Certainly an improvement on 2010’s muddled Iron Man 2, the third film in the franchise has a zippy script and a fun twist — but ultimately demonstrates why I’m ready for the suit to be hung up.
Don’t shoot — seriously, I don’t even like working here. They are so weird.
I’ll definitely say this for Iron Man 3: I’m glad it’s set during Christmas. We’ve needed a good superhero flick for the Yuletide season. That’s one of a few bold choices made by writer-director Shane Black, reuniting with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang lead, Robert Downey Jr. (KKBB is a little-seen, underrated blast, by the way. Definitely check it out sometime.)
Black plays to Downey’s strengths here, giving him the best quips and one-liners of any Marvel film so far. That light-on-its-feet spirit even carries itself down to the supporting roles, with everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Don Cheadle to even the long-haired dudes playing henchmen getting standout moments. That’s all they turn out to be, however — just moments.
Our emotional through-line here is Tony Stark’s psychological state following the events of The Avengers, and it’s a good one, but never really builds to any kind of catharsis. Having already made the decision back in the first film to sacrifice himself for others, where else is there for the character to go, instead of just fighting a new villain with each installment? There’s not really an answer to this question, which is why the decision (alluded to in interviews, but not confirmed) for this to be the final solo Iron Man film is wise. Simply put, it’s all gotten a little repetitive and contrived, despite Black and Downey’s best efforts.
They really do try hard, though. This is a smaller film, almost intimate (as these things go), with only a handful of characters and a climax that doesn’t directly involve the fate of the world. But that climax still feels underwhelming, and goes on for far too long with too many repeating beats that stretch the bounds of logic and, like, the physical laws of the Universe. How much abuse can Tony realistically take inside that suit? Apparently, the answer is something akin to riding out a nuclear blast in a refrigerator. We learn he actually has dozens of suits at his disposal, when his adventure to this point has been refreshingly low-tech — we like watching him think his way out of situations, not just smash machines together and blow stuff up.
There’s one truly bravura setpiece, and it’s all-too-brief: the airborne rescue of the passengers falling from Air Force One. This sequence has everything we love about Iron Man: it’s exciting, tense, funny, and features spectacular special effects. The effects are mostly good throughout, but for every cool “fire-person” shot there’s an Iron Man suit that looks and moves just a liiiiiitle too cartoon-y. Iron Man 3 does manage to dodge the categorization of “destruction porn” that plagued Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Pacific Rim — the attack on the Stark mansion puts Tony and Pepper in very real peril, but it’s limited and personal.
Obviously, any discussion of this film can’t fail to include Ben Kingsley’s “Mandarin.” (Spoiler alert!) He’s effectively creepy — not classic — in the first half of the film, but Black has something different in mind. Going against comic book canon, Black inverts the superhero formula and reveals the Mandarin to be simply a washed up English actor, playing a role for the real Mandarin, the evil scientist played by Guy Pearce. The twist is actually quite brilliant, and Kingsley is hilarious in his dual role, but the reveal leaves a large hole in the center of the film that Pearce can’t quite fill. His Killian isn’t a dynamic enough personality, and his objective is too unclear to make for a compelling narrative arc. And unfortunately for the film, it holds up even less on re-watch, without that element of genuine surprise.
I appreciated the ending, though. It felt definitive. Tony’s choice to finally have the shrapnel in his chest removed — the thing that made him “Iron Man” — was organic and earned, even if the sudden availability of the science to do so felt clumsy. It works thematically, if not logically. So I’ll absolutely miss this guy (after Avengers 2, of course), but at least Marvel knows when it’s time to end the party. They’ve got a lot of other heroes they can make movies about.