Over the course of building Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios developed a house style for their blockbuster comic book movies that included a bright color palette, a light tone (particularly compared to their Distinguished Competition's more somber wares like Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy and Bryan Singer's self-serious Superman) that made room for plenty of humor amidst the derring-do, villains with a lot of firepower (but not much menace) and straightforward stories that lobbed few curveballs at the audience. What's interesting about Iron Man 3, which kicks off Phase 2 of the MCU, is that it very deliberately goes about blowing up Marvel's house style... along with the house of its signature hero, Tony Stark -- played, as always, by Robert Downey Jr. That particular point isn't a spoiler, since it's been heavily featured in the movie's many trailers and teasers. However, in order to really get into why IM3 represents such a departure (at least for a little while) from the Marvel status quo, I'm going to have to get into more specific detail about what incoming writer/director Shane Black (taking over from franchise starter, Jon Favreau) has in store for Tony and his armored alter ego without, of course, giving the whole game away. So here's a Spoiler Warning for anyone who has an ironclad resolve to go into the theater without hints of any kind.
Let's start with the biggest thing that surprised me about Iron Man 3, which is how little Iron Man there actually is in it. Well, okay, that's not 100 percent true. Technically, there are lots of Iron Men in the film, as, since the events of The Avengers, Tony has been busy in his workshop churning out new design after new design. But here's the thing: for much of the film, he's not wearing many of these new suits or even his classic look. That's because in the wake of going up against those aliens in New York and almost dying in the process, Tony has developed a genuine fear of being inside his armor -- it's his version of post-traumatic stress disorder. These days, being inside the Iron Man outfit feels like being inside a tomb... probably because it very nearly was, had he not plunged back through that wormhole a split-second before it closed and been caught by his ally-in-avenging, the Hulk. As Black reveals in a clever early scene, Stark has found a workaround for his particular problem: he's developed a remote device that allows him to pilot the armor without having to actually put it on. But that Band-Aid isn't a solution for the real problems that plague him, namely the nightmares that make sleep next to impossible and the gnawing sense of inadequacy that he's no longer a hero capable of saving the world.
This is a dramatically potent place to start from, particularly for a character who, up until now, has never experienced those kinds of serious self-doubts. And Black further ups the stakes right away, wasting little time introducing our new heavy, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), the leader of a terrorist ring who may not seem as imposing an enemy as an alien army, but nevertheless comes with a ruthlessness that Tony is unprepared for in his current state. It's the Mandarin who launches the helicopter strike that takes out Stark's cliffside manor -- in the first reel, no less -- cutting him off completely from the arsenal he's become so dependent on. Forced into his last remaining suit of armor, Tony zips away and crash-lands in the middle of nowhere, wounded, defeated and seemingly down for the count.
Black then embarks on a more familiar narrative arc, the resurrection of the fallen hero -- a storyline that's served as the engine of any number of Part 3's from Rocky III to The Dark Knight Rises. Fortunately, IM3 has some fresh tricks up its metal sleeves, starting with the way that Tony avoids having to go through some kind of re-training montage to get back into fighting shape. If anything, losing his workshop and fleet of suits proves to be just the push he needs to get him (mostly) past his personal issues; armed with an actual mission, he's re-focused and re-energized and seems especially thrilled to have to wage this particular battle outside of the suit. Typically, this kind of story ends with the man having re-learned how to be a hero. Black's version is ultimately about how the hero re-learns to be a man.
After the giant-sized spectacle of The Avengers, the temptation must have been enormous to make Iron Man 3 an equally big event, in the same way that Iron Man 2 tried to top its predecessor at the expense of little things like storytelling and character. And it's not as though Black stints on the action; in addition to the aerial assault that comes early in the movie, the movie is regularly punctuated by bursts of action -- the most spectacular of which is the Air Force One sequence where Iron Man has to rescue more free-falling government employees that he could ever hope to carry -- that climaxes in a massive confrontation in, unfortunately, the most generic of action movie locations: a shipyard. But these super-powered set-pieces aren't really where the writer/director's skills or, really, his interests lie. In fact, apart from the plane stunt, I found the in-suit action fairly lackluster and uninteresting, a grab-bag of isolated exciting and unexpected beats stirred into the usual mix of explosions and gunplay. It's a concession that the writer/director knew he had to make to the comic book formula and he goes about it with a sense of workmanlike duty. Even in his late '80s/early '90s heyday as Hollywood's premiere action scribe, Black took more pleasure in human-scale feats. That's why the one set-piece that feels the most energized and Black-ian is Tony's out-of-costume raid on the Mandarin's Florida compound -- a location that feels like it could have been ripped out of a Lethal Weapon picture. (This is also, by the way, the scene where Black drops the movie's biggest twist -- the biggest and best twist in any Marvel movie to date -- which I won't give away except to say that it fits his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang M.O. of cheekily tweaking traditional action picture conventions. It's already pissed a contingent of fanboys off, but for me at least, it nicely complements IM3's sense of humor and overarching theme about discovering the real person behind the good guy/bad guy mask projected to the world.)
Typically, by the third (fourth, counting The Avengers) film into a comic book franchise, the hero is the least interesting person onscreen. But that's not the case here, as Black -- working in concert with Downey, back in fine form after growing too cocky and comfortable in IM2 and The Avengers -- plots out a fully-realized arc for Tony. Unfortunately, that has the odd effect of magnifying the storylines and characterizations that are more half-assed, starting with bit of scientific phlebotinum that becomes the MacGuffin at the center of the movie. It's a kind of regeneration technology invented by scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, absolutely wasted in a role that starts off seeming vital and winds up an afterthought), who can't seem to crack the problem of keeping the regenerated object from exploding when it reaches a certain mass. It eventually emerges that this technology has been implanted within an army of super-soldiers (led by James Badge Dale) who may or may not be affiliated with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a once-dorky inventor who Stark previously shunned and has since transformed himself into a handsome and dangerous rival. This story thread feels somewhat like Marvel's attempt to re-do the Sam Rockewll-as-Justin Hammer fiasco in IM2 and while Pearce is devilishly charming in the part, as written Killian is more of a contrivance than a character, one who is kept at the edges of the frame for much of the movie until he conveniently emerges as the final obstacle placed in Tony's path, complete with the kind of generic bad-guy monologuing that Brad Bird rightly took aim at in The Incredibles. (Also joining the cast this time around is Ty Simpkins as a boy genius who Tony befriends to no particular narrative end. You might think that if anyone could write this particular character type without falling prey to Wesley Crusher Syndrome it would be Black... but you'd be wrong.)
Speaking of characters who are relegated to the sidelines, besides contractual obligation, there is no reason for Don Cheadle's Jim Rhodes to be in this movie. Introduced in an early scene as the "Iron Patriot" -- a Stark design loaned out to the government, Rhodes then disappears for much for the film, only popping back up again for an unconvincing development that implicates a certain high-ranking government official in the larger plot involving Killian and the Mandarin. Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts fares slightly better, if only because she and Downey are still fun to watch together, especially when knocking Black's staccato dialogue back and forth like a ping pong ball. And while it would have been nice had the writer/director found a way to avoid turning Pepper into the requisite damsel-in-distress, the payoff to that particular cliché is interesting... before the movie undoes it right before the credits roll. That's a good example of why I qualify Iron Man 3 as being both a success and a disappointment at the same time. For half the movie, Black challenges what audiences have come to expect from comic book movies and Marvel movies in particular. But then in the other half, he falls back on the same-old same-old.
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