REVIEW SUMMARY: Messy and needlessly convoluted, lacking much of the cleverness and insight of Iron Man and Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3 still engages thanks to director Shane Black’s remarkable set pieces.
SYNOPSIS: As Tony Stark deals with the emotional fallout of his previous adventure with the Avengers, the terrorist knwon as the Mandarin strikes targets in the U.S., once more causing Stark to return to service as Iron Man.
PROS: Watchable action sequences; good twist on the Mandarin character.
CONS: Characters too broadly drawn; routine and at times clichéd screenplay; feels smaller than previous efforts.
The biggest threat posed in Iron Man 3, the first post–Marvel’s The Avengers superhero movie featuring a member of Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking team-up, is neither Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his group nor the Mandarin’s (Ben Kingsley) terrorist bombing plot, but scope itself. Iron Man worked because director Jon Favreau injected independent film sensibilities into a blockbuster comic book movie, something that other directors either never attempted or tried unsuccessfully. This hampered Iron Man 2, a soulless placeholder that, for all its numerous, crippling faults, still gave us Garry Shandling and Sam Rockwell in a popular superhero picture.
In Iron Man 3, director and co-screenwriter Shane Black also wants to stir in elements of the traditional action picture—understandable given Black’s work on the million-dollar screenplays for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and direction of the metafictional Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which also starred Robert Downey, Jr.), but also and simultaneously cinematic over- and underkill. Overkill, because Black and co-writer Drew Pearce stuff so much into Iron Man 3 that loose plot threads dangle and new characters receive too little time to develop; even Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark seems more shrill than self-assured, his post-traumatic stress after his near-death experience in The Avengers (and referred to several times in Iron Man 3) never fully explored beyond his statement, as the movie begins, that he is a “hot mess.” Underkill, because, after the the pan-dimensional threat posed by Loki, Killian’s and the Mandarin’s Tom Clancy–esque schemes seem small-scale.
As does Stark’s ego itself. As the main action of Iron Man 3 begins, Stark has returned to his California home after the events of The Avengers, filled with incredible anxiety (“I build cool things. I got a great girl. Save the world sometimes. So why can’t I sleep?”) and obsessed with new projects surrounding his primary-colored cyberarmor to compensate. Even his friend and co-super soldier James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) fights through his obsession with the name change of his own armor (formerly War Machine, now Iron Patriot, providing what should be ideal Stark snark that unfortunately sputters) to express concern, while partner Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) expresses frustration at Stark’s single-minded hyperfocus. His focus shifts when a terrorist known only as the Mandarin, responsible for a series of mysterious bombings that leave no forensic evidence, attacks Los Angeles’s Chinese Theater, injuring Stark Industries security chief (and Stark friend) Happy Hogan (Favreau). When he issues a televised threat to the Mandarin, Stark himself becomes the next target; as scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) attempts to warn him, helicopter gunships attack Stark’s home. Potts and Maya survive the attack (the artificial intelligence agent JARVIS, voiced by Paul Bettany, pieces the Iron Man armor onto Potts in a remarkable sequence), and JARVIS flies an unconscious Stark to Tennessee, the scene of the first bombing for which the Mandarin is presumed responsible, while the rest of the world believes him dead.
When he awakens, Stark teams with a young boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins) to investigate the scene of the first bombing, learning that the bombings were the result of solders injected with a virus named Extremis, invented by Maya to allow those with crippling injuries to recover, but with the side effect of turning its subjects into walking bombs. Meanwhile, Killian, in league with the Mandarin and obsessed with Stark’s death (Stark had rebuffed him during a 1999 New Year’s Eve party), begins unfolding phase two of his own plan, involving a major strike against the United States…why is never made clear, and the plan, when finally unfolded (in convoluted fashion) never makes sense. Despite the biological superweapons developed by Maya, the plan masterminded by Killian and executed by the Mandarian feels mundane and conventional, as if Black and Pearce, compelled to top the previous efforts, lost their nerve and slipped into 1980s action clichés. This especially shows when Stark and Rhodes raid the Mandarin’s Miami home; though the revelations provide no small amount of amusement, the sequence reminds astute viewers of the climax of Martin Brest’s Beverly Hills Cop. Had Black and Pearce deepened the characters, this might not have been so noticeable.
Unfortunately, the screenplay draws recurring and new characters alike too broadly to make them stand out. This is especially true of Stark, whose charm previously shone through with a single “it’s fucking awesome to be me” smile. That smile dips into a smirk, and makes him less appealing; even his banter with Potts, initially reminiscent of Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, sounds like anemic cobras spitting. The lack of depth hampers efforts by Iron Man 3’s thespians to do much more than posture and preen.
And yet, Iron Man 3 still manages to be fun, even as it veers close to crashing. It loses much of its luster when Black’s direction sticks to action fare, but shines in such sequences as a fight between Stark and a pair of Extremis-enhanced soldiers, and during the shipyard climax. Yes, Iron Man 3 is, as Stark himself admits, a hot mess, but often a very cool one…or, at least, one that never leaves the viewer cold.