Film Review: Iron Man 3

Industrialist Tony Stark faces the loss of everything he loves when a terrorist mastermind opens fire on the U.S. Third entry marks an exciting return to form for a franchise that had dipped in quality.

After the success of The Avengers, and 2010's disappointing Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 has drawn high expectations. With a new director, Shane Black, on board, this entry more than lives up to the promise of the original Iron Man. Marvel and its new distributor Disney can expect excellent business from a rejuvenated fan base.

Events from The Avengers have left industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) a self-professed hot mess. Paranoid, suffering from insomnia and panic attacks, he holes himself up in his lab obsessing over remote-controlled versions of his Iron Man outfit.
On the business front, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) turns down computer genius Aldrich Killian's (Guy Pearce) invention to restore damaged tissue. Their relationship raises the suspicions of Stark security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Meanwhile, the country grapples with a rash of terrorist bombings masterminded by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). When Hogan is severely wounded in an explosion, Stark goes on TV to challenge The Mandarin.

Helped by Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who often dons an "Iron Patriot" suit, Stark will track down The Mandarin, but not before the entire country is thrown into jeopardy. And as Stark himself explains in a very entertaining voiceover, the whole problem can be traced back to a one-night stand years earlier in Switzerland with biotech scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall).

Iron Man 3 is filled with the expected gigantic set-pieces, and they are delivered capably, if thunderously. But thanks to a focused, fat-free screenplay by Black and Drew Pearce, the story here is far more interesting than the special effects. The plot keeps revolving around the phrase, "You know who I am." Stark and the others can recognize their opponents, but secrets and hidden agendas keep foiling their plans. And identity, self-realization and destiny all become key issues.

Pearce and Black follow the spirit of the original comic book while playing with many of its elements, livening up a series that always depended heavily on sarcasm and cynicism. The cultural allusions—from A Christmas Story to "Downton Abbey," from mullets to buzzwords like "weaponizable"—are astonishing in their scope. But more than jokes, Iron Man 3 makes astute observations about the theatre of politics, the price of celebrity, and the costs of an unchecked military. And it does so in a breezy, unpretentious, entirely winning manner.

On a practical level, the screenwriters found a way to keep Stark out of his Iron Man suit for much of the story, giving Downey more time to act. The actor responds with an assured, streamlined performance. He's matched by Kingsley, whose turn as The Mandarin is fascinating. And Ty Simpkins deserves special mention for his sentiment-free portrayal of a young orphan.

The bad news? The 3D post-conversion is drab and unimpressive, the climax aboard what looks like a giant oil rig drags out too long, and the ending is at best unconvincing.
After recent events, viewers may cringe at some of the material, including some very public explosions. To the filmmakers' credit, Iron Man 3 takes the time to offer reasons for its carnage, and in fact tries to defuse the mystique of terrorists.

But this is a superhero movie based on a comic book. It's beyond the scope of summer blockbusters to solve our everyday problems. Where Iron Man 3 excels is in not adding to them.