"Iron Man 3" Remains Divisive the Second Time Around Review

When aliens, Norse Gods, Hulks, and frozen super soldiers became a part of Tony Stark's world in The Avengers, it was hard to fathom him ever returning to simpler world where everything would be safely contained under the banner of "good science vs. bad science". Director Shane Black's Iron Man 3 proves it's still possible, but at the same time it acknowledges that the audience is capable of handling stranger things than just men in robotic suits wailing on one another. The story digs into the classic pantheon of Iron Man villains and modern story arcs to combine Iron Man's arch-nemesis, the Mandarin, with a recent story of biologically enhanced humans. In so doing, Iron Man 3 makes a narrative choice that will potentially infuriate some but amuse others, only to quickly gloss over it to barrage us with Robert Downey Jr.'s ever-amusing portrayal of Stark on a hilarious and wildly entertaining warpath that easily exceeds Iron Man 2 and falls somewhere close to equal with Jon Favreau's original.

Tasked with the tricky proposition of acting as both a sequel for Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Iron Man 3 has a lot of story elements to conclude even as it tells a story all its own. To make it all work, we go back in time to a tech convention in Switzerland where the not-yet-humbled Tony Stark has a New Years Eve one night stand with a "botanist" named Maya (Rebecca Hall) and blows off a meeting with an aspiring entrepreneur, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Fast forward to modern day, where a familiar terrorist organization led by a shadowy figure known only as the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) is bombing American and foreign sites with impunity, and faces from the past seem to be popping up all over the place. Killian's company has blossomed into a firm on the brink of a huge advancement in biological alteration, and Maya shows up on Tony's doorstep to warn him that maybe Killian's research isn't quite the innocent cure for limb loss that his business pitch makes it seem. Not that Tony's life needs all that noise to make it complicated, as he's still reeling from the thwarted alien invasion in The Avengers that bring on intense panic attacks and have forced him to seek more security from his suits and less from a frustrated Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

At first it seems like the film will suffer from multiple-villain-syndrome like many bloated superhero movies that have come and gone, but the story streamlines very quickly into a focused story. For many, this might be where the film falters, because to compact itself the way that it does it makes an almost glib twist on one of Iron Man's oldest storylines that will either have you laughing uproariously or questioning the waste of potential story that could have arisen from an alternate route. There's definitely something to be said in favor of the road not taken and the easy segue it would have offered to make Iron Man a space-faring superhero, but at the same time it would also have taken the story to an ending that too closely mirrored the climax of the last two films: technology vs. technology. While the foes in question this time around are still monsters wrought by science, the big finale isn't just a repetitive sequence of metal clashing against metal. There's definitely something new to see, and that's what this franchise badly needed after Iron Man 2.

In terms of character development, a number of unexpected turns are taken at the end of the film, but the most interesting and impactful ones happen alongside an eager, nerdy kid (played by Ty Simpkins) as Tony grapples with his daddy issues the only way he knows how: making fun of someone else's daddy issues. Simultaneously, he comes to terms with his own mortality and vulnerability, points made all too clear to him as he fought alongside a super soldier, a hulk, and a God. It's not a problem he can solve no matter how powerful his suit is and how many he has. They can all be broken and destroyed, and if he happens to be inside them when it happens, that's the end of Tony Stark. It doesn't make him much less reckless, but there is a lasting change (at least as far as the end credits - we'll have to wait and see if it carries over to another film).

Robert Downey Jr. continues his effortless portrayal of Stark, and it's both a good and bad thing. On one hand he clearly enjoys playing the character (both on and off screen), but on the other it seems far too easy for him to be sarcastic and glib with every line instead of considering an alternate angle for a moment that might have been better handled with a secondary sentiment (like sincerity). For that reason, Paltrow's absence from his side for most of the film is hardest felt. She's his sincerity sponge.

Whenever Potts is on the screen, we get something close to humbleness from Downey's Stark, and without a few of those moments in each film it feels like Stark is genuinely above it all. Paltrow does well this time around, but her role is very limited and so some of that responsibility for drawing out the sincerity lands on the shoulders of youngster Ty Simpkins, who performs admirably but can't elicit those same moments of from Downey. Some amazingly funny lines come from their exchanges (thanks to the excellent writing of Shane Black), but the grounded human moments don't have the same weight as those that came from Stark and Potts moments. Don Cheadle reprises his role as Rhodey (aka War Machine aka Iron Patriot), but he's underused and acts as more of a placeholder so we don't forget something's happening when Tony can't be there himself.

On the villainy side, Guy Pearce holds his own but as bad guy Aldrich Killian feels very bland even after showing us all he can do. His right-hand man (James Badge Dale) plays a far more menacing figure, but that has more to do with him taking on a T-1000 (from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) vibe and being the go-to obstacle for the film's first two acts. By the time Killian steps up, we've seen most of the tricks his science projects have up their sleeves. The action is still fun to watch and it's a nice change from robot-on-robot carnage, but it becomes more about "how is Tony going to kill someone who seems invincible" and less about "will Tony win". As for Sir Ben Kingsley's turn as "The Mandarin", you'll either love the character or hate it based on what the story does, but Kingsley's performance of it is beyond reproach. It's incredible, but whether or not you can appreciate it depends on how you react to the story.

All those issues aside, there's little question that Iron Man 3 surpasses its predecessors in terms of action and comedy; it's too jam-packed for that to even be in doubt. The finale evolves from the robot hang-up of the first two films and there's definitely a greater scope and sense of risk to it all, it's just the story and how it uses (or misuses) the cards it deals itself that will divide the audience. Either way, it's a fun ride.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The biggest draw in the extras is easily the Marvel One Shot featuring the continued adventures of Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter (from Captain America). After that, we also have deleted and extended scenes, a decent gag reel, an audio commentary, and featurettes on the production of the Air Force One scene, Thor 2, and the evolution of Iron Man from the first film through Iron Man 2 and The Avengers up until now – and how some of the key scenes of Iron Man 3 came to be.

"Iron Man 3" is on sale September 24, 2013 and is rated PG13. Action, Comedy. Directed by Shane Black. Written by Drew Pearce, Shane Black. Starring Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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