I have to admit that I went into Iron Man 3 with a bit of trepidation. The concluding film of a trilogy is tricky. Viewers want a movie that acknowledges the previous two installments and offers an overall resolution, but they also want a film that fully stands on its own with a new storyline that captures their imaginations. Factor in the high likelihood of a “been there done that” reaction when it comes to action sequences and effects in the superhero and science fiction genres, and the third film in a series is a bit of a high wire act for the creative talents in charge. In the case of Iron Man 3, the possibility of our hero wearing a little thin is even greater when you consider this is actually his fourth appearance on the big screen after 2012’s The Avengers.
And there have been some bad concluding chapters to film trilogies. Anyone remember The Matrix Revolutions (2003)? Uh, favorably, that is. Outside of the realms of science fiction, The Godfather: Part III (1990) proved you can’t go home again and sometimes you shouldn’t try. I’ll even risk blasphemy among my sci-fi pals and the fanboys of the world by pointing out that Revenge of the Jedi was far and away the weakest of the original Star Wars films. Not a bad film by any means, but not really worthy of being the exclamation point at the end of that epic story. So, all is lost? Not necessarily. Last summer Christopher Nolan gave us ample reason to believe in the final chapter of a trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises and showed us that a talented screenwriter, director and cast can offer audiences a satisfying finale to a story that has spanned five years of viewing.
When Iron Man 3 opens, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is suffering from post-traumatic stress after battling aliens and thwarting global destruction with his fellow Avengers. He prefers to call them anxiety attacks, but he has mostly withdrawn from public life and throws himself into his work with marathon 72-hour work sessions that are beginning to alienate his live-in girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In the background, the nightly news is full of accounts of a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who is peddling his anti-American sentiment across the globe and encouraging his own version of international jihad.
Tony shows little interest in stopping The Mandarin, and the government is happy for him to leave it to the U.S. military efforts being led by Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and his armored alter ego, War Machine. Meanwhile, two acquaintances from Tony and Pepper’s pasts arrive in the form of fellow scientists Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). They are peddling a formula that regenerates DNA, but has the nasty side effect of combusting like an IED if not administered carefully. Pepper decides that Stark Industrial is not the home for their genetic product, but the audience knows that we haven’t seen the last of Maya and Aldrich.
When an impromptu explosion nearly kills Tony’s chief of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), he takes it personally and calls out The Mandarin live on international media. It’s not politics. It’s not a declaration of war on terror. “This is just good old-fashioned revenge,” Tony tells the assembled reporters. And faster than you can say “Mad Scientist”, explosions ensue and action-filled CGI sequences fill the screen, and the audience knows that the 2013 summer blockbuster season has commenced.
The primary success of the Iron Man franchise has always been Robert Downey, Jr. His combination of snarky humor and earnestness combine to make Tony Stark/Iron Man the most believable superhero in the Marvel film universe. No radioactive spiders, Gamma radiation, Norse hammer or silver surfboard is needed to explain Tony Stark’s abilities. His transformation from self-involved wealthy playboy to guardian of American security has been credibly portrayed over the three films, and it’s our ability to identify with Stark that makes Iron Man less a fanciful comic book movie and more an action film with doses of real drama. With all the flying suits of armor and glow-in-the-dark genetically-altered soldiers running around, Robert Downey, Jr. grounds Iron Man 3 and adds a human dimension to a film that could have easily devolved into video game silliness.
For all that Downey, Jr. brings to his role, Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of Pepper Potts is a total snooze. We know that she and Tony are in love because they tell us so, but there is no real chemistry between the two stars. Whether she’s kissing Tony or fighting for her life, Paltrow manages to make her every moment on screen as bland as possible, giving her superhero co-star that much more weight to carry in the film. The second performance in Iron Man 3 that is worthy of praise is Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. He gives us a super villain literally unlike any other to grace the big screen and his performance pays off in a big way, just not how you might expect.
A nod should be given to the screenwriting team of Drew Pearce and Shane Black for placing their characters in a world that we so readily recognize. Everything from the terrorist propaganda videos to the explosions and mayhem in public places to the Bin Laden beard sported by Ben Kingsley immediately strike a nerve with the audience. Even the virtually-controlled Iron Man suits flying across the screen will have viewers thinking about the real world drones that populate the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan searching for dangerous targets to eradicate with the push of a button.
The only thing that prevents Iron Man 3 from being an exceptional example of the comic book film genre is the fact that so much of the plot is an uninspired retread of previous Marvel films. In the end, the villains are just the usual mad scientists with a desire to rule the world to some degree. For the hundredth time, the forces of evil decide to hit our hero where it hurts the most – on the home front by attacking those he loves. And as with most of superhero films, the grand finale overstays its welcome and proves there are only so many ways to dispatch bad guys, destroy buildings and blow-up the movie landscape. But, only a total killjoy wouldn’t acknowledge that despite all these flaws, when all is said and done, Iron Man 3 is a fun night at the theater and a cut above the typical summer escapist fare playing at your local theater.
8 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.