NOTE: MILD SPOILERS! (I will not give away major plot points, but there may be something here you don’t want to know. Consider yourself warned.)
After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is targeted by the terrorist group headed by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
Iron Man 3 is by far the best Iron Man film, and one of the better films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a dark tale of isolation, fear, and loss. While the film has it’s many humorous elements, this is a darker Tony Stark than we have seen previously. He is traumatized by the events that took place in The Avengers. The mere mention of New York sends him into panic attacks and his anxiety is almost crippling. He has spent the time since tinkering and creating new suits, and is up to Mark 42. Yes, he has created 42 different Iron Man suits. He cannot sleep; he constantly lives in fear.
Directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, screenwriter of Lethal Weapon), this is not a tale for the faint of heart. The threats actually seem real this time. Shane Black has taken the light -hearted tone of the first two movies and turned it on its head. While there are many, many humorous moments in the film, for once Tony’s plight actually seems real and deadly serious. The Mandarin is not a man to be trifled with. Even though I knew Stark was going to survive the events of this film (otherwise, how would he be in The Avengers 2), there was a palpable sense of dread and fear that he would not survive.
The film begins in 1999 at a party where Tony and a mulleted Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) meet Dr. Maya Hansen (the gorgeous Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Hansen is working on something known as Extremis, which is an experimental regenerative serum. Little does Tony know that these two people will have a huge impact on his life in the future. Fast forward to present day and Tony is the wreck I described above. When Killian comes to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to offer her a stake in his company, she rebuffs his offer, much the same way Stark did in 1999. Sensing something off about Killian, Happy follows his security guard Savin (James Badge Dale). Happy is then seriously injured in a Mandarin terrorist explosion which prompts Tony to threaten The Mandarin on national TV. Clearly, The Mandarin doesn’t take this threat lying down and lays waste to Tony’s home, while he, Hansen, and Potts are all there. Presumed to be killed in the destruction of his home, Stark begins the hunt for The Mandarin. This is all I am going to tell you about the plot.
Robert Downey Jr. is at the top of his game as Tony Stark this time out. He is given more to do than be the egocentric billionaire with daddy issues and a smart mouth. In fact, I never once noticed a mention of his father. Tony is not struggling to step out of his father’s shadow this time around. He has bigger things to worry about, not the least of which is his mortality. After New York, he finally realizes that he is mortal and his brush with death has left him fragile. He is afraid to be separated from his suit. When New York is mentioned, he freaks out and suits up. That is his comfort blanket, his security. When he dreams, he has nightmares of falling from the wormhole. He cannot sleep. He is a tired wreck of a man. Yes, he is still brilliant, but he is sleep deprived and battles constantly with near-crippling anxiety. Downey Jr. is simply phenomenal in this role. He owns Tony Stark and has grown as an actor while playing him. That is saying a lot.
Gwyneth Paltrow is also given a lot more to do in this film. She is not simply the damsel in distress. She has grown into the role of CEO of Stark Industries nicely, and while not as egocentric as Stark, she is confident in her skills. She accepts that there is a lot going on behind the scenes with Tony and has been since New York. She just didn’t understand the gravity of his anxiety. She brilliantly portrays the strong woman CEO while trying to understand what her superhero boyfriend is going through. Stark’s brashness then puts her in danger, the one thing he has to protect and cannot lose.
Ben Kingsley is simply magnificent in the role of The Mandarin. While I know his character arc in the film is going to piss some hardcore comic nerds off, the way that Kingsley portrays the character is simply awe inspiring. And it makes sense in the context of the film. I am not going into spoiler territory here, but Kingsley gives a stunning performance that damn well better be appreciated at the Oscars. It is that good. I would say that he actually turns in the second best comic book villain performance of all time (barely behind Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight).
After the glut of Marvel films over the past few years, it is nice to see some new blood brought in to usher in Phase 2 of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. This film actually feels different than the Phase 1 films. It is darker. The threats seemed more real. It actually breathed life into the Iron Man franchise. After the first two installments and The Avengers, I thought I had seen all there was to see of Iron Man and Tony Stark. By allowing Shane Black to make a film that was his and not just a carbon copy of the other films, Marvel has once again solidified itself as the leader of the comic book film. By not burdening this film with excessive set up for another film, it actually plays as a stand alone film that can be enjoyed without the baggage of setting up different properties in the shared universe. It is a fun ride that I am actually anxious to see in the theater again.
***1/2 out of ****