Marvel continues to build their shared universe, following up on The Avengers with the third entry in the Iron Man franchise, imaginatively titled Iron Man 3. The story grows out of the events of the big team-up movie, but is otherwise a self-contained adventure for Tony Stark and company, despite the rather obvious fact that SHIELD and the other Avengers would have certainly taken an interest in a nationwide wave of terrorist attacks rather than leaving poor Tony to deal with it alone, especially after he goes missing. That logical gap notwithstanding, the story that plays out is pretty solid, with nice character and action bits for the supporting cast, especially Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Iron Man 3 is co-written (with Drew Pearce) and directed by Shane Black, best known for the Lethal Weapon movies, so there’s plenty of buddy banter to go with the explosions. (The explosions, especially one at a popular tourist destination, are somewhat problematic, unfortunate reminders of recent events; Iron Man 3 was finished before the tragedy in Boston occurred, but it’s still an uncomfortable moment.)
1. What’s it about?
It turns out that nearly dying in a wormhole after blowing up aliens alongside a god, a radioactive rage monster and a super-soldier has sort of rattled Tony Stark. He can’t sleep, he’s prone to anxiety attacks, and he’s obsessively building one new suit of armor after another, trying to come up with something that will somehow allow him to be more than just “a man in a can.” Pepper is running Stark Industries, and the friction between them is growing. Meanwhile, a megalomaniac calling himself The Mandarin, who looks like a cross between Fidel Castro and Osama Bin Laden dressed in traditional Chinese robes, keeps popping up on TV to make stentorian denouncements of the US, which are followed by bombings intended to make a point. Also meanwhile, another tech firm known as AIM is working on a method of enhancing DNA and “upgrading the human body.” AIM’s CEO, the vaguely creepy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), wants to hire former employee Pepper Potts back to his company; he is obviously attracted to her, a feeling she just as obviously does not reciprocate. In short order, Tony loses everything, ending up in the middle of rural America with badly damaged armor and people trying to kill him. With the aid of a local kid, he has to claw his way back from the bottom in order to take down AIM and the Mandarin.
2. Will my kids like it?
Very young ones might be put off by some of the action; there are a lot of explosions and some fairly brutal killings, though blood-letting is minimal. There are people who seem to be burning up from the inside, somebody gets shot in the head (off-screen), and a lot of property gets destroyed. Iron Man 3 is rated PG-13, though I suspect that may be as much due to Tony Stark calling a kid “the P-word” as due to any onscreen mayhem. Older kids are going to go crazy for the film; they will really like the 40+ different suits of armor that come into play. This should be a boon to the action figure makers, but the movie never feels like a toy commercial.
3. Will I like it?
Since you’re reading this, I will assume you like superhero movies, or at at least the Marvel ones; in that case, you’ll probably like this one. It has a good mix of small character bits and big action set-pieces. The story is far superior to Iron Man 2, though it’s not quite as compelling as the first entry in the series, largely because Tony’s emotional arc is somewhat smaller. The story is solid and the performances are all top-notch; there’s a lot of Shane Black’s trademark buddy banter between Tony and Rhodey, and two really fantastic villains. As a plus, the film does something very few action movies manage: it passes the Bechdel Test. There are a few other women in the film aside from Pepper, some of them actually have names and jobs, and two of them, Pepper and Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) have a conversation about something other than a man.
4. Is it worth paying extra for the 3D?
Nope. This is the least effective use of 3D I’ve ever seen; for most of the film, you won’t even feel like you’re watching a 3D movie. Even the action scenes seem to have very little depth of field. The story is good, actors are great, CGI looks fantastic, action is exciting, but apart from a few action scenes, the 3D is almost irrelevant. Spend the money on popcorn instead.
5. Does Iron Man 3 set up Avengers 2?
Not at all. The story develops out of events in Avengers, and those events are referred to several times, but if there’s anything in Iron Man 3 that will turn out to be important to Avengers 2, they did a really good job of not calling any attention to it. It’s a completely self-contained story.
6. Isn’t The Mandarin a bit of a racist caricature?
In the comics he certainly was; he was also a complete ripoff of Fu Manchu, a character that is completely inappropriate for modern sensibilities, so the filmmakers have wisely reinvented him. Instead of being a cliched “mysterious Asian villain,” he’s now a white guy who has adopted Asian affectations, quotes Sun-Tzu and tries to position himself as a foreigner in order to more effectively denigrate the West. He also has some surprising revelations later, but that would be spoiling. Sir Ben Kingsley does a masterful job of portraying the various sides of the Mandarin.
7. Do they give Gwyneth Paltrow anything to do this time?
She plays a pretty major role, and it’s not just “damsel in distress” or “wisecracking gal pal,” though she also does both of those, and very well. She also gets to put on the armor for a very brief rescue, and later plays a big part in the spectacular action sequence. The Tony-Pepper relationship is, as always, a significant part of the goings-on.
8. What about the supporting cast?
Don Cheadle has several good scenes, including going into action as the government-approved “Iron Patriot,” as well as some Lethal Weapon style heroics with Tony, both of them in civilian clothes for a change. Rebecca Hall has only a few scenes as brilliant scientist (and one of Tony’s former one-night stands) Dr. Maya Hansen, but she makes the most of them. And young Ty Simpkins keeps his performance honest and genuine while taking on the thankless role of “the smart kid who helps the hero,” essentially being Tony’s Short Round in act two. His Harley is annoying for the right reasons, funny at the right times, and is completely believable at all times. The rest of the cast is equally good.
9. Are there any other connections to the larger Marvel Universe?
There are a few sly references, but telling you about some of them would be spoiling. Stan Lee makes his obligatory appearance, of course, and as was mentioned earlier, the events of Avengers are referenced. I’ve been told that much of the plot is derived from the comics arc “Extremis,” but as I haven’t read that story, I can’t say how much. To me, the tone and interaction of the characters (though not the actual plot) is reminiscent of Kurt Busiek’s run.
10. Do I have to stay after the credits?
Yes, you do. All I will tell you is that the scene there is not a teaser for any of the future Marvel films, but provides a nice coda to this one.