How does a studio follow up The Avengers? By going small, real, real small.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of sexy Iron Man suits and bombastic repulsor blasts to last a lifetime, but the scale of Iron Man 3 takes the ball from aliens and gods from Asgard to lands and problems much closer to home. IM3 takes place mainly in three locations, one of which is in rural Tennessee where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) retreats to after being flushed out of his Los Angeles oceanfront mansion by a terrorist who goes by the name of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Stark befriends a boy (Harley Keener) who reminds him of himself and is able to work out some of his unresolved issues. There is also a near non-existent presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that should meet the approval of those who found the last Iron Man sequel to be too much of a prequel to The Avengers. Iron Man 3 when you strip away all of the toppings is a simple tale of revenge.
The latest Iron Man installment is directed by Shane Black, who Downey Jr. connected with on the stylish noir-comedy, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and like that film, Black unfolds the adventure with his lead character in a bad situation, reflecting on the moment in the past that put him in trouble. The slapstick tone is another a quality that’s been carried over from Kiss Kiss, and brought back to a degree from the first Iron Man. But instead of getting Stark connected with his armor, Black explores how much of the Iron Man persona is Tony Stark. Are they different, or are they one and the same? To do that, Black keeps Stark out of the armor for a large portion of the film. We’re not talking Superman II without-his-powers, or even watching Thor without his hammer. Just trust me when I say that it’s good to see him out of the suit because Downey Jr. is just as entertaining without it on. Stark has come back affected from his worm hole adventure in New York City with some serious post-traumatic stress disorder and a new vulnerability that will remind longtime readers of Stark’s battles with alcoholism.
Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) met Tony Stark back in 1999, back when he was still a weapons dealer and before he thought about using his engineering skills for pure good, but Stark wouldn’t give the unkempt scientist his time or his money. Fast Forward 15 years later, Killian is back with a program called Extremis that is able to tap the area of the human brain and give American troops regenerative properties and other incredible abilities. What does that have to do with the Mandarin? Well I don’t want to reveal much more, not right here anyway (more below).
Iron Man 3 is a thrill ride that kicks off the summer movie season in a big way, and it’s also best enjoyed by those who don’t have a lot of personal history with the Iron Man comics, or by those who understand that there are the comics and there are the films. Why would ignorance be bliss going into this movie? I know the referenced material too well and hold it too high in regards to see it cherry picked and watered down. Skip the next three paragraphs if you don’t want to be spoiled or want to have some of that knowledge going in. Just be careful as it may take away from your enjoyment of the film.
*** Comics Reader Spoiler Zone ***
Normally as a long time comics reader, one who is especially aware of the Iron Man lore that wealth of knowledge generally helps fill in some of the subtext or keeps you in on all of the subtle inside jokes. But it can also be a drawback, and here’s why it works a little against those walking in with 30-40 years worth of Iron Man stories in their head.
First is the Extremis storyline that’s used for gridwork of the Iron Man plot is a fantastic story in its own right. It’s a flawless blend of sci-fi and Tony Stark tech, written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Adi Granov and takes his armor to a new, exciting place. A more literal translation would have worked well, especially fusing the Extremis project with the evolution of Stark’s technology. This would–unfortunately for people like me–not be the case. You can tell that Extremis makes its way in, but is more of a reason to bring Aldrich into story. The story-long adventure of Stark and Maya (Rebecca Hall), a strong relationship in Stark’s recent comic life is pushed completely aside and Maya is treated instead like an afterthought, a simple conquest who started out ideal and was later corrupted by a large corporation.
And finally, the treatment of the Mandarin which is a nice bit of commentary on the “super villain” and terrorism. But the convention of using something as a symbolic distraction is something that’s become all too familiar in superhero stories. Ultimately the final treatment of the Mandarin doesn’t sit well with a long time reader because of the legacy that he brought to the pages of the comic is minimized in the film. How Marvel Studios passed on bringing the Mandarin and his mystical power rings to a spectacular reality but somehow was okay with Whiplash is beyond me. It does however explain that wacky accent Sir Ben Kingsley puts on, and it also addresses all of the rumors of is he or is he not playing the Mandarin.
*** End of Comics Reader Spoiler Zone ***
It’s difficult to look beyond those differences, but to judge the film solely on that would just sound like sour grapes on my part that the film wasn’t the personal love letter to Extremis and some of Stark’s supporting characters that I hoped it would be, but somehow I managed to enjoy the film nonetheless all the way through and after the credits rolled (wink, wink).
And yet I still found flaws. I’m tired of seeing Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) treated like a constant punch line whenever he’s wearing the suit, and he’s again trivialized in the story’s biggest action sequence. While it’s nice to see the chemistry between Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), her ultimate threat and resolution was poorly developed too. Will whoever lit the final action sequence please understand that we want to see all of the different armor and their iterations. The scene, which was spectacular, was too dark or too fast and a lot of the differences in the armors get lost. Some concepts, like Starks’ Avengers-related PTSD are great additions to the character but don’t go far enough.
These gripes are all in the details though. Iron Man 3 far exceeds Iron Man 2, picks up the ball from The Avengers in a focused character study, with an entire syllabus on Tony Stark. Black plays with the notion of who Stark is outside the suit in several creative ways but gives plenty of moments there to see him suit up, again and again, and unfortunately leaves us Stark-free until Avengers 2.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwenyth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, and Don Cheadle.
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Drew Pearce and Shane Black
Studio: Marvel Studios (with Paramount)
Release Date: May 3, 2013