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Monday
May062013

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Always Bet on Black

Iron Man 3 is not a great comic-book movie. If you go into this thing expecting a continuation of Joss Whedon's The Avengers, you'll be sorely disappointed. Gone are the super-powered, bickering heroes; world-ending alien threats; and episodic action set pieces. There are no Hulk transformation scenes to justify repeat viewings in IMAX or at home, nor is there a smug, ornately costumed villain for you to take joy in seeing pummelled like a rag doll.

Iron Man 3 is a great film, made for adults, that just happens to be packed with explosions, special effects, and a scrappy kid sidekick. All credit goes to director Shane Black for making star Robert Downey Jr. palatable again in this, his fifth big-screen appearance in as many years as billionaire-playboy-turned-metal-masked superhero Tony Stark. It's no secret that I'd dreaded having to sit through more of Downey's phoned-in wink-acting after The Avengers and the execrable Iron Man 2--but Black and co-writer Drew Pearce push the character into some gnarly, non-popcorn-flick territory, and I loved every second of it.

Months after Stark helped thwart an alien invasion, Thor, Captain America, and the rest of The Avengers are nowhere to be found. The sassy would-be leader finds he's lost a team but gained a serious case of insomnia. He builds bigger and badder prototypes of his patented Iron Man armor to ward off threats greater and weirder than anything he could have imagined a year earlier. Lost in a cloud of restless paranoia, he fails to notice the immediate dangers aligning against him:

A media-savvy terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) teases the U.S. President (William Sadler) with promises of unspeakable, random violence. Panicked, the administration calls on Stark's best friend, Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), to amp up his presence as the red-white-and-blue Iron Man knock-off, Iron Patriot. Meanwhile, another billionaire industrialist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) unveils a miraculous, regenerative cure for amputees called "Extremis", whose unfortunate side-effects include enhanced aggression and spontaneous human combustion.

Toss in panic attacks, a complicated business/personal relationship with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the reemergence of a jilted lover (Rebecca Hall) with a mysterious connection to Extremis and The Mandarin, and Tony Stark has more than enough hoops to jump through without worrying about thunder gods and Thanos.

The key to Iron Man 3's success is Black's signature blend of creative, crowd-pleasing action and macho introspection. If by some fanciful stretch this is the last time we see Stark on the big screen, it would be a poetic, full-circle swan song for a character who is forced to look his demons straight in the eye (and realize they're looking back at him from the mirror). Thematically, this film reaches all the way back to before the events of the first movie (notice who introduces Stark to a potential client in the opening scene), and calls our hero to task for every instance of callousness and un-checked ego--even after allegedly getting his life together by vacating the arms business.

Chances are, Iron Man 3 will remind you of The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, both involve heroes fighting their way back from near-incapacitation to stop a terrorist who may or may not be as menacing as they appear (more on that later). The difference here is that Tony Stark never stops being Iron Man, even after he takes off the suit. Bruce Wayne was Batman for maybe a few months of the entire Dark Knight trilogy--which spanned just over nine years. He became a hero; got depressed and retired for eight years; came out of retirement; got crippled within two days of being back on the job; then healed himself just long enough for one last butt-kicking before quitting again. Stark, on the other hand, faced adversity like a true hero, never once letting up on the gas--even if he was often motivated by arrogance more than nobility.

In fact, Stark spends the middle hour of the movie outside the Iron Man suit, stranded in rural Tennessee and forced to solve the mystery of The Mandarin with little more than hardware-store supplies and a latch-key kid (Ty Simpkins) who discovers him in his mom's shed. By stripping his protagonist of all networks, money, and shiny gadgetry, Black and Pearce take him back to those dark, desperate days in which he'd used optimism, brains, and an innovative spirit to escape terrorist captivity.

Another major trait this film shares with the Dark Knight Trilogy is the theme of super-heroic or super-villainous figures as ideas that transcend mortal identities. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realizes that his greatest weapons against the criminal underworld are shadows, costuming, and gossip. Batman would be far more effective as a myth, rather than just a guy.

Warning: Things are about to get spoiler-y, so please avert your eyes now if you don't want to have Iron Man 3 ruined for you. Skip to the last two paragraphs for a tidy wrap-up instead.

Iron Man 3 ups the ante by making The Mandarin a complete media figment. The ornately dressed, trash-talking Bin Laden wannabe is actually a drunk British actor hired by Killian to play a part. TDKR used a similar reveal in its climax, and while Black and Pearce's choice makes much more narrative sense, it has proven infuriating to comics fanboys--which is an unexpected bonus. I only mean that as half a sleight, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to step outside the review for a moment to address the complainers who've been stinking up talk-backs since this twist came out last week:

Ahem. I know that the comic-book version of The Mandarin is a formidable Iron Man foe who flies and shoots energy out of ten cosmic rings or whatever, but Black and Pearce are speaking to the audience of a completely different medium here. That kind of wizardry might fly in Thor's universe, but the Iron Man series is grounded in a more science-based reality (even if it's the science of comic books). I'll admit that seeing Guy Pearce breathe fire looks a bit dodgy, but it's much easier to swallow than Cosplay Gandalf levitating and blowing stuff up with magic jewelry. Tony Stark is a heroic businessman, so it's only fitting that his arch-nemesis be a maniac in a polo shirt who uses the poor to meet his devious ends.

On top of that, the Mandarin reveal actually says something about the way audiences unquestioningly absorb media. It's also cool that moviegoers were duped just as surely as the fictional TV watchers in Iron Man 3 were. I think that's the key to all the outrage: in an era where most movies' finer plot points are ruined in their trailers, Black, Marvel, and the frickin' Disney corporation exercised some honest-to-God restraint in marketing their tent-pole Summer product. So quit whining about The Mandarin not being in the movie. He's all over it, and over your head as well.

If you're looking for an utterly brainless experience, there's more than enough eye candy to justify the trip to the theatre. Iron Man 3 bustles with interesting action on scales big and small, and even pulls off one hell of a thrilling mid-air rescue. The scene in which Air Force One is attacked, and Stark must save fourteen people who've been sucked out the back of it made me forget that I was watching an essentially safe movie. The season's other actioners have quite a high bar to clear, and I welcome the challenge.

If, however, you're hungry for smart, thrilling entertainment, you'll find a movie that film caps off a tightly conceived trilogy even non-comics-readers should feel proud to embrace as legitimate adult entertainment. Black deftly avoids the pitfalls of his PG-13 rating and delivers a film on par with (and in a parallel universe to) the movies that put him on the map--namely Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Tony Stark learns some real lessons in the course of his long, weird journey (okay, maybe he didn't take anything away from Iron Man 2; I know I didn't), and in the face of the bizarre, pulp extravaganza we've just tiptoed into (Marvel's "Phase Two" film series), it's nice to see a creative team take a few steps back in appreciating the man--not just the machine.

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