If this is the end of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man films, then he’s certainly left with a bang. While far from perfect, Iron Man 3 (2013) continues Stark’s emotional development with the same humor and action we have come to expect. But it is also an unexpectedly deep look at Stark as a man amidst increasingly dangerous villains, tying together not only the previous two Iron Man movies (2008 and 2010), but also Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012). Flawed though it may be, Iron Man 3 is an excellent conclusion to a superb series.
Iron Man 3‘s basic premise is this: Tony Stark has returned home from the events in New York City, only to find himself overwhelmed by panic attacks and nightmares; to distract himself, he has begun tinkering endlessly in his lab, building suit after suit after suit. Meanwhile, the United States
has become the target of a mysterious “super” terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin. Soon, the President re-brands War Machine as the Iron Patriot and sends Colonel Rhodes out to hunt down the infamous terrorist. Back home, Tony challenges the Mandarin, meets some old faces (sorry, I won’t ruin this for you), and finds himself face-to-face with a wall (of mysteries and mysterious men with unique abilities).
Honestly, that is about as close as I can get to describing this film without ruining some of the major twists and discoveries. There are a remarkable number of things going on in this film. I am still astonished that they could work so much into a 130 minute time slot without producing a film that feels unnecessarily rushed; instead, Iron Man 3 is just a tad bit long, with parts of the latter half of the film moving a little too slowly for my taste. Part of that dragging feel stems from the fact that the movie is divided across three interests: Tony’s war with himself (his apparent PTSD), Tony’s attempts to find and uncover the Mandarin, and the U.S./Rhodes’ attempts to do the same (subplots aside, of course). While Shane Black (writer/director) handles these elements well enough, I think the attempt to focus on so many elements (particularly via the framing device — Tony’s voice over that connects a past event to the events of the film), with twists and all, is a tad much for one film.
Still, I cannot help but appreciate the fact that, much like the previous two Iron Man films, this third installment actually addresses some of the real-world ramifications of Stark’s life as man and machine. The previous films explored Stark’s conflict with the morality of the military industrial complex (Iron Man) and the fear of impending death (Iron Man 2). Here, the conflict is two-fold: as in the second film, the past has come to haunt Stark, but in a far more personal way than before (the frame narrative explores this). More importantly, however, is the connection back to The Avengers, which has affected our hero in the way you’d expect: a psychological disorder (PTSD). I can appreciate the desire to show this on film, but what makes this work for me is the fact that our hero actually has psychological issues. Iron Man 3 explores the psychology of Stark in more depth than previous editions, giving the character a uniquely “human” feel. Unlike other superheroes in the Marvel film canon, Stark/Iron Man is fully realized as a complex individual. Far from the eccentric, prick-y man we saw at the start of the first film, this concluding volume has shown us that he is, in every way possible, just as susceptible to the pressures of daily life (and war) as the rest of us, even if, at the end of the day, he is still eccentric and prick-y. What makes him super is not some superhuman ability to “cope,” but rather his intense desire and dedication to a “cause.” This is the underlying narrative of Iron Man 3, and one that we can hope will continue in The Avengers 2, however briefly.
Related to this is one of the strongest aspects of the film: the cast and their interactions with one another. Downey, I think it is fair to say, is probably the only person who will ever truly fit into Stark’s shoes, and here he has to pull out more than simple sarcasm and jackassery. Stark’s panic attacks and nightmares require a careful balance between epiphany and masking; nobody would expect Stark to accept what is happening to him, and Downey does a fine job portraying that conflict. While the PTSD symptoms could have been handled with more care, I think Downey (and Shane Black as director) remained true to the character.
The other cast members are also on top form: Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts remains as charming as ever (she also gets a little action time, which is awesome to see) and Guy Pearce proves that he needs to play a Die Hard villain at some point in the near future, pulling out an excellent Jekyll & Hyde performance as Aldrich Killian. It’s hard to believe that Guy Pearce once played this Queen:
The standout supporting actor performances, however, must be given to Ben Kingsley (the Mandarin) and Ty Simpkins (Harley Keener). Kingsley’s Mandarin is cold, calculated, and preacher-like — even creepy. I believed him as a terrorist, as a fully-realized villain with complicated motivations. They’ve updated his character, too, and in a way that I think makes the Mandarin more relevant. In the film universe, the Mandarin is more akin to the mythic face of terrorism today; that myth becomes important to the narrative, and forms one of the various critiques of U.S. foreign policy in Iron Man 3. Much like Pearce, Kingsley demonstrates a chameleon-like ability to become other people. While I still have some reservations about the way this narrative played out, the concept of the Mandarin offers food for thought (particularly to us scholarly type people).
Child actor Simpkins, however, gives the film its heart-filled center. As Keener, he has a profound impact upon Stark, and the two (Downey and Simpkins) play well off each other — humor and all. I think paring the two gives Stark the gateway he needs to see beyond his own dilemmas, and Simpkins delivers a wide-eyed-but-looking-for-a-role-model performance worth noting. If there isn’t a remarkable young actor in Simpkins, I will eat my own shoes (metaphorically speaking, of course; I imagine shoes these days are made out of material that will kill me if consumed).
Of course, all this requires solid writing. For the most part, Drew Pearce and Shane Black deliver, though there is a noticeable lack of depth in some of the villains, despite the fact that their motivations for doing what they do are complicated, if not understandable. This is all too common in action-oriented films like this, but it is unfortunate when you have the opportunity to present villains who are motivated by more than simple villainy — villains about which the audience can feel conflicted. While many of the “henchmen” in Iron Man 3 do have complicated reasons for doing what they do, they don’t act like it. They are just villains in the purest sense.
The only other problem I have with the film has to do with the new Iron Man suit (the MK 42). While the films (and the character in general) has always required one to suspend disbelief, I found the newer suit implausible, if not outright ridiculous. This particular suit flies to Stark in pieces, guided by wireless nodes in his arms. While the MK 42 becomes important to the conclusion of the film, I found it hard to accept the premise, if only because it seemed a little ridiculous to me. Still, for those expecting a lot of Iron Men in Iron Man 3, you’ll get the great gift of all: the Iron Legion. The CG, of course, is damned beautiful, especially in the concluding moments (explosions and all).
Of course, what holds everything together for this film are not the visuals (pretty as they are), the villains (compelling though they may be), or even the narrative as a whole. Rather, what makes Iron Man 3 such an exciting and fascinating conclusion to the series — if, indeed, this is the end — are its fulfillment of Stark’s emotional arc and the presence of exceptional actors (working with decent material). While far from a perfect film, Iron Man 3 is, I think, what a lot of us were hoping for: a high-octane superhero epic with well-acted character development and psychological depth. I definitely recommend seeing it in theaters if you can.
Adaptation: N/A (I haven’t read enough of the comics)
Overall: 4.25/5 (85%)
Inflated Grade: A- (for solid action, continuity considerations, and addressing Stark’s human side)
Value: $9.50 (based on a $10.50 max)