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Iron Man 3
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by Brett Gallman

"Marvel's second phase gets off to a rousing start."
5 stars

As someone who has spent the past couple of years pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming about Shane Black directing a Marvel film, I’m perhaps even more flabbergasted (but also elated) to discover that “Iron Man 3” is thoroughly a Shane Black movie. Even when working within the parameters of the Marvel machine, he manages to retain his distinct voice, which may be distilled into its purest form here; while Black may not be able to rely on the edginess that defined his early work, he’s crafted a film that feels like it could be a retreading Greatest Hits album if it weren’t delivered with such vigor.

The opening sequence leaves little doubt of Black’s presence, as the film opens with Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) smarmy, scatterbrained narration that flashes back to the holiday season of 1999, where the former war monger was still very much in his playboy industrialist phase. During a New Year’s Eve party, he cavorts with a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall) experimenting in cell regeneration, a tryst that causes him to casually spurn the advances of fellow scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a gawky, stereotypical sort of nerd with oversized glasses and stringy hair.

It’s a chance encounter that plants the seeds from which demons will spout, and it has all of the boisterous energy one expects from Black. This iteration of Tony Stark has become so familiar that he’s become inexorably tied to Downey’s shtick (which appropriately has its seeds planted in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” Black’s directorial debut), but Black’s approach enlivens him by finding the humanity beyond the routine. As Stark reflects on his hound dog exploits, he does so with a hint of regret, his lament-tinged narration hinting at an atypical vulnerability that will carry “Iron Man 3.”

Several films have promised to tear down their hero and explore the men beneath the suits, but few have lived itas well as this one. “Iron Man 3” is a film that literally sees Stark’s life eventually reduced to rubble once he becomes the target of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a vague hodgepodge of villains from both comic book films and reality, but he’s already on the verge before his Malibu mansion is torched to ground (as always, Black has no qualms about destroying lavish California real estate). Still reeling from his near-death experience in “The Avengers,” he’s become a PTSD victim whose restlessness has filled him with anxiety attacks and a compulsive desire to tinker away on new suits. Whereas the original film’s closing line felt like a triumphant declaration five years ago, it’s here reconfigured as an uncertain form of identity crisis.

Resolving that crisis serves as the backbone of “Iron Man 3,” and it brings a gravitas that’s been missing from many of the Marvel Studios movies, including the first two Iron Man outings. While the studio found a nice, zippy tone in its first phase of films, its output up until “Captain America” feel a little too breezy in their haste to reach “The Avengers.” This is the first film that doesn’t feel obligatory or unshorn in some way, as both the origin and the setup are finished. Finally, we see an attempt to truly explore the character of Tony Stark by putting him through an emotional and physical wringer—it’s very much his dark night of the soul that forces him to reckon with both his mistakes and triumphs.

Remarkably, it never feels like “The Dark Knight” of his soul; while stripping Stark down to the bone and sending him on a largely depowered journey that sees him spending a lot of time outside of his suit sounds like a very Chris Nolan thing to do, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce don’t capitulate to grim and gritty sensibilities. Despite its thematic heaviness, it isn’t burdened by a crippling self-seriousness, as Black infuses it with a crackling, persistent wit that results in a genuinely uproarious movie. “Iron Man 3” sometimes feels like a sunny take on film noir, as its narrating detective isn’t dogged by cynicism. Even an impossible scenario featuring thirteen people plummeting from Air Force One isn’t treated with anything but brimming optimism.

If “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” wasn’t enough evidence of Black’s fondness for snappy, hard-boiled pulp, then this certainly reconfirms it. At its heart, “Iron Man 3” is nothing but this dressed up in superhero digs, as Black breathlessly bombs through a twisty, byzantine plot that’s full of double-crosses and rug-pulls. Seemingly pulling the strings is The Mandarin, though the reemergence of Killian as a suddenly suave and successful think tank operator and biological tech dealer hints at something more.

Make no mistake: this sequel is full of the requisite action beats, including a climactic showdown at a shipyard that feels like another Black staple, but most if its delights rest in the characters and their interactions. Typically, precocious preteen sidekicks feel forced and irksome, but, somehow, Tony’s brief team-up with a kid in rural Tennessee (Ty Simpkins) is among the most lively and satisfying sequences in any Marvel movie to date because Black doesn’t handle it with kid’s gloves.

If that feels a little small for a genre that almost demands escalation, fret not; while this isn’t as big as, say, “The Avengers,” the script adequately raises the stakes across the board. Eventually, the villainous plot makes predictable use of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as a damsel in distress to provide personal stakes for Stark, but it also movies beyond that and picks up the thread started in the first “Iron Man,” where Stark quit his war-profiteering ways. After battling the intergalactic Chitauri in “The Avengers,” Stark is back to battling a twisted doppelganger of his former self, as the scheme here invokes the power of terrorism as a tool for both ends. Rather than degenerate into a mindless, maniacal plot centered around bombings, “Iron Man 3” features a thoughtful construct at its center that’s in line with both its noir sensibilities and its exploration of 21st century terrorism as a racket.

Thankfully, the film doesn’t get too hung up on the latter—I’m not sure anyone will ever accuse it of being a full-on allegory, which is just as well. Beneath it all is a fantastically crafted action movie, the genre that Black helped to redefine back in the late 80s. Here, it’s so smooth that it almost feels like muscle memory, and it’s not so much the scope, scale, or grandeur that makes the action scenes memorable but rather the characters’ places within them.

This has always been Black’s forte, as you don’t simply remember the awesome stuff he’s scripted in the past as much as you remember the people and interplay at the center of them. Many of these beats are echoed here: the aforementioned team-up between Downey and Simpkins recalls “Last Action Hero,” while Stark’s relationship with Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) takes on an obvious buddy cop vibe. Even the conspiratorial plot is subtly reminiscent of “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” a film Black recalls in more ways than one when Pepper Potts gets her own ass-kicking Charly Baltimore moment.

Black’s signature banter provides the connective, auteurist tissue, and he’s blessed with a wealth of talent to deliver it. Downey is the obvious center of gravity, but, again, he’s not just a magnetic shtick here. Usually, part three is where actors allow their performances to lapse into parody, but “Iron Man 2” skipped right to that point and reduced Stark to smug artificiality, a turn that works in retrospect since Black and Downey seem to be playing off of it here. This is Stark dialed back down to reasonable levels but not completely shorn of his wiseass, sarcastic sensibilities. In previous films, Downey has rightfully overpowered those around him, but there’s a learned humility to his performance here that renders Stark more likeable than ever.

His adversaries are numerous this time around since he has an entire legion of henchmen with which to contend. When so many villains were being announced as part of the cast last year, it was easy to assume that it’d be a faceless legion, but Stephanie Szostak and James Badge Dale bring discernible personalities to their limited roles as vets who have been reconfigured as firebrand super soldiers.

Initially, Stark assumes them to be in the employ of The Mandarin, but a rug-pull turns the film on its head and takes great liberties with one of Iron Man’s most famous foes. It’s sure to upset the zealots’ apple cart, but it’s a brilliant re-imagining that doesn’t just serve as a cheap twist. Instead, it’s seamlessly threaded into the film’s themes on the theatricality of terror and provides both commentary and meta-commentary on the portrayal of Otherness. For years, The Mandarin served as an unsightly relic of Yellow Peril, so it’s fitting that “Iron Man 3” tackles codified terror symbols.

Even those who might balk at the drastic character change should find it difficult to cherish Kingsley’s performance. Visually, he may be far from the Mandarin’s comic book roots, but he’s spot-on as a crazy quilt fanatic stitched together from various sources. He seems vaguely Arabic, Eastern European, and even Oriental all at once, even when he’s affecting a heightened vocal pattern that’s modeled after a southern evangelist (speaking of extremists). His penchant for hijacking the airwaves and delivering video messages obviously recalls bin Laden, and Kingsley is genuinely unsettling and scary in this mode. That this ends up being a farce is a sharp reminder that true villains sometimes act as bureaucratic puppet masters like Killian.

Going into Phase Two, Marvel CEO Kevin Feige said all of the right things about this next set of films existing in a self-contained vacuum that wouldn’t get entangled in the larger, established universe. “Iron Man 3” delivers on that promise and more with a substantial, thematic arc that remembers the appeal of characters. It boldly struts and soars like any blockbuster, but it also lopes around on the ground level with its players and takes them to compelling, logical places. Even if “Iron Man 3” didn’t completely succeed, I would love the idea behind it, particularly the relatively risky proposition of bringing Black on board to direct. Marvel could have easily rested on its laurels and gone with safe choices to ride the coattails of “The Avengers,” and their unwillingness to do so is refreshing.

That decision has been duly rewarded, and it’s a testament to both Marvel and Black that “Iron Man 3” is the best entry in the series so far and ranks right alongside “Captain America” and “The Avengers” as the studio’s best output so far. Even better, it gives me hope that there will be more films joining those ranks during the next couple of years.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21704&reviewer=429
originally posted: 05/04/13 04:01:29
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User Comments

6/26/18 morris campbell it sucks skip it 1 stars
10/01/14 Horror Lover Embarassing character devolpment for the Mandarin nearly ruins a good move. 3 stars
9/02/14 Jeff I liked it until the Mandarin thing 3 stars
5/15/14 SID RUMKOWSKI Average. Paltrow mutates into a twinkie in this one. 3 stars
1/26/14 Charles Tatum Another great entry in the series 4 stars
10/15/13 Carl Best of the Marvel Films to date. 5 stars
6/25/13 Jesse Zuno I've found the third installment enjoyable even if the logic in the film is too far fetched 4 stars
6/15/13 Lauren better than Iron Man 2 but still a bit lacking - 3 stars
6/05/13 mr.mike Nonsensical plot but Kingsley and the humor keep it afloat. 4 stars
5/26/13 jamiebraun my whole family LOVED this movie. 5 stars
5/26/13 Philip Love the action set-pieces but the story and villain are weak. 3 stars
5/20/13 kevin lause Pretty darn good for the first 90 minutes. Then it turns conventional. 4 stars
5/12/13 Gretchen Seitz Could've been fine but for Gwyneth Paltrow's be-a-heroine-just-by-being-annoying mode. 3 stars
5/08/13 allyson becker great movie. best one in series yet. Love it! 5 stars
5/07/13 action movie fan exciting somewhat interesting stoyr good action but a bit confusing 3 stars
5/07/13 gc Lame mandarain and pepper gets powers? True comic fans will hate this movie 2 stars
5/04/13 GLC Truly magnificent. Transcends the genre. 5 stars
5/04/13 KingNeutron Lots of good humor, but I really hated "Operation Clean Slate"- made NO sense 4 stars
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  03-May-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 24-Sep-2013


  DVD: 24-Sep-2013

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