Based on the comic character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby
Written by: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Directed by: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley, Ty Simpkins, the voice of Paul Bettany
In Short: Tony Stark faces his (and the country’s) demons.
Recommended: Hell, yes!
TONY: You know, it’s moments like these when I realize how much of a superhero I am.
The Marvel Universe is one of my very favorite vacation spots, but after the mind-blowing awesome that was Joss Whedon’s The Avengers last year, I have to admit that I went into Iron Man 3 with a perhaps unfair cynicism and preemptive disdain. After all, how could anything possibly compare? This general feeling of malaise wasn’t helped by the fact that while I quite enjoyed Iron Man 2, it didn’t really set my world on fire (and certainly has not stood the test of time), and so while of course I would not for a second have contemplated not seeing this movie as soon as it hit theaters, I was in no way enthusiastic about the prospect.
Wow, what a difference 130 minutes makes.
In the hands of director Shane Black, who takes the reins here from previous Iron Man auteur Jon Favreau (and yet Favreau’s still in the movie – how awkward would that have been, the first few days on set?), Robert Downey Jr.’s already captivating Tony Stark becomes, without a doubt, the greatest onscreen incarnation of a comic book character ever – sorry Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Chris Evans, Edward Norton and Christopher Reeve – and his story is made both human and superhuman and both action-packed and though-provoking as well as very, very funny.
We open with a flashback to pre-arc reactor Tony: selfish, arrogant, casually cruel. Okay, so just like post-arc reactor Tony, except more so. It’s the eve of Y2K, and he’s at a conference where he’s about to hook up with a beautiful scientist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and where they encounter a homely idealist named Aldritch Killian (Guy Pearce). Bells will be ringing in the heads of comic book nerds (such as myself) at this point, as both appeared in Warren Ellis’s acclaimed “Extremis” arc in the Iron Man title, which does, as it turns out, somewhat form the basis of our tale. In this version of events, Tony treats both pretty shabbily… and then we cut to fourteen years later.
Tony and One True Love/corporate lackey Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) are shacked up in a fabulous mansion in the Malibu hills, but there is friction between the beautiful pair, brought on mostly by the fact that Tony is still in shock over the harrowing events over the skies of New York in The Avengers. Not only is he grappling with the fact that there are aliens out there who want to invade our planet, but he also just barely made it back through a wormhole that was opened up to another galaxy (in a vacuum!), and that is kind of freaking him the hell out. Understandable, really. So he spends his time not sleeping and tinkering with his armored suits – he’s up to the Mark 42, and it really is pretty cool, all sensor-called and activated, kind of like an advanced version of Xbox Kinect. But there is a global terror menace mounting, known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and when Tony’s best friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Favreau) is caught up in the evildoer’s latest demonstration, Iron Man issues a challenge: come and get me.
And The Mandarin, uh, kind of does.
Meanwhile, both Maya and Killian have resurfaced, and it turns out that, hey – how’s this for happenstance? – Pepper used to be the object of the latter’s unwelcome workplace affection. We learn (though we’d already suspected it) that Maya’s work on repairing missing limbs has been dangerously corrupted, and the explosions for which The Mandarin is taking credit are actually the result of her genetic manipulation. But with Tony missing and presumed dead after a spectacular attack on his home (Spoiler Alert: he’s not), what else is he to do but go to a small rural town in Tennessee, where he meets perhaps the cutest, most precocious half-pint accomplice this side of Hit Girl – though with much less of a potty mouth – and sets his formidable intellect to the problems of The Mandarin, the bombings and the recharging of his AI helpmeet, JARVIS. And having the occasional panic attack.
Needless to say – I assume; you have seen a comic book movie or two, right? – the Day is Saved. Indeed, several days are saved, and in quite spectacular fashion. There are White House staffers plummeting through the air and seriously souped-up terrorists to contend with and nefarious politicos and cunning disguises and self-aggrandizing act-ohrs and so very much more. Tony’s other BFF, the stoic, sarcastic Rhodey (Don Cheadle), is back in suit-clad action, Paltrow reveals some damned impressive abs (and an impressive emotional range along with them), and even Downton Abbey gets a look in. But in the end, after all of the adrenaline surges and the hearty chuckles and the re-examining of deeply held convictions – so that’s how easily the War on Terror can be manipulated! – the success of this movie comes down to two things only: the writing is excellent, and Robert Downey Jr. is even more so.
Director Black also co-wrote the film, and considering his filmic history (I mean, dude wrote Lethal Weapon), the humor-driven dialogue and cleverly adapted comic-y goodness should perhaps come as no surprise. Black’s only other claim to directorial fame is the thoroughly delightful crime caper Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, in which Downey Jr. also stars. (Coincidence?) Clearly, this pair are cinematic gold, like Burton and Depp: The Early Years. Let’s hope for more such collaborations.
And let us also hope for more such outings from the Marvel stable as this sterling example. With Captain America 2 (yay!) and Thor 2 (um… less “yay!”) out later this year, and with The Avengers 2 on the distant horizon – not to mention the rebooted Spidey sequel, as well as Hugh Jackman’s return in The Wolverine (okay, maybe Downey Jr. is equal “greatest onscreen incarnation of a comic book character ever”) – this looks destined to be a banner year for the comic house, as long as something even approaching this level of quality can be maintained throughout all of its many franchises and across its array of production studios.
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