By: Daniel Reynolds
It is remarkable to think that somehow Iron Man has become the de facto superhero representative of this young millennium. Oh sure, the Batman movies have been better, and we’ll always have Spider-Man 2 and all it’s beloved earnestness; but Iron Man remains as a bemused wink at the whole comic book movie… thing. With Iron Man 3 out in theatres last Friday (after destroying overseas markets for a week or two earlier), the franchise presumably is coming to a rest; well, until Tony Stark is called back to duty in the Avengers 2. The iron gears are forever turning.
The third adventure for Mr. Stark takes place after the events of Marvel’s The Avengers, which, in case you didn’t know, was the biggest movie of 2012 (and probably 2011. OK, of probably the decade). Working on the assumption that Iron Man’s audience is fully invested in the cinematic Marvel universe, the film jumps directly into a many-armoured plot involving the villainous corporation/think tank AIM, the mysterious terrorist the Mandarin, and blackhole induced anxiety attacks. Now, I know what you’re thinking: one of these things is not like the other. Yes, our carefree playboy superhero, Tony Stark, has been getting overwhelmed with the immensity of it all.
Returning comfortably to the role, even with this added wrinkle, is Robert Downey Jr; he of much glibness, twitching, and a smart mouth. After seeing RDJ in the iron boots for three movies (plus cameos!), we know what to expect. If he seems to be a little extra spry this time up it’s because his director (and co-writer, along with Drew Pierce, of the film) is old pal Shane Black (they worked together fruitfully on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Downey slides into Black’s dialogue like its a comfortable suit. And for the most part, the rest of the cast is game. Don Cheadle remains on hand to provide a convincingly upright counterpoint (Terrence Howard would never have been able to mutter: “The password is War Machine Rocks. With an X. All caps.”), Guy Pearce is suitably oily and Ben Kingsley puts on one goddamn hell of a show. The women of the film, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rebecca Hall, as is custom sadly, are mostly onscreen as damsels in distress. There is no lack of iron in the film, but if this admission feels like a waste of carbon resources, that’s because it is.
To make time for all these names, the film zooms along at an unflappable pace. Not even a detour into Anytown, USA, with Stark meeting his own version of a Shortround named Harley (Ty Simpkins), can slow its momentum. You get the feeling, however, that some of these moving parts are in motion purely because they should be, reason be damned. Take the many bad guys in the film: their motivations remain a bit thin (I would have settled for a Dr. Evil-esque demand for 100 billion dollars). We meet Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, in prologue, as a neglected crippled scientist who starts AIM, immediately tipping off that the ugly duckling shall have his revenge. It matters not that his plan, involving genetic tampering and exploding former soldiers, does not seem to have any logical endpoint. Sadly, Iron Man 3 does not quite escape the problems of Iron Man 2 with its villains. We are instructed that the Mandarin and Killian are evil, but their goals (as with Iron Man 2’s villains Whiplash and Justin Hammer) are lost in a hazy cloud of exhaust and molten metal.
Unlike Iron Man 2, which was mostly forgettable, IM3 has even more jokes for days, and Black never, ever misses an opportunity to underscore the absurdity of his explosive action set pieces with humour. I actually half-expected a moment for Cheadle or Downey (a classic black/white buddy duo, fighting crime… at Christmas?) to mutter that he was getting to old for this shit. Meanwhile, Kingsley gives a performance that feels like it was airdropped in from one of Downey’s other movies (more Tropic Thunder than Chaplin, mind you). His Mandarin is all accent and hair cut, a new age Ra’s Al Ghul wheeled out for the final show down. The comedy is generally welcome, and despite stretching credulity a time or two (a quitting henchman moment being my favourite), it remains the primary strength of Iron Man 3. The zip provides lift to the film in a genre that is too often top-heavy with inert drama.
Somewhere, buried underneath all the glibness and explosions (and there are some beauts), Iron Man grazes some ideas on heroic identity and the media currents of society. Remember, Iron Man is very much a product of our time (despite being invented 50 years ago). He’s wealthy, a tech wizard, he delights in fame (except when it doesn’t suit him), and is ultimately grappling with the demands of the public and the personal. In the comic books, Tony Stark grappled with alcoholism, revealing a rotting core inside that gleaming invincible suit. Here, it is the suit that keeps getting beat up and broken apart as Tony Stark deals with his anxiety and a fear of commitment. These are not exactly earth-shattering personal issues (save that for Avengers 2, where the earth may be in danger of actually getting shattered. Thanks Thanos!), but they add that extra human element necessary to sell us on the rest of the loud package. As a whole, Black does his part to keep the engine firing, but you never quite get away from hearing it running. For a blockbuster movie guaranteed to be an unstoppable hit: that’ll do.