The next phase of the Avengers sequence is underway with Iron Man 3 (2013), for my money the best solo Marvel release since the original Iron Man. This one managed to both satisfy and cleverly subvert my superhero-movie expectations, while deftly sidestepping most of the genre’s usual sociopolitical pitfalls.
In the wake of the alien invasion of New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) holes up in his Malibu mansion, coping with the aftermath of his near-death experience by burying himself in work: building iteration after iteration of new Iron Man armor. He’s finally stirred from this obsessive behavior when a terrorist attack perpetuated by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) seriously injures a close friend. Stark recklessly calls The Mandarin out, and the resulting conflict nearly gets him killed, then sends him on a perilous quest to root out The Mandarin and his organization, a mission that entangles him with the founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).
The best Marvel titles are more about the characters than the spectacle; the massive success of The Avengers certainly bears that out. Iron Man 3 embraces the lesson, really digging into Stark’s personality and giving Downey, Jr. some great, meaty material to work with. Part of what made the first Iron Man work so well was the way the experience transformed Stark. By acknowledging the movie progression and giving Stark a human reaction to the war of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 allows him to transform further. It’s a neat trick, delivering more of the Stark we already love, but giving him an added dimension. Downey, Jr. is in great form again here.
But Stark doesn’t get all the glory. The script, by Drew Pearce and director Shane Black, is uncommonly even-handed about giving the supporting stars their moments in the sun. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), and even Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) are given some great scenes of comedy and heroism, and contribute to the ensemble chemistry. As for newly introduced characters, I liked Rebecca Hall as shifty scientist Maya Hansen. Guy Pearce contributes effective, if rather familiar, villainy as Killian, but he’s surrounded by imposing hirelings like Stephanie Szostak and especially James Badge Dale, whose cocky lieutenant is a kick. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley steals the show as a cleverly reinterpreted Mandarin. I even liked Harley (Ty Simpkins), a cute little kid Stark bumps into during the adventure. (And I usually hate the cute little kid.)
Like most Marvel adventures, the requisite pyrotechnics at the finale are far less compelling than the escalation of the plot, but even here Iron Man 3 is a cut above, giving the action more emotional resonance in the way it incorporates the characters.
Other random things I liked:
- Funny A.I.M. thugs!
- The Air Force One rescue!
- Cleverly averted racism!
- Triumphantly averted sexism!
- Tony’s resourcefulness outside the suit!
- Gwyneth’s abs!
- A great post-credits kicker scene!
Very few complaints, then — a great start to Phase Two, I think. Anxious for the next one!