The third time is hardly ever the charm in movie franchises, especially those adapted from comics. Shane Black, who replaces Jon Favreau behind the camera (although Favreau stays on to continue his role as Happy Hogan), delivers a thoroughly satisfying third (and quite possibly final) entry in a way Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, Richard Lester, and Brett Ratner all failed to do.
After some rather unsubtle foreshadowing involving Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) meeting with a pair of scientists (Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce) back in 1999, we catch up some months after the events of The Avengers with a shaken Stark agonizing over the enormity of how much his world has changed since the alien attack that leveled much of New York.
While struggling with both anxiety attacks and his relationship with the ever-plucky Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s world is further shaken by an attack that leaves Happy severely injured by the hands of a new terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
Overcome by grief, Stark goes on the offensive calling out the terrorist and puts everyone he cares about, and everything he has worked towards since his capture in Afghanistan, in jeopardy. Needless to say, this doesn’t go well. To save his loved ones, protect the President of the United States (William Sadler), and rescue the woman he loves, he’ll have to confront the mistakes of his past and, without the help of his friends or high-tech gadgetry, figure out how to still be the hero the world needs him to be.
The script by Black and Drew Pearce crams an awful lot of plot into a two-hour popcorn flick that somehow never seems overburdened with juggling the various story elements. Although Stark still has his trademark smirk and snarkiness, in this film it’s balanced by real fear of being thrust into a world with cosmic threats which he honestly doesn’t know if he can handle. One of the failings of Iron Man 2 is it didn’t take advantage of having a terrific actor in its leading role. Iron Man 3 doesn’t make the same mistake.
Comic and cartoon fans of the Mandarin are not likely to recognize this version of the character. Gone are the magic rings and a quest for world domination. Black’s script instead recreates the character as the new Osama bin Laden, the overly dramatic leader of a terrorist cell responsible for several bombings around the world. I must say I had very mixed feelings about the change, but this version of the Mandarin (although far different than the comic character who spawned him) has far more going on than you may initially realize (and makes terrific use of the decision to cast Kingsley in the role).
Along with the threat of the Mandarin, Iron Man must also deal with super-powered killers (James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak) enhanced by the Extremis virus, a magic bullet that hacks the repair centers of the body to repair damage, regrow lost limbs, and make those infected with it into living weapons. Tied to the film’s opening scene in Switzerland, Stark will have to deal with Aldrich Killian (Pearce) who he left alone for more than a decade to use Maya Hansen‘s (Hall) research to weaponize Extemis, with frightening results.
Along with these stories the film still finds time to include subplots about Rhodes‘ (Don Cheadle) new role as the U.S. Government rebrands War Machine as the Iron Patriot and a storyline involving a young kid (Ty Simpkins) in Tennessee who helps Stark get back on his feet and back in the game after the film’s villains deal our hero a near crippling blow. The later could have been truly awful, but Stark’s dickish behavior to the kid keeps the segment from getting too sentimental or schmaltzy.
The film isn’t perfect. Pearce is far too ridiculous in the film’s opening scene, Hall’s character isn’t really given the arc it deserves, Paltrow gets a big heroic moment that though deserved after two movies stuck as the girl Friday still feels forced, and the 3D, while neither awful or distracting, is almost entirely forgettable. These are are minor quibbles, however, for a film that is far more fun than I expected. Black’s involvement seems to have rejuvenated Downey’s interest in the character and seeing Downey in full egotist mode spit out Shane Black’s snark-filled dialogue is a hell of a lot of fun. And yes, you should stay through the 70’s style credits for one final scene that’s worth seeing.
Although I don’t think it quite reaches the dramatic heights of the first film, Iron Man 3 doesn’t suffer the same fate of both Iron Man or Iron Man 2 whose final acts fizzle out with somewhat disappointing action sequences. Iron Man 3 is the only one of the three films that continues to get better (after a shaky beginning) and finds a proper way to deliver an astounding final fight sequence and epilogues that, if Marvel wishes, close the door on the franchise on a high note.