If you consider “Iron Man 3” against “The Avengers,” though—last year’s summer Marvel offering that brought together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow in one film—it comes off looking less good. Instead, it seems a little trite, a little too plotted, a little less dynamic. The isolation of Stark again, when we see how fantastically smug and commanding he can be in the company of other superheroes, feels somewhat lacking. Ultimately, is “Iron Man 3” good? Yes. But if you wanted your mind completely blown, you’re going to have to wait a little while longer—maybe until 2015, when “The Avengers 2” hits theaters. Just saying.
Until then, though, there’s “Iron Man 3,” which is the first installment of Marvel’s Phase 2, their next round of standalone superhero films (the sequel to “Thor,” “Thor 2: The Dark World,” comes out this fall, and the sequel to “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier,” comes out in April 2014). Before the future, however, we have to start in the past, with Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Downey Jr., of “The Avengers,” “Due Date,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Iron Man”) soberly telling us, “We create our own demons.” Back in 1999, we learn, Stark had a short fling with scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who was perfecting research on hacking genetic codes and engineering them for limb regrowth. The very same night, Stark also blew off another worshipful scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, of “Prometheus,” “Lawless,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” and “The King’s Speech”), who is beginning a think tank, Advanced Idea Mechanics, also about biology and genetics. But Stark insults him in one breath and leaves Maya hanging in another, demonstrating the kind of thoughtless party boy he once was before becoming Iron Man.
But now he is Iron Man, and it’s weeks after what happened in “The Avengers”—when Stark flew a nuclear bomb through an otherworldly portal to save Manhattan, and then fell back to Earth, nearly to his death, before being saved by the Hulk—and Stark can’t sleep. He spends night after night tinkering on his Iron Man suits, gradually driving a wedge between himself and girlfriend Pepper (Paltrow, of “The Avengers,” “Contagion,” “Country Strong,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Iron Man”), and often experiences severe panic attacks, much to the concern of best friends Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, of “Flight,” “The Guard,” and “Iron Man 2”) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, of “Identity Thief,” “People Like Us,” “John Carter,” “Zookeeper,” “G-Force,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Iron Man”). Hogan even complains that Stark has never talked about what he did when he was “off with the superfriends,” but there’s too much trauma there to share with anyone else: “I’m a piping hot mess. Nothing’s been the same since New York.”
So when terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, of “The Dictator,” “Hugo,” and “Shutter Island”) starts hacking into U.S. broadcast feeds, boasting about bombings in the Middle East, threatening the President, and hurting someone very close to Stark, he’s itching for a fight, for something he can do to put the creepy, bearded evildoer in his place. He issues him a challenge—providing him with his address. The Mandarin takes him up on it. And so Stark is a man adrift, without a home, without a functioning suit, attempting to rebuild some sense of self that was initially shattered by what happened in New York and only further annihilated by The Mandarin. In typically clipped Stark fashion, he says of himself, “I’m different now.” But how to get him back?
“Iron Man 3,” then, becomes a kind of self-making project, directed and co-written by Shane Black, who worked with Downey Jr. way back in 2005 with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” one of the first films that starred a newly sober RDJ. The pairing of the two of them just works: Stark is snappier, sassier, funnier this time around thanks to Black’s dialogue, which allows him to face off against both fiery bad guys (the heat comes from inside of them because of some scientific reasoning that is never fully explained in the film, naturally) and a very cute, very articulate child sidekick, Harley (Ty Simpkins). The main action set pieces—like Stark’s mansion crumbling into the ocean after a brutal helicopter machine-gun attack—are well done and thrilling; there is a major twist that very committed fans might not be happy with, but it packs a good punch and brings lightness to the story. Paltrow as Potts has much more to do this time around, and her chemistry with Downey Jr. is charming. Kingsley won my heart in every way possible. Pearce is half-dreamy, half-menacing. I mean, all the individual pieces work well—it’s not like anything about the film is technically inefficient.
But ultimately, something about “Iron Man 3” feels like it’s missing—like the stakes aren’t quite high enough. It’s well done, it’s slickly made, it’s amusing, it’s self-aware—but at the end of the day, it’s not engrossing; you’ll never really feel worried about what’s going to happen. Laugh at RDJ’s jokes, sure, but be concerned that things might not turn out OK for our Iron Man? That option won’t ever cross your mind.
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