In addition to his mental challenges, Stark is facing a new threat on the business front, in the form of Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce. Killian is scientist from Stark’s past, who coming back to haunt him. Killian has set his sights on Stark Industries, and more specifically, Pepper.
Meanwhile, a new face of evil is rising in the world in the form of the terrorist who goes by the name of the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley. The Mandarin is blowing up what appears to be bombs around the United States and making threats to the President of the United States. Once again, the cinematic version of the Mandarin is based in realism. Gone are the magical Makluan rings of the comic books, only to be replaced by super soldiers who have been modified by a new drug called Extremis.
The Mandarin takes on Stark, after Tony publicly threatens him on television. As a result of the attack, the world believes Iron Man dead, which affords Stark the opportunity to disappear and rediscover his humanity. Stark has to ask the question of what makes the hero, the suit or the man underneath. Director Shane Black effectively strips away all the Iron Man abilities from Stark for the middle third of the film, allowing Stark to rely on his own wits and vast intelligence, and figure out what made him first put on the armor in the first Iron Man film.
Ultimately, all the storylines converge in the final act of the film, which does end in an orgy of special effects. However, after not seeing Iron Man in action for most of the film, it is welcome sight to see Stark back behind the armor taking on the bad guys.
Iron Man 3 works due to its courage in stripping away the armor, both literally and figuratively, and relying on the story to be told through the characters, not the special effects. As always, Stark is the access point for the audience, but this time his doubt and anxiety make his character more of the everyman despite his vast wealth. In the end, he is the man, who is the hero, who needs to save the girl.
Iron Man 3 does have its weaknesses. Don Cheadle, as James Rhodes, doesn’t really have anything to do until the last third of the film. After the addition of the talented Cheadle in Iron Man 2, one would have thought they were going to broaden his role in the films, but he is basically relegated to side-kick in the closing act of the film. One would hope that they would expand his role as War Machine, or Iron Patriot, or whatever they want to call him in his own spin-off film, or possibly in Avengers 2. Additionally, some of the loose ends of the film, specifically the fate of Pepper, are neatly wrapped up at the end of the film with a colloquy by Stark and not given the thorough explanation that they deserve, especially given that they were a major plot point in the film.
Despite these weaknesses, Iron Man 3 is worthy sequel to both the Iron Man films and the Avengers, with enough heart and action to satisfy the entire spectrum of movie fans. Downey Jr. has stated that this maybe his last go around as Iron Man, and if it is, it is a satisfying ending to an excellent series. Undoubtedly, Iron Man will return in some form, in either a rebooting or recasting. Until then, there are four very satisfying films that exist out there for us to view ad nauseam.
As always, make sure to stay through the credits to see an additional scene, which is not as much a sneak preview of the next Marvel film, as it is a nice little Easter egg for fans of the film series.
– Patrick G.