Iron Man Three has a strange duality to it: it’s a movie that should be seen with as little prior knowledge as possible, yet I feel it also needs a bit of set up to ensure that you’re in the best frame of mind to enjoy it. For that reason I’m foregoing my standard M.O. for reviewing this film and instead will be offering two separate “reviews” of Iron Man Three. The first of which is not really a review at all, but more a quick set up to make sure your expectations are in the right place (as well as a plug for the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). You can find that non-review HERE and it is what you should read if you have not yet seen the film. This review, however, will contain SPOILERS and shouldn’t be read until after you’ve seen the film. So yeah, go read the non-review, see Iron Man Three (and, hopefully, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) then come back here when you’re done.
You back? Good. Let’s get started.
So that was different, wasn’t it? Different in a good way, at least in my opinion, but definitely not what I was expecting from a Marvel release. While each of the Phase One Marvel Studios films had a tone that was more-or-less unique to their individual characters none of them really had the singular voice of an auteur. However, from the moment the film starts, Iron Man Three has Shane Black written all over it. There are the obvious things like a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek narration and a Christmas setting, but it goes much deeper than that. The structure of the film is completely different than that of a standard summer blockbuster; where typically a movie will move fairly linearly from plot point to plot point, Shane Black tells the narrative of Iron Man Three in a way that’s less traditional. It’s almost like constructing a puzzle; it’s not immediately clear how each piece fits into the larger picture, and while it’s being put together it moves around the table rather than starting in just one point and expanding from there. Because of this, at times the film can feel slightly unwieldy, but by the end of it the whole thing comes together into a clear picture and every piece was necessary to get there, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time. In his last film Black deconstructed the formula of detective novels and it’s interesting that Iron Man Three takes on some of those characteristics.
For example, the whole section of the film that takes place in Tennessee at first pass seems a bit tangential, but in reality it’s essential to Stark’s development in the film. The broad theme of this film is Stark learning that he has value beyond the suit and that he doesn’t need Iron Man to be heroic, and that’s something that couldn’t have been effectively conveyed if he was still in New York or Malibu. By stranding him in the middle of nowhere and breaking his suit, Stark is forced to use his own ingenuity to solve the mystery of the Mandarin’s bombings and infiltrate the Mandarin’s hideout with nothing more than spare parts. This movie, more than any of those preceding it, is a Tony Stark film. It’s far more about the man behind the mask than it is about the suit of armor, and in my opinion that’s exactly the direction they needed to go with this film.
The Avengers was great fun, and seeing all of these characters together in one film was a wonderful treat. However, The Avengers was not a movie that really had a chance to explore the characters of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, or Bruce Banner in more than a surface level fashion. That was the right call for The Avengers, but now, post-Avengers, Marvel really needs to dig into the psyches and emotions of these characters. We’ve seen them become heroes, we’ve seen them fight together, now we need to explore who they are as people. In my opinion, Iron Man Three sets the stage perfectly for what Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to be.
That being said, there’s certainly not a shortage of great Iron Man action sequences. The attack on Stark’s Malibu home and the Air Force One scene are easily the best action set pieces of the series. The rest are solid, roughly on par with the better moments of the first two films, and the fact that Iron Man is fighting villains this time around that aren’t just some variation of his own abilities brings a lot of freshness to the proceedings. In many ways the Extremis powered soldiers are a much more credible threat than any of the enemies Iron Man’s faced in prior films, and again this ties in with the larger theme of the film. This time he can’t simply win by having the better suit, in fact his suit by itself is fairly ineffective against the Extremis soldiers, he instead has to outwit the enemy. It’s the man in the suit that matters more than the suit itself.
While the villains are more interesting than the villains of the previous films their motives are, admittedly, a bit nebulous. There’s some lip-service paid to desperation and noble goals being twisted, but in actuality it doesn’t amount to much more than the default thirst for power motive. It’s fine, but it’s one element of the film that could have been a lot better.
Speaking of villains, it’s about time I addressed the elephant in the room: the Mandarin. This is something that has gotten a large number of fans all worked up into a tizzy, and somewhat understandably so. After all it’s a huge departure from the comics, but to be honest I think it really works, and the intentional departure from the comics is part of why I think it’s so great. What Marvel Studios is trying to do is not merely adapt their stories to film, but to create a whole new alternate universe for their characters to exist in. The Marvel Cinematic Universe branding is more than just lip-service, it is really a whole alternate reality for these characters, and I think it has the potential to be a whole lot more than what we’ve gotten from Phase One. So far, other than some minor cosmetic differences, the Marvel Studios films have mixed-and-matched different storylines from the comics without breaking a lot of new ground in terms of the larger Marvel canon. Thus, for long-time fans of the series it’s hard to be surprised. Every fan went into the movie with a very specific expectation of who the Mandarin would be and the role he would play in the film, but by subverting that expectation the Marvel Cinematic Universe has both allowed fans the opportunity to be legitimately surprised by a turn of the narrative and finally brought something completely new to the Marvel canon. This opens the door for the MCU to be a source of legitimately new ideas rather than just a remix of the main continuity with a handful of ideas from the Ultimate continuity. Whether or not you like this particular change is a matter of opinion, but to me the change is incredibly exciting. Not only that, but I think it works in context with the film. It’s fun, surprising, and helps play into the larger themes of the movie.
As for the other, slightly less major controversy of Stark having his Arc reactor removed, this feels like more of a case of fans reacting merely because something is different rather than them having actual narrative concerns over it. Yes, it’s different, but in the context of not only this film but the larger film series it absolutely makes sense. The shrapnel in his chest was a part of him that was broken, and it instigated a change that led him to becoming Iron Man, however Iron Man became more important to Stark than himself or the people he cared most about. Not to mention when the events of The Avengers took place he found himself in a world of magic, gods, aliens, and super soldiers, and he suddenly felt inadequate. Just a man in a suit who survived the battle of New York by sheer luck. Over the course of this film, though, he learns that he, Tony Stark, has more to offer than simply being a man in a suit, and that brokenness was finally healed. It’s symbolic and very filmic and I think it’s the perfect visual representation of his growth as a character. Also, for purely logical reasons why wouldn’t he do it? With today’s medical technology it’s silly to think that Stark would have to rely on the Arc reactor to save his life when he could just go to a hospital and have it removed. The Arc reactor tied him to being Iron Man, and now with it gone he has moved past that. It’s somewhat similar to the core theme of The Dark Knight Rises, but I feel this movie handles it in a much better way.
There’s been some mixed opinions on this film, but generally I really liked it. I’m not sure I’d call it a great movie, but I would say it’s a very good one. The issues I had with the film ultimately amounted to fairly minor things: Rhodey spent the fist hour or so of the movie treading water before he really became important to the story, the vague motives of the villains that I mentioned earlier was an issue, and then there was the fact that Rebecca Hall’s character amounted to not much more than a plot device. However, there was a whole lot more I liked about the film. Every single actor in this film turned in a memorable performance and brought a ton of life to their roles. Robert Downey, Jr. was totally engaged as Tony Stark, Sir Ben Kingsley pulled off both menace and humor wonderfully, Don Cheadle has successfully found the sweet spot in his performance of Rhodey, and Gwyneth Paltrow delivers solidly on her development throughout the series and it was immensely satisfying to finally see her get to be an active participant in action scenes. The movie was funny, exciting, and, whether or not this is the last dedicated Iron Man movie we get for a while, it does a great job tying up this story arc that began in 2008.
Iron Man Three is a great starting point for Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic universe. The focus on character first over action and world building is exactly what needs to happen in this phase. They’ve already built the world, now I want to see how the characters live in it and are affected by it. I was also very pleasantly surprised to see how much of Shane Black’s voice they allowed to shine through in the style of the film. It’s this that will set the Marvel Studios films apart from what anyone else is doing: allowing talented filmmakers with distinct voices to play in this world without compromising what makes them unique. I’m immensely excited to see what else is in store over the next few years and am happy to say that right now Marvel Studios gets how to make a comic book movie better than anyone else in the business.