After the narrative train wreck that was Iron Man 2, I was curious where the story would take us with inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) in the Marvel universe. Last time he was on screen was the terrific The Avengers, where his sarcasm and narcissism was balanced by having other characters share the screen, but in Iron Man 3, it’s all about Tony.
Or is it?
Turns out that when James “Rhodie” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) donned the Iron Man suit on behalf of the US military in Iron Man 2, it was a harbinger of a big, albeit inevitable story twist, where the Iron Man suit and Tony Stark become independent characters. Indeed, in this third outing there are dozens of suits and all sorts of characters get to be inside them, even the President (William Sadler).
Rhodie gets his own “War Machine” suit painted a patriotic red, white and blue, Tony’s faithful partner Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) ends up wearing a “mark 46” prototype whose pieces can fly and wrap itself around a persons body in mid-jump, and of course the bad guys have suits of their own.
Which leaves a critical question: What’s more interesting, the suit or Tony Stark?
Iron Man 3 is definitely better than the second film in the series, but with so many suits flying around — and a finale that features twenty or more autonomous, “Jarvis” (voice of Paul Bettany) computer controlled suits — the message is clearly that Stark himself is obsolete and that it’s the Iron Man suits that are important. Which leaves us with nowhere to go narratively. I surmise that the filmmakers are aware of this problem because the closing credits includes the teaser “Tony Stark will be back”, presumably in the Avengers sequel. But will Tony Stark be inside that metal suit?
The story itself is smartly written, about creepy Osama-like terrorist mastermind The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who claims credit for a series of explosions throughout the United States. But there are oddities about the explosions themselves, a lack of shells and casings, and a level of sophistication in the crimes that includes the ability to splice into the live video feed of all television channels simultaneously. As it turns out, The Mandarin is a faux terrorist orchestrated by a far more cynical criminal, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who Tony first meets in a flashback from 1999. Killian, a fellow scientist, seeks backing from Stark Industries. Tony, however, ignores Killian because he only has eyes for lovely botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who offers up pillow talk about her work identifying the genetic sequences that will let plants — and perhaps people — regenerate limbs and repair other physical harm.
Stark rejects the idea as being too dangerous, too easily weaponized. “You could create super soldiers with that sort of thing”, which is confusing for a guy who creates iron man suits, but it’s a comic book movie, so we need easily recognized good guys and bad guys, right?
Pressed by a reporter for a comment on the latest bombing from The Mandarin, a bombing that seriously injures his friend and bodyguard Happy Hogan (film director Jon Favreau), Stark issues a challenge to the terrorist, stating his home address and inviting the terrorist to come and get him. Which, of course, happens, with a half-dozen military helicopters that fly in and destroy his beautiful Malibu home and research facility.
Tony vanishes into the California surf, dragged down by a faulty prototype suit and his house collapsing, but Pepper vanishes too, ultimately kidnapped by The Mandarin. The suit flies an unconscious Tony to rural Tennessee, a key location in the investigation of the terrorist explosions, and he meets up with young Harley (Ty Simpkins), a fatherless, gadget-loving boy straight out of The Goonies. He helps Stark get his mojo back and fix the suit, all while having Stark be ceaselessly rude and unpleasant. An odd dynamic, really.
There’s lots more going on in the story and when Killian unleashes his army of mutant Extremis Soldiers who have been genetically altered to regenerate limbs as needed and produce tremendous heat on demand (think Johnny Storm from Fantastic Four, but with icky translucent skin) it’s both a suitable corps of bad guys for the Iron Men to fight and a messy cross-over from X-Men. Indeed, I wasn’t the only person who commented after the film ended that it was hard to tell which Marvel universe had produced the storyline.
Nonetheless, Iron Man 3 is also a non-stop action film with the typical series sarcasm, humor and tech fetish gear. While it was lacking narratively and Stark is still no easier to like as a hero figure, the film was also a demonstration of the crisp, jaw-dropping visuals that tens of millions of dollars in special effects can buy nowadays. And it’s done very well, opening to an estimated $170mil domestically, making it one of the most lucrative film openings in cinematic history.
If you enjoy a combination of techno-explosions, over-the-top fights and snarky dialog, coupled with a storyline that moves along at a reasonable pace for the most part, you’ll likely enjoy Iron Man 3. Me? I just wonder what happens to the series now that we’ve been shown that the suits are more capable and more interesting than their inventor.