IRON MAN 3 Review: Everything Old Is New Again
I had a cute open for this review, even before I saw the film. It had to do with certain issues I have with flying and falling and great heights, and deciding to see a movie about a superhero who flies to, and falls from, great heights, and seeing that movie in 3D IMAX, a format that is supposed make you feel like you are flying to, and falling from, great heights.
But not too long into the first act I knew that my original open had to go. Something more relevant had sprung to mind.
In June 2012, I wrote a column where I expressed something of a lament for what I consider to be the traditional action film (think Die Hard) evolving into what we refer to today as the superhero movie (think The Avengers). It’s not as though I don’t like superhero movies; I like them a lot. It’s just that I come from the ’80s, that Golden Age of of action films, and I’m nothing if not nostalgic. So imagine my surprise when one of the masters of Golden Age action films took one of the most anticipated films of the year – the third installment of one of the most popular superhero franchises of all time – and turned it from a “superhero movie with action in it” to an “action movie with superheroes in it.” In the middle of the movie.
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is unraveling. The events that took place in The Avengers – particularly the whole “portal to another dimension inhabited by gods and monsters” (plus that near-death experience) – are taking a toll on his psyche, causing insomnia and anxiety attacks. This is not only impacting his health, but also his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Complicating matters are Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant scientist with a connection to Stark’s past, and the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious terrorist with a penchant for random bombings who is threatening the White House. When one of the Mandarin’s bombings puts the life of Stark’s loyal man-Friday Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in serious jeopardy, Stark fully engages the terrorist … but at what cost?
Out of the gate, Iron Man 3 offers another glimpse into the psychology (at least a little bit) of Tony Stark. In the first film, Stark comes to grips with the morality of defense contracting (read: being a death merchant). The sequel is about managing the memory of his brilliant, late father. This time, it’s about Stark’s own mortality and the danger in which his lifestyle places Pepper. Have no illusions; the film does not offer a deep exploration of Stark’s subconscious, but it does at least address the fact that, despite the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist title he holds, and despite all the armor and gadgets, he’s just an ordinary person (as opposed to his fellow Avengers, who consist of highly trained spies, a god, a supersoldier, and an indestructible behemoth), and ordinary people are prone – and rightfully so – to freak out under such stressful circumstances, especially when those circumstances never seem to stop. Again, no full psych-eval is done, but the acknowledgement of the hero’s humanity is worthy of note. (Honestly, I think, as viewers, we forget sometimes that heroes are human too, or at least can be.)
Of course, there are people in peril and lives must be saved, but the overarching theme of Iron Man 3 is revenge. Some of this is made evident in the trailers, when Stark addresses the Mandarin via an impromptu statement to the press (“No politics here, just good old fashioned revenge.”). Discussing other vengeful threads would dance a little too close to spoiler territory, but they’re there. And while there is a singular main villain (with minions, of course) that must be defeated, other enemies aren’t always so clear, and I like that.
Other Iron Man staples are in the film, of course, most notably Paul Bettany as the voice of Jarvis and Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes, aka Iron Patriot. You may remember Iron Patriot better as War Machine from Iron Man 2, but in one of the film’s many humorous moments, Rhodes explains to Stark that opinion polling found the name “War Machine” unfavorable, so a rebranding effort is underway. Also keep a lookout for the Stan Lee blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo; it’s cute. One staple not present? The music of AC/DC. This disappointed me; the group’s music has become anthemic of the franchise, and I wish it had been used here.
There’s also a great subplot involving Tony’s unexpected friendship with a young boy, Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), who plays a role of consequence in Stark’s journey in this film. The chemistry between the two is genuine and warm and funny, and Keener gives Stark an opportunity to be something of a father-figure to someone, albeit briefly. (Let’s face it, between a superhero dad and a corporate mom, children don’t look like a viable option for the Stark/Potts household). Does this open the door for future plot possibilities? Sure, although I think only technically; I didn’t get any kind of vibe that the kid was the next generation.
That’s the second time I’ve mentioned humor, and while the previous two films in the franchise have their moments, Iron Man 3 is certainly the funniest of them, and this level of levity is one of several noticeable signatures of a Shane Black creation.
When I read the news long ago that the keys to the Iron Man franchise had been tossed to writer/director Black, my interest was piqued. Black is the screenwriter who created the (arguably) quintessential buddy-cop action film, 1987’s Lethal Weapon. He’s also responsible for The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, and others. But this was Black’s first creative effort with an existing universe and the rabid fan base that comes with it, so I was curious to see how someone with a specific creative style would script and direct a film featuring characters that come with great preconception. He didn’t disappoint.
I made a comment on Facebook immediately following my screening suggesting that Black’s fingerprints could be found on the first two acts. Little touches like the humor and a Christmas setting and the important role of a child and kidnapping all suggested Black’s involvement. There were even appearances of scantily-clad women (appearances that were entirely unnecessary to the advancement of the film), as well as far more gunplay than any superhero film I can think of (short of Captain America: The First Avenger, but that film’s gunplay was driven by the era in which the film took place), that took me back to the Black of the ’80s and ’90s. But he wasn’t done. In that same Facebook comment, I suggested that if Black’s fingerprints were on the first two acts, then he gave birth to the third act. And this is what ultimately pleased me the most, although in the moment I was torn.
The third act of this film is a full-tilt action experience in the vein of Golden Age action films. Yes, the players are superheroes and supervillains to varying degrees; yes (as the trailer suggests), there is a small army of auto-piloted iron men who come to the rescue to do battle with the villain’s henchmen; and yes, the conclusion of the action requires something otherworldly that a suicidal cop or soccer-mom assassin couldn’t possibly do; but the whole feel of it suggests it is an action movie with some superheroes as opposed to a superhero movie with some action. At first I was torn because, hey, it’s a superhero movie and my favorite superhero franchise and what the hell does this guy think he’s doing, but as the action kept coming and coming and coming, I was sold because Black managed to successfully combine the favorite of my present with the favorite of my past. It is one helluva ride.
(I must also give kudos to Black for devising and executing some very clever uses for Iron’s Man’s thrusters. Black recognizes that all that power can have nuance, too.)
As for the IMAX 3D experience, it’s a winner. My opposition to, and general disdain for, filmmaking gimmicks are well-documented, but Iron Man 3 outright earns an exemption from me because Black is smart enough to resist the temptation that other 3D films can’t: throwing things out at the audience. He’s also (and this was really surprising to me) gifted enough a director to fully understand and maximize the depth of an image. Several scenes, including the helicopter attack on Stark’s home and the finale, but particularly the sequence when people are sucked out of Air Force One and look to plummet to their doom, are breathtaking. (Confession: That particular sequence is so breathtaking, I had to glance at the seat in front of me once or twice to remind myself I wasn’t falling out of Air Force One with them.) And since Black had the clear vision and completely nailed the execution, projecting it all on a screen 52′ x 72′ makes it all the better.
There are purists of the Iron Man comic books who will be (and already are) unhappy with certain events in the film. And there are purists of the Iron Man films (including his cameos in titles not his own) who will be (and already are) unhappy with Black’s directorial effort. But if you want to strap yourself into a thrill ride for 130 minutes, you cannot go wrong with Iron Man 3, no matter how many Ds or what size the screen.