Another summer, another Marvel blockbuster. Marvel has been on a roll lately with their franchise characters. Now under the big Disney tent, the publisher is able to benefit from a large studio backing, as well as a high-profile marketing campaign. This worked spectacularly well with The Avengers, a record shattering blockbuster that not only reached a diverse audience, but was also pleasing to the fans of the comics who hold these superheros in high regard. The Avengers was also the culmination of a multi-film strategy to build a franchise around characters who exist within the same universe, apart from their own respective movies. This was know as the “Avengers Initiative” Phase 1, which kicked off with the first Iron Man (2008), and continued on through films like Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011). Each film did the job of establishing each character’s own story lines, while at the same time, alluding to their eventual team-up in The Avengers. But now that the first Avengers has come and gone, Marvel is gearing up Phase 2, which will lead to the eventual sequel to last year’s film, and once again, Iron Man is the one who’ll set things in motion. Is it a worthy successor to what’s come before, or does it collapse underneath it’s high expectations? Unfortunately it’s a little more of the latter.
Iron Man 3 takes place post-Avengers, rather than following up the plot of Iron Man 2, so this might cause some confusion for those who haven’t seen The Avengers; which I’m sure is very few. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) deals in this film with some of the post traumatic anxiety that he developed after his near death experience in The Avengers, as well as the current threat he faces when a new terrorist threat named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) shows up. The Mandarin sets off a bomb in Hollywood, leaving Tony’s chauffeur and friend Happy Hogan (former Iron Man director Jon Favreau) in a coma. This leads to Tony making a personal threat towards the terrorist, who then goes after Mr. Stark and destroys his home, while Tony and his assistant/lover (Gwyneth Paltrow) are still in there. Tony looses almost all of his armor, and escapes with only what he’s got on his back.
The rest of the film involves Tony tracking down The Mandarin’s base of operations, where he finds the group experimenting in a new scientific breakthrough called Extremis, which makes its human subjects gain healing powers that turn them invincible, as well as super heat-conductive. The scientist behind the Extremis procedure, Dr. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is creating an army for the Mandarin with the intent of attacking the president and taking over the government. As Tony delves deeper into the mystery, he discovers that there is more to the proceedings than meets the eye, and that he’ll have to rely on his intelligence even more than his metal suit in order to survive.
One thing that I did like in this film overall was Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. The guy is Tony Stark. Nobody owns a character like he does, and he doesn’t disappoint here. There are plenty of one-liners that will have everyone chuckling in the theaters; including probably the best A Christmas Story reference ever. He also works well with his co-stars in the movie, particularly with Paltrow and Don Cheadle (as the Iron Patriot). One other thing that makes Downey’s performance so good is how he deals with the addition of a child sidekick in the movie. In the middle of the film, Tony Stark has to rely upon the help of a pre-teen boy mechanic to get back on his feet. Adding a child character is usually the kiss of death for an action movie like this, as it could turn the film cute and sentimental, but here it’s handled well with clever writing and unsentimental performances. It’s to Downey’s credit that he can make something like that work, and his best lines in the movie comes from his interactions with the kid.
The main problem that I had with this movie is the fact that it lacks the kind of focus that the other Iron Man films have had. Iron Man 3 suffers from the same problem found in Spiderman 3. In that film, the filmmakers tried to please too many of the audience’s expectations by cramming things together into one movie that don’t belong together at all, and would’ve worked better if given separate narratives. In Spiderman 3, we were promised the inclusion of fan favorite villain Venom, only to see his inclusion shuffled to the final 20 minutes, with a watered-down and corny characterization that just ruined the character. In Iron Man 3, the film does better at mixing it’s elements together, but it’s still awkward and disappointing.
First of all, the thing that disappointed me the most and will probably anger a lot of fans as well is how the Mandarin is used in the movie. I haven’t read the comics, but I’ve come to understand that overall, The Mandarin is Iron Man’s arch-nemesis; much like what Lex Luthor is to Superman. In the early scenes, Sir Ben Kingsley does an effective job of portraying the Mandarin as a sadistic, Bin Laden-esque super-terrorist; playing the role both menacingly and with charisma. I was hoping to see what would happen once the hero would meet his ultimate foe later in the film; and then the movie suddenly throws a twist at us that changes everything. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but suffice to say this is where audiences are going to break apart on this film. The audience I was with had that kind of reaction; half enjoyed the change and loved Sir Ben’s performance, while the other half started hanging their heads low and tried not to watch. For me, it took a character with a lot of potential and ruined it in almost an instant. I don’t blame the actor so much as the writer/director Shane Black, who seemed to want to shake things up when he didn’t really need to, and the result unfortunately messed up what was starting to be a good thing.
The other problem I had was the use of the Extremis plot in the film. This is another element from the comics that they wanted to bring to the screen, but it just doesn’t feel like it fits as well as it should have. For one thing, we the audience are supposed to eat up a lot of information on what Extremis is, which the movie doesn’t really give us a chance to. Exposition is dumped pretty clumsily, as if director Black got bored with it while writing it into a scene. We get a basic understanding of what Extremis does, but the science behind it remains fuzzy, which makes it feel more like a plot gimmick rather than an actual threat to the characters. By the end, I didn’t know whether or not any of the Extremis-enhanced characters were vulnerable, or could be killed, which made the climax a little confusing. Again, this could have been done better if they had devoted an entire film’s plot to the Extremis storyline, and not try to combine it awkwardly with the Mandarin storyline.
To me it seemed like the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too. But the cake is only sweet if the ingredients are mixed well together. Unfortunately, Iron Man 3 undelivered on what it promised and that’s a shame. I like Shane Black’s work; from the Lethal Weapon scripts to his first film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005). But unfortunately, I can only see this film as a missed opportunity, especially when it comes to The Mandarin; a character who could have become one of the all time great villains if given the focus he needed. That being said, Iron Man 3 is not a complete failure; just a disappointment. I did like Robert Downey Jr., as well as a lot of the clever and funny dialogue. Some of the action scenes are also very well executed, like when Iron Man has to save a bunch of people falling out of the sky from a crippled airplane. I’m sure that many people are going to like the movie regardless of my reservations, and I’ll say that watching Robert Downey in his element is worth the price of admission. I just wish this film could have delivered better on what it promised and didn’t try to be too many things all at once. The other Iron Man films managed to do that, as well as The Avengers. I just hope that “Avengers” Phase 2 is able to pick up from its shaky start.