The narrative purpose of any post-Avengers Marvel movie is not to majorly shake-up any of the characters at the core of the franchise—regardless of what Iron Man 3’s closing narration has to say about Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his place in the world, everything you know about him going in remains the same at the end—but to slowly push each individual piece away from alien-wasted Manhattan, towards the next apocalypse. With that in mind, director Shane Black does fine work within the paint-by-numbers structure of a solo Avengers outing. Tony Stark is charming, crass, egotistical, and the possessor of enviable wealth, fame, and success. He deals with the fallout of Manhattan—he freaks out at the mention of wormholes—and with the wreckage of an impetuous youth. In the end, he is Iron Man, and Black and Downey do their best to mash that triumphant, wailing note as long and as loud as humanly possible.
This is the beginning of Marvel Studio’s much-hyped “Phase Two” of Avengers movies, and, while they’ve got the formula figured out, holes in the fabric are beginning to show. However fine or fleshed-out the assembled Avengers seem, the love-interests, friends, and rivals propping up the individual pillars of the eventual tent of proportions beyond belief are frustratingly one-note. This is the third Iron Man film where Stark’s opponent is a disenfranchised corporate raider, where Stark’s claim that he’s not going to play ball with the United States government clashes with the need for him to protect the American status quo, and where Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) serves as Iron Man’s damsel in distress. Marvel Studios will probably never run out of oily businessmen, things that go boom, or plots against America, but considering that the best parts of Iron Man 3 occur just beyond that storytelling triumvirate is enough to make thoughts of such comic book movies pleasurable.
The script—based on modern comics legend Warren Ellis’ Extremis, which provided the blueprint that brought Iron Man to the screen—looks back at Tony Stark before his transformative stay-over in Afghanistan, where his genius was preoccupied by liquor and women. At a New Year’s Eve party, he flirts with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a botanist who is working on a chemical compound that allows organic lifeforms to regenerate lost limbs. This work—and Stark’s bankroll—is much admired by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a crippled man who has risen up from his circumstances to lead a radical biotech think-tank, Advanced Idea Mechanics. Twenty years later, after Stark has glimpsed an alternate dimension, Killian reemerges at the offices of Stark Industries, impossibly handsome and courting a business relationship with Pepper, Tony’s hand-chosen CEO. When suspicious head of security Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is sent to the hospital as a result of his investigation into Killian, a mysterious terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) claims responsibility. Stark, sleepless since Manhattan, stares deep into the recording smartphone of a TMZ reporter and swears revenge. The Mandarin, well-rested in his undisclosed compound, replies to Stark’s challenge by bombing his opulent mansion.
Hansen and Killian are tied up in all of this, but how, I will not say. It’s in the aftermath of this attack on Stark’s property (and, one assumes, the vault of armor he’s been working on while awake), that Iron Man 3 lets loose a little. Previous Iron Man movies have toyed with the idea that their villains could somehow gain possession of either Stark’s armor or the War Machine (rechristened Iron Patriot here, and given a Captain America paint job) rig donned by Stark’s buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, as the straight-man to Downey’s buddy cop), but rarely have him out of the armor for long. With his suit dead and his AI malfunctioning, Tony Stark spends the majority of Iron Man 3 without a suit. This doesn’t exactly make the stakes any higher—Tony Stark is a man of rippling musculature and Hawking smarts, so it’s not like the suit is compensating for a lack of anything—but, in forcing him to rely on help from a kid (Ty Simpkins)—who is something of a budding, rural Iron Man himself—provides the series a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Still, it’s impossible to regard Iron Man 3 as anything more than a small cog in an impossibly large machine. Here are the further adventures of a man who has touched the fringes of the cosmos, who has built himself a mind-controlled suit that allows him to fly. While I don’t exactly enter a Marvel Studios offering expecting it to ponder the universe, it’s curious to me that, in Tony Stark, they’ve managed to so effectively lash a man and his jetpack to Earth. Iron Man 3’s pleasures are small and terrestrial. As soon as it stops making money, Tony Stark’s smirking visage will be replaced by the flowing, flaxen locks of Thor, an iron suit swapped out for an iron hammer. The machine will continue to assemble these small dramas, pushing out from the port of one Avengers movie to the next. I wonder, will they all be so modest? If so, Marvel Studios has not succeeded in creating a universe, but a facsimile of the publishing house that birthed it, at its most conservative. Theirs is not a house of ideas, but of pleasing mediocrities.
Iron Man 3. With Robert Downey, Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Col. James Rhodes/Iron Patriot), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian), Rebecca Hall (Dr. Maya Hansen), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Ty Simpkins (Harley), and Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin). Directed by Shane Black and produced by Kevin Feige. Screenplay by Drew Pearce and Black, based on “Iron Man” by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby, and “Extremis,” by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov.