I liked Iron Man 3. Let’s start with that. Despite any inference you may make to the contrary based on what follows, I had fun watching the movie. Robert Downey, Jr. is as delightful as ever, and the film as a whole is in Iron Man/The Avengers tier of Marvel superhero movies (for reference, I put Iron Man 2 a step below them, and Thor and Captain America at the bottom of the heap). So it’s good. I liked it. But at the end of the day, it’s also just another Marvel superhero movie and nothing more.
Because Iron Man 3 takes place in Marvel’s interconnected movie continuity, the story is far more of a direct sequel to The Avengers than it is to Iron Man 2. Thus, Tony Stark finds himself tinkering with new armors and technologies, unable to sleep, and haunted by the memories of “New York,” aka the intergalactic wormhole into which he flew a nuclear warhead and nearly died. Tony’s eyes have been opened, and the universe is a lot scarier of a place than this former weapons designer previously though. Somewhat separate is the plot pertaining to this film’s villain, the Mandarin, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. The Mandarin is a terrorist figure whom the government, and in particular Don Cheadle’s Lt. James Rhodes-as-War-Machine-rechristened-Iron Patriot, has had trouble finding. After Tony’s security chief (Jon Favreau, who did not direct this installment) is severely injured in a blast, Tony personally challenges the Mandarin and all hell breaks loose from there.
I guess my main impression upon leaving the theater was to be a little underwhelmed. With The Avengers, we got a fairly mindless but nonetheless enthralling film that leaned heavily on the fact that its main characters were already established, and therefore was free to cut loose on multiple narrative arcs without doing much of any character development. And as far as stakes go, you really can’t get much bigger than “The world is under attack by aliens.” So in returning to solo films, it seems to me that the smartest thing to do would be to focus on those characters in a very small, personal way.
Iron Man 3 certainly seems to understand this on some level. Stark’s character arc is very much about feeling disempowered. As he says early on, “I’m just a man in a can.” This is the perfect place to take his character. Not only does it reawaken questions of who is Iron Man – Tony or the suit – but it reflects the very foundations of Tony’s world being undermined. He is a scientist, a brilliant one. But he is ultimately constrained by the world of physics. In The Avengers, he’s encountered forces which are beyond his comprehension, and as a result he’s no longer cocky about his ability to protect the ones he loves.
The film does a pretty good job of highlighting this point, but it never really becomes the film’s driving narrative impetus. Our attentions are quickly shifted to both the Mandarin and Aldrich Killian, a shady scientist from Tony’s past played by Guy Pierce. And it’s here that the film begins to feel very disjointed. Simultaneously, but mostly unrelatedly, there are the following forces at play: Tony trying to cope with fallout from The Avengers, Tony trying to define himself as more than just a guy in a suit, Tony fighting the Mandarin, and Tony fighting Killian’s “Extremis” gang of walking time bombs/magma people (for sake of spoilers and sheer difficulty of concise explanation, just go watch the film if you want to know exactly what I mean). All the pieces work ok on their own, but there’s a limited amount of connective tissue.
And that’s really what prevents the film from being something more than it is. This film feels too much like a formula. Bad guys? Check. Armor? Check. Tony Stark snark? Check (this actually obtrusive this time around, like the film takes a time out to tell a joke then goes back to the real action). Nevermind whether it wholly fits with this particular Iron Man story. It’s expected. We’re never given the chance to explore the significance of some very nifty pieces, despite appearances to the contrary. The movie feels kind of empty as a result.
From this point, the review is going to move in to full spoiler territory. If you have not yet seen the movie it is highly recommended you skip down to The Verdict.
Let’s start with the Mandarin. At first glance, the Mandarin seems like the perfect villain for post-Avengers Iron Man. As discussed above, Tony’s main psychological trauma stems from the fact that magic and aliens have been introduced to his scientific, comprehensible world. In the comics, the Mandarin draws his power from ten mystical alien rings. Essentially, he has magic at his control. What better way to force Tony to confront his fear than to introduce a magical nemesis?
Now before we go any farther, I’d like to acknowledge that the twist was good. Probably one of the better parts of the film, in fact. That doesn’t mean, however, that it was a good idea. Good execution does not equal good conception. This feels to me like a golden opportunity utterly wasted. Forget Extremis, let the Mandarin, wholly on his own, push Tony Stark to the edge.
Which brings us to Extremis, perhaps my least favorite part of the film, though very hard to talk about abstractly which is why it’s down here and not in the spoiler-free section. First off, with the above conception of the Mandarin, Extremis would be entirely superfluous, and it doesn’t wholly shake that feeling in the existing movie. The henchmen feel like excuses for Iron Man to have a difficult fight. But what’s more frustrating is that their power is never explained at all. What are the limits of their power? What do they sacrifice to regenerate, or to melt armors (OP much?). It goes back to the formula – there has to be a villain powerful enough to physically threaten the hero. I get that. But it never moves beyond formula. Think about The Dark Knight. The Joker is able to physically threaten Batman even if he can’t hope to go toe to toe with Batman, and the nuance that emerges from that dynamic is what made The Dark Knight great.
This, of course, leads to the final battle between Tony’s armors and the Extremis thugs, which is exactly what the film didn’t need. First off, the fight borders too closely to the truly absurd, Tony flinging himself all over the place and losing armors left and right. It had no personal punch, despite Pepper’s near death experience. Again, the film was disjointed. The fight didn’t really relate to the psychological plotlines we care about. Extremis, after all, is science. Science Tony fixes in about five minutes, which is the other reason the fight just doesn’t carry any weight. Let’s also consider, for a moment, how easy it was for Tony to call in all those armors. That would have been useful when attacking the Mandarin’s stronghold.
The Verdict: 6 out of 10 (Concept 3/5, Execution 3/5)
Iron Man 3 is of the upper echelon of Marvel superhero movies, but it’s far from perfect. There’s plenty to like here, particularly for comics fans, but there’s also plenty that could have been so much better. As much as anything, though, Iron Man 3 fails to iterate on what has come before it, and, despite all the excitement, feels a little tired as a result.