Iron Man 3 has a fairly monumental task before it. For starters, it’s the opening salvo of Marvel’s ambitious Phase Two… which means, among other things, that it has to follow up the triumph of The Avengers. It’s also the first Iron Man without Jon Favreau at the helm, the official opener to the summer of 2013, and the conclusion to a trilogy… which normally doesn’t bode well for the film in question. Against those looming expectations, Iron Man 3 relies on the tried-and-true charms of star Robert Downey Jr., as well as a plan to shake things up by going smaller instead of bigger. I’m pleased to report that it comes through with flying colors.
The intimate nature of the film may be its secret weapon, focusing on Tony Stark’s (Downey) emotional state and the identity crisis provoked by events in The Avengers. He didn’t come through the final battle unscathed, with night sweats and PTSD freak-outs becoming increasingly common. He responds by diving back into his workshop, tinkering with new kinds of armor to keep him even safer. Naturally, that’s when the walls cave in, thanks to a notorious terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and spurned biotechnology developer Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). As the ads imply, he loses everything, and has to resolve himself to battling these threats without any help from his high-tech toys.
The crisis of confidence becomes Tony’s biggest challenge, with those he loves in the crosshairs and no idea if he can pull it off. Thor’s a god, the Hulk is unstoppable, and even Captain America can always find a path to victory. “I’m just a guy in a tin can,” he confesses to gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), an impression he needs to shake if he wants to come out of this on top. Downey never loses sight of those insecurities, bubbling beneath his one-liners and threatening to cripple Tony at the worst possible moments. Thanks to the strength of the character and a performer who knows him so well by now, his journey proves as riveting as any alien invader or larger-than-life catastrophe.
Director/co-writer Shane Black deserves a great deal of the credit not only for making that journey so harrowing, but keeping the energy and humor up as well. Iron Man has always been the funniest of Marvel’s Avengers entries, and Black knows how to deliver that without turning the characters into parodies of themselves. We get the easy banter between the characters – some of the dialogue ranks as the funniest uttered all year – but it doesn’t detract from their fundamental dilemmas, or from the danger looming above them all. It’s quite a trick to pull off, but Black makes it look very easy.
That goes double for the film’s action sequences, which suffer from some surprisingly sketchy effects work, but still play like gangbusters thanks to the imagination at their heart. The best of them involves thirteen people in free-fall, with Tony only able to carry four. Black not only finds a creative solution to the problem, but delivers it to us with precisely the kind of white-knuckle exhilaration that movies like this are made for.
Perhaps most importantly, Iron Man 3 avoids the fatal doldrums that gripped Iron Man 2. That film started out a little stronger than this one, but faltered badly as it made its way to the finish line. Here, the filmmakers never lose focus, and though the occasional dead spot crops up here and there, it stays on target instead of meandering all over the landscape. It gets some help from a colossal twist midway through, one that I’m certain will polarize fans as sharply as anything we’ve yet seen in the Marvel movie universe. I thought it was a work of genius, but others might disagree; expect the resulting nerd wars to be epic.
That, of course, is part and parcel of the Marvel franchise, now ranking as one of the most epic in movie history and showing no signs of slowing down. Iron Man 3 retains the organic connection to its predecessors, including some quiet nods to The Avengers that remind us where we’ve been without drawing the wrong kind of conclusions. Marvel truly seems to have transferred the heart of its comic books directly to the big screen, complete with crossover arcs and ongoing adventures bound tightly in the entries that came before it. Downey has been a driving force from the beginning: an ideal choice for Tony Stark who has fulfilled the character’s potential in ways we could never imagine. Iron Man 3 brings his accomplishment full circle, and while I can’t imagine anyone else being able to step into this role, he could walk away now and leave nothing but honor in his wake. Whether it marks an ending, a beginning or something in between, it really doesn’t matter. Iron Man 3 starts the summer off right; we could hardly ask for anything more.