In the second sequel to Iron Man, titular hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) loses everything - even his iconic suits of armor. And that's just what this film needed in order to work as well as it does. In Iron Man 3, the rich playboy's arrogance costs him and those he cares about dearly, when a terrorist surrounded in mystery and mysticism launches a vengeful attack on the United States. But the real enemy is the wealthy entrepreneur who's pulling all the strings.
After three films' worth of Stark's ego, we now see a wiser, more humble Iron Man. Badly shaken by the events that took place in superhero mashup The Avengers, he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to lending a level of believability to the story, that also marks a definite point of character evolution. My main issue with the typical superhero sequel is that its main character is left to stagnate; to become a vapid archetype in a cape and tights, or else a supposed altruist with a Jesus complex. Iron Man 3 wants to convince the viewer that Stark is only a fragile human being, after all, and it does a good job of it.
The story begins with the usual snarky humor, but quickly takes a dark, violent turn: Antagonist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) orchestrates a number of bombings and murders an oil executive on national television, leaving the viewer to decide which is more rattling: his cold persona, or his valid points about the destruction and foreign affairs atrocities perpetuated by American one-percenters.
When Stark issues a televised threat to the Mandarin, the man responds by attacking Stark's home with guns and missiles, plunging all his Iron Man suits into the ocean, and nearly killing girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). After nearly dying himself, Stark ends up in a desperate situation in a small town, where he befriends a young boy and works to rebuild his only surviving suit of armor. This is a significant part of the film, as it brings the hero back down to Earth and humanizes him through his interactions with the people he is charged with protecting.
All is not what it seems when the real culprit behind the attacks is revealed to be rich scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who plans to kill the president and use the Mandarin persona to strike fear into the hearts of citizens.
Iron Man 3 speaks volumes about modern, real-world issues, like corporate greed, scapegoating, xenophobia, and the always-profit-driven beating of the war drums. The problem is, these are volumes that viewers are already familiar with. The story doesn't offer a new message, just an alternate take on one that was covered in the first Iron Man.
This one had a different director than the two that preceded it, and that can be felt throughout the film - and not necessarily in a good way. Erratic plot pacing plagued the movie, as well as the presence of throwaway characters and a lack of good character interaction. Shane Black doesn't seem to know how to make the chemistry work between Downey and Paltrow, for example. Though Downey's trademark poker-faced wisecracks are still well executed, his dialogue with Paltrow is a bit jarring; something is amiss.
On the other hand, Iron Man 3 is engaging in that it's very much about the men behind the machines - and that includes the corporate wealth machine. Furthermore, when Black casts the spotlight on Stark alone, he really gets underneath his skin and puts him in situations that move the story forward, however awkwardly. That willingness to test the characters and up the ante in terms of what the hero needs to deal with...that's something that Iron Man 2 never learned, and the third installment promptly corrects that. Downey's voiceover during the film sums that character development up nicely: "You start with something pure, something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises." This is not a film about a hero saving the day. This is a film about mistakes, violence, collateral damage, and how one can pick up the pieces in the end.
Unlike its predecessor, which glorified the high-tech Iron Man suits, Black's take on things shows us that the metal outfits are actually rather unimportant and disposable. Indeed, more of them are destroyed than put to actual use. What matters, we are told, is the man himself. Downey spends a greater portion of the film being Tony Stark than Iron Man, and that says something about the overall direction of this story. It's nice to see some "real people" on the big screen once in a while - explosions and plots to rule the world not withstanding.
Photo: Flickr (CC)
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce
2013, PG-13, 130 min.