The Marvel movie universe owes an awful lot to Iron Man. When the House of Ideas kickstarted its shared franchise enterprise in 2008, it did so without the film rights to prime attractions like Spider-Man, the X-men, and the Fantastic Four. It still had a few heavy hitters for sure, but besides Captain America and the Hulk (a hero whose own continuity-independent movie had tanked only a few years earlier), there weren’t too many heroes on the roster that the average non-comic geek would recognize. Uncertainties abounded.
Smash-cut to 2012. “The Avengers” is making truly obscene amounts of money and Marvel execs are proudly talking about phases two and three of their movie slate, with eventual plans to greenlight films for characters like Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy – characters that would have been considered cinematic poison four years earlier.
For that success, Marvel and corporate parent Disney can thank Robert Downey Jr., the Iron Man character and the original “Iron Man” film most of all.
The dirty little secret about the Marvel movie universe is that only about half of its movies so far have been truly good. “Captain America” is a fun actioner, but you couldn’t kickstart a genre juggernaut with films like the tepid “Incredible Hulk” or the only OK “Thor.” To light the powderkeg of excitement around the Marvel universe, the studio needed something stylish, eminently cool looking, and in possession of its own, unique point of view. “Iron Man” had all of these attributes in spades, and its tale of a self-centered weapons manufacturer who suddenly has a crisis of conscience is still the subtlest, smartest, and – second to special effects bonanza “The Avengers” – best looking movie The House of Ideas has produced.
2008 was a big year for superheroes. “The Dark Knight” also came out that summer, and many of the superhero movies that have come since have attempted to ape the style of “Iron Man” or his bat-cowled cousin. After last year, however, when the Nolan Bat-series’ self-seriousness reached a tipping point with “The Dark Knight Rises” and Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” hit a new high in terms of scope, it seems that spectacle has become the order of the day.
The trailers I saw before “Iron Man 3” certainly seemed to confirm this. Between the ads for “Thor: The Dark World,” “The Wolverine,” “Star Trek,” “White House Down,” “Fast and Furious 6” and “The Lone Ranger,” I think I saw more explosions and gunplay than I did in all of “Iron Man 3,” and this is a movie with no shortage of either.
At first blush, the plot of “Iron Man 3” appears to be on two tracks. On the superhero side, a theatrical terrorist known as the Mandarin (an excellent Ben Kingsley, playing a character that at first appears to be the kind of person Osama Bin Laden would have been if he also edited music videos) is carrying out a series of deadly bombings around the world and indicting the U.S. for policies both domestic and foreign. On the personal side, Downey’s Tony Stark is distracting himself with his work (mostly consisting of the creation of 40-some Iron Man suits), his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and anything else he can get his hands on in order to not think about the events that traumatized him in “The Avengers.” Casual viewers may need to be reminded that Tony-as-Iron-Man flew a nuclear warhead into a wormhole, destroying an alien invasion force before almost falling to his death through the skies over New York City (not the worst thing to ever happen to Tony in a comic book, but stressful stuff for the likes of you and me).
In between Tony’s anxiety attacks and the Mandarin’s actual attacks, a scientist with cloudy motives is trying to get Tony and/or Pepper back into something that sounds suspiciously like the weapons trade. Will all of these things come together in a neat little bow? Of course they will; this is a comic book blockbuster.
“Iron Man 3” is definitely a post-“Avengers” film. It’s called out as such in the film’s apocalyptic approach to action, in its fawning shots of the different Iron Man armors, and directly and indirectly in its dialogue. “Ever since the guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety kind of went out the window,” one character jokes to another.
Subtle is certainly not an adjective one could use to describe this movie. It lovingly renders all manner of good-looking mayhem, including explosions, molten metal, men thrown hundreds of feet, bloodless gunplay and a dramatic aerial rescue. If you watch it solely to see splashy action, you will get your money’s worth, although I’d argue there isn’t an action scene here as cool as the first film’s Iron Man jailbreak or Iron Man vs. fighter jets. There are a couple of nice character moments – some bantering scenes between Tony and a young Tennessee child are a particular highlight – but there are few scenes that recall “Iron Man’s” crises of conscience, jocular press conferences and sweet chemistry between Tony and Pepper.
That being said, “Iron Man 3” is still a pretty decent flick, thanks to one thing that a lot of the movies I saw in those trailers seem to be forgetting: though it desperately wants to be as epic as “The Avengers,” the movie realizes that both “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” didn’t succeed just because they were slick pieces of entertainment. They succeeded because there was brain hidden beneath that overwhelming aura of cool.
As such, “Iron Man 3” earns its distinctiveness by subverting your expectations whenever it can, be it through character motivations, climactic action sequences or who ends up offing who. In my paragraph describing the film’s plot, notice that I used the phrase “at first blush.” By the end of its two and a half hours, “Iron Man 3’s” plot is significantly different than what you think it’s going to be, with one revelation in particular – you’ll know it when you see it –being clever enough to almost merit a recommendation on its own. Also, as is the case with its two predecessors, “Iron Man 3” is funny in a much more genuine way than many of its run-and-gun peers, and Downey, Paltrow, and James Rhodes’s Don Cheadle seem to be having a good time.
In short: I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Superhero fans have become accustomed enough to seeing their favorite characters onscreen that they no longer have cause to be excited just because Spider-Man is getting his own movie. To a jaded lover of cape comics and their films, “Iron Man 3” does its job pretty well, but not with the verve and joy that accompanies Marvel’s best efforts.
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