Movie Review: Iron Man 3
By Matthew Huntley
May 8, 2013

Just chillin'.

As far as superhero alter egos go, Tony Stark has always been one of the more closely guarded. Sure, the first two Iron Man movies and Marvel’s The Avengers distinguished him as a wise-cracking, overconfident playboy-genius, with an insatiable thirst for danger and excitement, but his organic, vulnerable side has mostly gone unexplored. That’s ironic, seeing as though it was his physical susceptibility that turned him into Iron Man in the first place. But one of the ambitions of Iron Man 3 is to demystify Stark’s celebrity-like persona and allow us to see him as someone who’s not emotionally empty or invincible. In other words, he’s a human being.

This side of Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is examined early on in Iron Man 3 when he tells us everyone has demons, some of which are the products of our own minds and others that are real people who wish us harm. Like most people, especially superheroes, Stark has both. Ever since the New York event in The Avengers, in which Stark witnessed overwhelming destruction, a wormhole to another dimension, and a race of giant, mechanized aliens, among other things, he tells his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), “things haven’t been the same.” Would they be for anyone?

These days, Stark can’t sleep and he experiences severe anxiety attacks, which almost get Pepper killed in the middle of the night. It sounds strange to say so, but the anxiety attack scenes are so real and convincing they practically raise the movie to another level. Don’t get me wrong; this is still a superhero movie in the traditional sense, but its human condition moments put it above most. For the first time, we see Tony Stark as one of us, and that makes Iron Man 3 all the more absorbing. It approaches the brink of Spider-Man 2 and the recent Batman movies, which many would agree have set the standard for “super hero movie excellence.” This is all the more impressive given this is the third, or perhaps fourth, film in the franchise. At this point, they usually wear thin.

Stark has been channeling his restlessness into engineering a series of new Iron Man prototypes in his palatial Malibu home, including a version that lets him control the suit remotely by injecting his arm with sensors, which I assume are tied to his nerves, and perhaps his mind. At first, his latest experiment backfires, but you can be sure it will play an essential role later on.

Along with his insomnia and mental angst, the other demon in Stark’s life comes in the form of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a once-crippled scientist whom Stark never gave time of day back in Switzerland in 1999, when Aldrich asked him to join his company, Advanced Idea Mechanics. Stark also never gave more than a one-night stand to Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), the scientist behind Extremis, a medicine that restores degenerative tissue. Essentially, she’s found a way to manipulate a living organism’s DNA source code.

Thirteen years later, we learn Killian has used Extremis to heal himself, although it’s not without its side effects, and Potts is concerned tapping into (and thus controlling) the human genetic code could be too dangerous and “too easily weaponizable.” In fact, Hansen now works for Killian and seeks Stark’s help because she has reason to believe her boss is teaming up with a global terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who is on an anti-American rampage. Things get personal when Stark’s friend and bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is badly injured and put into a coma when one of the Mandarin’s bombs goes off in front of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Stark pledges “it’s on” on live television and blurts out his home address, inviting The Mandarin to come get him.

Iron Man 3 contains all the usual requirements of a superhero movie, including a maniacal villain, lots of special effects and at least three extended, grandiose action scenes. But its plot and characters are more involving and complex than most, and screenwriters Drew Pearce and Shane Black, the latter of whom has taken over directing duties from Favreau, don’t just brush over things. They have formulated a real story, one that matters and doesn’t just fill time in between the sensational imagery, although there’s plenty of that, including a terrific skydiving sequence. The movie may go on longer than is necessary, especially the climax, but it’s constantly developing with new twists and turns, one of which nobody is likely to guess, and these challenge us to stay on our toes.

There are also several character-driven scenes that pad the movie with genuine emotion and humor, which work at making us care about the movie beyond it just being a summer tent pole or “event” picture. Many of these come courtesy of the actor Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley, a 10-year-old boy whom Stark teams up with in Tennessee to investigate the Mandarin’s bombings. The exchange between Downey and Simpkins lends the movie an energy and freshness, as well as an opportunity for self-mockery. When the kid tells Stark his dad left him, Stark’s reaction is simply, “Yeah, I really don’t care about that. Where’s my tuna sandwich?”

For me, though, the most powerful moments came when Stark experienced his panic attacks, which gave me a chance to really feel for the man, and they’re made so real by Downey that we experience what he’s going through. It’s moments like these that make the movies, and not just superhero movies, so powerful - the ability to empathize with someone else. This isn’t the kind of thing I was expecting to write in an Iron Man 3 review.

I do wish the movie had given Don Cheadle more to do. His character, Colonel James Rhodes, who dons the U.S. government’s version of an Iron Man suit - previously known as “War Machine” but renamed to the safer, more acceptable “Iron Patriot” - only seems to show up when the plot requires him, and not necessarily to develop him further. Because Cheadle is such a fine actor, it would have been nice if his part was expanded and the movie took advantage of his skills and presence.

Nevertheless, Iron Man 3 is a keeper - a fully realized, standalone movie, which you’d think wouldn’t be able to escape the shadow of the behemoth that was The Avengers, but it does just that. And if it was up to me, this would be closing chapter of the Tony Stark saga since it caps off his story nicely and ambiguously. I know: given how successful these movies are, there’s no way Marvel will retire the character, but we’ve seen Stark evolve over the course of four movies and I’d rather see his tale live up to the “quit while you’re ahead” phrase rather than the “wear out its welcome” one. We’ve seen too many movies, particularly from the superhero genre, fall victim to that. Stark and company are better than that.