The “Iron Man” franchise has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Marvel. The first film proved that the studio knew how to handle its own characters and set the bar by which the rest of its films are measured. Unfortunately most of the Marvel films, while still highly enjoyable, fail to quite hit the mark set by the first film. That includes its own sequel, which is largely regarded as a disappointment compared to the first. Following the massive success of “The Avengers,” the metal clad hero is back to redeem his solo franchise with “Iron Man 3.” Though full redemption proves elusive, it’s a nice step up from “Iron Man 2.”
“Iron Man 3” opens in the wake of the events of “The Avengers.” The alien invasion of New York City and Tony Stark’s near death experience are weighing heavily on him. Unable to sleep, he continually designs new variants of his Iron Man suit, putting the finishing touches on Mark 42 as the film opens. Though Tony seems to need time off to recuperate, there is a new threat in the form of the Mandarin. The international terrorist has targeted the United States and continually broadcasts about his plans to teach the US further “lessons.” While this terrorist looms large a figure from Tony’s past emerges as well in the form of Aldrich Killian, the head of a think tank who has developed nanotechnology called “Extremis,” technology that may have fallen into the hands of the Mandarin.
“Iron Man 3” easily sidesteps many of the mistakes made in “Iron Man 2” by not letting the spectacle of the Iron Man suit overrun the proceedings. There’s still plenty of suited up action to be had, especially in the climax, but the film is able to bring back what made the first film so special: Tony’s brilliance. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is always fun to watch, but what was so great about the first film was how well he conveyed Tony’s brainpower. This was lost in the first sequel, with the focus instead going to Tony’s showboating and drinking. Now Tony is laid bare once again and is forced to use his wits to get out of the jams he finds himself in much more than the gadgetry of the suit.
Going back to the suit, actually suits plural, some special recognition needs to be given for how inventive these things are getting. It’s not just a matter of a couple of new bells and whistles, some of these new suits are clearly designed with specific purposes in mind and that reflects in their look and how they are used. Hopefully Marvel hasn’t gone through all of its bag of tricks when it comes to different suits, because if the studio can keep this up then there’s no reason for the action sequences Iron Man is used in to ever become boring or predictable.
While Tony himself is back in top form and firing on all cylinders, some of the aspects of what’s going on around him are a little weaker. With this being very much a personal journey for Tony, which is what it should be, most of the supporting cast that was in the first two films feels shoe-horned in. This is the case with Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau as Col. Rhodes, Pepper Pots and Happy Hogan respectively. They feel there largely out of obligation, Rhodes more than any of the others. His War Machine suit gets a paint job and a relabeling as the Iron Patriot but then hardly appears. Given the threat level of the Mandarin it feels like he’s put into action way late in the game and then is swiftly taken out of play during the climax. With how much work the script does to keep him out of the action one has to wonder why he’s even there in the first place.
The newcomers fair a little better than the returning actors. Guy Pearce brings his best cocky swagger to Aldrich Killian, and he’s definitely a step up in the business rival department from the clumsy Justin Hammer from “Iron Man 2.” Sir Ben Kingsley oozes menace as the Mandarin, making use of a somber demeanor and an unplaceable accent. While the various Extremis Soldiers lack much in the way of personality they do offer a great physical challenge for Tony to overcome, especially since he’s forced to think his way out of the messes so often.
Writer/director Shane Black plays things a little more fast and loose than audiences are used to seeing in a Marvel film. He adopts the same general feel of his earlier collaboration with Robert Downey Jr, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” in that as long as things are kept fun and move quickly he’s counting on audiences to forgive a few story telling short cuts and unanswered questions. For the most part he gets away with it, mainly due to the fact that he clearly knows how to write for Downey in a way that keeps the audience focused on Tony and less on some of the questionable aspects of the villain’s plan or how all the plot pieces fit together.
“Iron Man 3” may not quite be as strong as the original film, but it’s a definite step up from “Iron Man 2” and very much the correct way to progress in the wake of “The Avengers.” With how big that film went with its scale and action it was important for Marvel to ground the individual franchises firmly around their characters and not try to out-spectacle the big team up film, and that’s exactly what is done here. While the Downey has already been confirmed to reprise the role in the upcoming “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” this very much feels like a closing chapter for Tony’s solo journey. Odds are that there will be more films in his future but until the role is inevitably recast somewhere down the line it feels like Downey has put Tony to bed in a good place.
Final Score: 4 out of 5