Iron Man 3 represents Robert Downey Jr.'s last contractually-obligated Marvel film before he renegotiates for what will probably turn out to be the Gross Domestic Product of Portugal. Even if he doesn't return to the role, he certainly leaves the character on a high-note, presiding over an unconventional action blockbuster that defies expectations right up until the obligatory whiz-bang finale.
Screenwriters Drew Pearce and Shane Black continue to world-build the Marvel Universe with a script that closely references the events in last year's Avengers flick. After his near-death encounter at the hands of aliens and extra-planar beings, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has developed a chronic anxiety disorder. He can't sleep at night and spends every minute of every day tinkering with new Iron Man designs.
Tony's emotional distance also tests his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). This is heightened by the sudden re-appearance of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant and handsome scientist in charge of A.I.M. industries. Killian has developed the ability to re-sequence human DNA, which Pepper wisely characterizes as highly "weaponizable".
Things get even more complicated when super-terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) appears on the scene, hell-bent on destroying American hegemony. In a moment of pure hubris, Tony goads the villain into a confrontation by giving out his home address to the media. After the Mandarin pops by with the equivalent of an exploding fruit basket, our hero loses everything in a flash.
Like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Tony is forced to claw his way back to contender status without the aid of his gadgets. With help courtesy of proactive security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Iron Patriot ally James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), genetic scientist Dr. Maya Hensen (Rebecca Hall) and pint-sized fan Harley (Ty Simpkins), Tony attempts to puzzle out the unconventional nature of the Mandarin and foil the evil villain's scheme.
Iron Man 3 genuinely surprised me. After the meandering, committee-tainted, color-by-numbers Iron Man 2, this entry comes as a welcome relief. A lot of the credit goes to writer / director Shane Black, who's Lethal Weapon pedigree is gleefully on display here. In fact, there are times when the interplay between Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle evoke tones of a Riggs and Murtaugh-style bromance.
This third film in the trilogy is superior to its predecessor merely because there's a strong narrative arc that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Indeed, the script builds up its narrative like a perfectly-balanced Jenga puzzle. Tony's small-town sleuthing yields a revelation about the Mandarin's methods. His encounter with Harley yields some low-fi solutions and allows him to infiltrate the villain's hideout. The action hero-style dust-up's spring organically from plot complications and provide some genuinely compelling sequences.
Although this script is a deliberate effort to scale down from the epic, world-ending threat posed in The Avengers, there are still plenty of engaging action set pieces here. When Tony is confronted, sans armor, by a super-powered duo (James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak ) he's forced to come up with some truly creative tactics. Similar to The Dark Knight Rises, we don't see a lot of Iron Man, but when we do, it's pretty spectacular. For example, the free-fall, in-camera mid-air rescue is one of the most authentic and thrilling sequences I've seen in any action film recently.
The script is also a fine showcase for Shane Black's characteristically-snappy dialogue. The interplay between Tony, Pepper and Happy is lively, but not distractingly cheeky like it was in Iron Man 2. Of particular note is the relationship between Tony and his temporary / incidental ward Harley, played by nuanced newcomer Ty Simpkins. In a lesser film, Harley would be dragged along as a demographic-friendly sidekick, but here the kid serves his narrative function and is logically dispensed with. Thanks to a few shockingly blunt lines and some excellent comedic delivery from RDJ, sanity is immediately restored to the film.
Which brings me to the performances. Even with the Iron Man action scenes at a premium, Robert Downey Jr.'s omnipresent charisma instantly makes this a moot issue. He's compelling to watch since it's virtually impossible to catch him "emoting". Scientists really need to puzzle out the aging process since no-one on the planet could possibly inhabit this role so seamlessly.
Although the general populace seems willing to write Gwyneth Paltrow off as a quirky, spoiled little rich girl, I applaud her consistent presence in this series. Most creepy Hollywood types would have cast Pepper as a twenty-five-year-old, flavor-of-the-week ingenue fawning over a forty-eight-year-old man. I'm also thankful that Black and Pearce actually gave Paltrow something to do other then serve as "girl hostage". In fact, Pepper plays a pivotal part (try saying that five times real quick!) in the film's shocking denouement.
It also comes as a welcome relief that Don Cheadle is a legitimate presence. Personally, I think a James Rhodes / Iron Patriot movie would be a great way to do some sly social commentary and Lord knows Cheadle has the gravitas to pull it off. His scenes with RDJ at the end of the film effortlessly conveys a wealth of history between the two, even when things are degenerating into vapid pyrotechnics.
At first I was irked by the script's unconventional approach to the Mandarin, but as the film unspooled I found myself becoming more and more predisposed to the idea. In Iron Man 3 Ben Kingsley is a called upon to inhabit a nuanced and interesting persona and the result is an on-screen actor's studio. Duly inspired by his performance here, I plan to set up an "Avaaz" petition ensuring that Kingsley gets a part in every good film that's made from here on out.
Guy Pearce completes the villainous one-two punch as Aldrich Killian. Although his overtly-dorky first appearance in the film makes him look like Kristen Bell's Marni in You Again, I gotta give the guy mad props for pulling off the metamorphosis. Armed with a perfect storm of intelligence, smarm and lethal ass-kickery, you'll have no problem buying him as a serious threat.
After watching Iron Man 3, I can't help but wonder if Robert Downey Jr. just wanted to avoid being in the suit as possible. Whatever the reason, it resulted in a consistently-surprising script, at least up until the very end. Pity Black and Pearce felt compelled to deliver big, dumb, splashy, explosive, barely-logical ending in order to appease the slack-jawed troglodytes who demand this sort of thing nowadays.
Indeed, the eleventh-hour "fleet of Iron Men" cavalry scene (openly revealed in the trailer no less!) is particularly galling. I assume Tony couldn't initiate this "Hail Mary" play any earlier because of the damage sustained to Jarvis and the remaining suit, but it's still a sad script convenience that's anathema to the low-tech theme of the story. Frankly, I think it would have been a lot more thrilling to see Tony take on the Mandarin in a single, half-destroyed Iron Man suit.
Regardless of any missteps into cliche, the film's supremely-talented star manages to single-handedly make everything forty percent more awesome. When the suits at Marvel Studios screw up the courage to call RDJ's agent again, I think "YES", "SURE", "DEFINITELY", "ABSOLUTELY", "WE CAN DO THAT" and "NO, THAT'S A REASONABLE AMOUNT" should be their conversational mantra.