Superhero film series traditionally fall apart on the third installment. The general rule is a good first film, a better second film, and a horrible third film. See Superman (though I didn’t care for the first two films either), X-Men, and Spider-Man (though I liked the third film better than most). The most obvious exception to date is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which ended on a spectacular high note.
Iron Man 3 is a partial exception. It isn’t a disaster. It’s even successful in its own way, but it’s definitely disappointing. Put it that it succeeds, but not how we wanted it to.
Following his near-death experience at the end of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has been suffering from nightmares, anxiety attacks, and insomnia. He counteracts this by feverishly building more and more suits. He’s now living together with his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who apparently didn’t resign as CEO of Stark Industries at the end of Iron Man 2. In this capacity she turns down a sales pitch by scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) for a project to ‘upgrade’ humans out of fears that it could be weaponized.
Meanwhile, a fearsome Bin Laden-like terrorist mastermind dubbed the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) begins to broadcast a series of anti-American propaganda videos while bombing targets around the globe. In response, the U.S. calls on Stark’s best friend Cl. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes AKA War Machine (Don Cheadle), now redubbed Iron Patriot, to track down the Mandarin. But when his latest attack puts Stark’s friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, gamely mocking his former role as director) in a coma, Stark publically challenges the Mandarin, an act that backfires horrifically and leaves him stranded hundreds of miles away with a malfunctioning suit.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether any individual hero could have worthwhile adventures following the epic spectacle that was The Avengers. The set-up for Iron Man 3 promised a knock-out to assuage our fears. But a staggeringly ill-conceived twist mid-way through squanders the potential so horribly that the film almost can’t recover. In the end what could have been an awe-inspiring duel that pushed Tony to his very limits abruptly drops to a middling adventure that, while enjoyable in itself, doesn’t come close to what it could have been.
First the good news. Robert Downey Jr. inhabits Tony Stark as perfectly as ever, and he’s still fresh and entertaining in his fourth time around (contrast the way Johnny Depps’ Jack Sparrow routine started getting old by the end of the second Pirates film). Even better, Tony hasn’t lost the progress he’s made over the past three movies: he’s less neurotic and unstable, even as he begins to suffer anxiety problems, and he’s honestly committed to his relationship with Pepper (to the point that he greets an old hook-up by saying he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore). He still makes poor choices and acts immaturely, but he owns up to them and actually apologizes (and even then he doesn’t do anything close to his drunken birthday celebration in the second film). In short, Tony Stark isn’t perfect, but he’s clearly made a lot of progress over the years.
Don Cheadle as Rhodey is better utilized here than in either of the previous films (including the first one where he was played by Terrance Howard). He doesn’t get to use the Iron Patriot armor very much, but, surprisingly enough, this works in his favor as the fact that he’s fighting without armor makes his action scenes all the more engaging and his badassery consequently more impressive (he nearly steals the show with a climactic stunt involving exploding barrels and a pair of high-tension wires). It’s also nice to see he and Tony pretty much working together harmoniously throughout rather than repeating the falling-outs of the first two films.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, alas, doesn’t have as much to do as any of the previous films (including The Avengers, sadly enough). But, like Downey Jr., she’s very comfortable in the role and we appreciate the little time we have with her (especially a bit where she unexpectedly finds herself in the Iron Man suit). The little we get to see of her and Tony’s relationship is enjoyable and romantic enough (“I’m going to take a shower.” “Good, sure…” “And you’re going to join me.” “That’s more like it!”).
The action this time around is fast-paced and refreshingly dangerous, with Tony facing a large collection of enemies who pose honest threats to him (contrast in the first two movies where there was pretty much just one genuine threat and a lot of disposable cannon-fodder). Here he’s constantly going up against baddies who are truly a match for him in and out of armor, which makes the action scenes all the more tense and innovative as Tony has to find ways of battling them. A ‘Superman’ style scene with Tony having to catch a large number of people falling from an airplane is a film highlight: posing a seemingly impossible problem and coming up with an straightforward-yet-ingenious method of overcoming it.
There’s a wealth of humor throughout, courtesy of Downey Jr.’s trademark snark. I particularly enjoyed a bit with a captured Tony threatening/warning his guards about his impending escape, which will happen any minute now, I’m warning you! A kid who befriends and helps Tony at a crucial moment serves as one of the very best ‘awed child sidekicks’ in superhero film history, serving up a lot of great moments with the decidedly not child-comfortable Tony. JARVIS (Paul Bettany) is still Tony’s AI and still as snarky as his creator (“I do enjoy watching you work, Sir” he says when an early test leaves Tony flat on his back). And the traditional after-credits Stinger is probably my favorite ever, featuring the return of a familiar face in a hilarious and unexpected way.
Finally, there’s just something very special about a movie that has you thinking “No! They’re not really going to kill off the inanimate mechanical arms, are they?!”
So, basically it’s a good movie: entertaining, engaging, and thrilling enough. But it’s horribly marred by a stunningly bad decision at the heart of the story.
This is the aforementioned twist, which is so ill-conceived, so anti-climactic, so just flat out bad that it threatens to derail the entire film. Some people have called it “daring.” Undercutting the foreign terrorist in favor of an American grown conspiracy involving (of course) corporate greed is about the least ‘daring’ thing imaginable in today’s film industry. So you copped out on a character that might have damaged your overseas box-office: hoo-flipping-ray for you.
I also have to add that an action fantasy movie that lays terror bombings both abroad and on American soil at the feet of the U.S. Government and military is especially crass in light of recent events. Though I suppose you can’t blame the filmmaker’s for that, except that they could have easily avoided the issue entirely and made a stronger film to boot.
This one flaw isn’t enough to derail the film, but it certainly leaves it shaky and unsatisfying. The simple fact is that Iron Man vs. Guy Pearce: Yet Another Evil Capitalist With Superpowers is not and could never be as engaging, fun, or interesting as Iron Man vs. The Mandarin: Terrorist Mastermind. The epic showdown we were promised and that the film spends half its run time building up to is jarringly kicked aside midway through and replaced by a run-of-the-mill conspiracy plot, as though director Shane Black cared more about subverting our expectations than in making a worthwhile sequel. It's incredibly frustrating and even a little insulting, not to mention how painful it is to see the great Ben Kingsley (who has been crying for a good role for ages) wasted in such a humiliating manner.
Basically, the effect is like when some joker gets his girlfriend a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, but when she opens it up it’s just a bunch of spring-snakes. It was certainly a surprise and she might even laugh, but she’d much rather have had the damn chocolates.
There are other flaws. Tony’s new suit technology doesn’t seem to play by the rules established in the previous films, in that it works even without being powered to his arch reactor. A number of times it does things are stretch our suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, like when it flies from Tennessee to Florida at his command (Tony being in Florida and his suit in Tennessee, if you follow). Poor Pepper is separated from Tony for most of the film, depriving us of her delightful down-to-earth influence, and even when she isn’t they don’t have a lot of time together, meaning that the relationship we’ve waited two films to see is almost entirely confined to The Avengers. A third-act maneuver is very cool, but creates a giant plot hole by making us wonder why Tony didn’t do it before when it clearly would have been very useful. The bad guys’ powers are ill defined, particularly their apparent ability to shut down the suits, which doesn’t seem to follow from what else we’re shown. A last minute saving throw trying to mitigate the damage of the aforementioned twist comes so out-of-nowhere that you can feel the desperation on the part of the writers. Finally, the denouement packs a little too many life-altering decisions into a couple of minutes of voice-over, leaving us saying “wait, what?!” Oh, and the movie’s repeated satires of patriotism and the War on Terror were NOT appreciated.
I will say, though, that Guy Pearce’s villain is effective enough on his own merits (he reminded me a lot of Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw from X-Men: First Class, which is a good thing). I especially appreciate the fact that he became a bad guy in part because Tony was jerk to him years ago (before his transformation), reinforcing the running theme of Tony’s past sins catching up with him. A cameo by Shaun Toub as Yinsen in the opening flashback is appreciated and fits well into the context of the first movie. Also, the movie does a good job of selling itself as a post-Avengers world in which people have seen aliens and monsters and superheroes and are still trying to process it all (though this does rather beg the question of where the heck are Cap and SHIELD during all this?!).
In summary, I have mixed feelings about Iron Man 3. I enjoyed it and I’m glad I saw it, but it wasn’t the movie I expected or wanted. It was less the ultimate battle taking Tony Stark to his limits and more an exercise in the filmmakers’ showing off how clever they thought they were. I’m recommending it, but with a warning to not expect the movie you probably wanted it to be.
Final Rating: 3/5. Strong characters and thrilling action save it from a mind-numbly bad twist that turns what could have been the spectacular climax of the Iron Man trilogy into “just another sequel.”