And so it is that we’ve arrived at what could be considered the end of “The Iron Man Trilogy,” the uber-successful movie series featuring an A-list Marvel Comics character I never expected to see receive his own franchise or win the hearts and minds of the general public. I don’t think I need to tell you that the lion’s share of the franchise’s success can be credited to star Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as billionaire/tech genius/playboy Tony Stark, whose take on the character has become so indelible that I and many other comics fans now hear his voice when we read Stark on the four-color page. I’ve known Iron Man since discovering him I those tatty old Marvel Superheroes cartoon’s from the 1960’s where he was memorably voiced by John Vernon (aka Dean Vernon Wormer in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE), so that was the voice that stuck in my head from the time I was five years old through when I saw the first Iron Man movie some five years ago. Now it’s all Downey, baby, and I’m fine with that. But enough of my Downey-worship, what you wanna know is whether or not the latest adventure of ol’ shell-head is worth your hard-earned cash, so here’s the skinny in a nutshell:
Following the decidedly mixed results of 2010’s IRON MAN 2, this third installment picks up not long after the harrowing events of last summer’s MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS and finds Tony Stark a man on insomniac edge. Suffering from PTSD in the wake of unexpectedly finding himself face-to-face with actual Norse gods, the jade-hued embodiment of limitless anger, a legendary super-soldier, and a heavily armed extra-terrestrial invasion force that pretty much leveled a decent portion of Midtown Manhattan. Unable to sleep and expending his energy in continuing to upgrade his armor — he’s just completed the prototype for Iron Man Mark 42 — Tony’s a paranoid mess who at least has it together enough to realize that in the wake of his experience with the invasion of New York City he would have likely gone mad if not for the love of his right hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who has made the character her own).
But as he refuses to actually deal with his considerable emotional/psychological turmoil, Stark comes into conflict with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the once-disabled founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics and creator of Extremis, a virus that allows regeneration of tissue and limbs while also providing its users with augmented strength, speed, and the ability to generate heat of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Killian offers to partner with Stark’s company in the production of Extremis but Pepper, now the CEO of Stark Industries, politely turns him down flat, citing that Extremis has potential to be weaponized and Stark Industries no longer goes in for that sort of thing. (There’s also a bit of history between Stark and Killian that also figures into things.)
And following Pepper’s run-in with Killian, she and Stark catch a news report on the latest deadly bombing attack by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a master terrorist whose strikes at American targets prompt the President (William Sadler) to deploy Stark’s best friend, Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, (Don Cheadle) in Stark-made star-spangled armor as the Iron Patriot, whose mission is to locate and take out the violent fear-monger. As the plot threads involving Killian and the Mandarin converge, it all turns quite personal for the tortured Tony as his cliffside home is destroyed, Pepper is put in mortal danger, and the safety of the world hangs in the balance. It’s a lot for Tony to deal with and by the end of the film’s nearly two-and-a-fifteen-minute running time, our hero is stripped down to damned near nothing and must regain his legendary cool while also settling the hash of Killian and the Mandarin.
IRON MAN 3 is a marked step up from the series’ second installment, which left the majority of its audience unsatisfied and/or disappointed — I enjoyed it because it was pretty much what an old school Iron Man comics story was, specifically a soap opera with lashings of superheroics and high-tech armor — but while I enjoyed this latest chapter in Tony’s story, I found the film to be rather an odd duck. The script is the work of Shane Black, the scribe behind the original LETHAL WEAPON, and it has all the earmarks of his brand of narrative. It feels a lot more “studio” than the previous films and that tone at times distracted me from the story’s dire proceedings. It also feels like a weird entry in the more recent run of James Bond films, only with Bond and gadget-master Q fused into one suave and snarky entity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it felt kind of off for me. Nonetheless, many of the elements that worked in the previous films (and THE AVENGERS) are present, with Downey at the forefront where he so richly belongs. He’s still the same loveable asshole, only now with his vulnerability informing his actions, and we genuinely root for him to get his shit together. I really, really love Downey’s Stark and any excuse to see him strut his stuff onscreen will lure me in, so even with its 007-ish vibe, it’s still very much a character-driven piece and its cast gives it its all. And special note should be made of Ty Simpkins as Harley, a child who unexpectedly finds himself as Stark’s much-needed helper when the shit goes down. Harley has a troubled home situation, is smart and a bit of an engineer himself, and yet he’s played non-precociously with a high degree of believability. He’s no nauseating Hollywood-style mini-adult, and is refreshingly recognizable as that rarest of the rare in mainstream movies: a kid who simply behaves in ways we recognize as how kids act. His relationship with Stark is both touching and funny, and I genuinely hope this role opens doors for Simpkins.
Now let’s get to the huge white elephant in the room, namely Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin.
Somewhat infamous as the Marvel Universe’s most flagrant “yellow peril” stereotype, the Mandarin’s over-the-top Cold War Fu Manchu nastiness earned him my respect as my favorite Iron Man antagonist when I was a child because it was always fun to see a brilliant and evil person of color go head-to-head with Tony Stark as an equal.
Yellow peril, Marvel-style: The Mandarin in his original iteration.
In recent years, the Mandarin was updated to be far less of an offensive Chinese stereotype and that revamping only made him that much more interesting to me, so as the Iron Man movies grew in popularity the inclusion of the Mandarin was more or less inevitable.
The more recent version of the Mandarin.
Then came the announcement that the character would indeed be the main threat in IRON MAN 3, only he would be played by Ben Kingsley in a conscious effort to avoid offending anybody.
Let it suffice to say that I was not pleased.
Marvel had already solidly redefined the Mandarin to be in every way an equal to Tony Stark and he was nothing but formidable in that iteration, so I was pissed off by what was to me yet another example of something awesome being pussied-out by P.C. watchdoggery. As the film unfolded, my anger gave way to respect for how cleverly the whole “problem” was handled, and it is at this point that I can no longer discuss the Mandarin of the film without resorting to some major spoilers, so instead I’ll leave off from the subject and make it clear that what they did with the non-Chinese mandarin was a stroke of genius.
As previously cited, the film is very much a character-driven piece, and as such the ratio of superheroics in relation to plot and character development is relatively small — seeming perhaps even smaller since the movie is 135 minutes long — but what we do get of armored action is simply spectacular. The sequence involving Air Force One was quite thrilling and brilliantly orchestrated for maximum audience effect. That said, the climactic bit involving numerous Jarvis-controlled suits of armor is a tad gratuitous but fun nonetheless, though the sheer number and variety of briefly-glimpsed armors and their functions does smack of “Look, kids! Soon to be on toy store shelves near you!!!” But whatever, it’s all very entertaining and may end up being considered the best in the series.
And as I said at the beginning, IRON MAN 3 could be considered the end of a trilogy. Over the course of four films (including THE AVENGERS), Stark has grown as a person and had a number of hard-won epiphanies, so in the very unlikely event that the studio decided this was it for Tony on the big screen, IRON MAN 3 would be a satisfying end to his adventures. See the film for yourself and you’ll see exactly what I mean. RECOMMENDED.
And to any parents who may be curious, I'd say this film is suitable for kids age 10 and over. Its length and emphasis on dialogue over action may wear on younger viewers, plus the scenes of explosive terrorism could be scary for the wee ones. (Plus to say nothing of the timing of the film's release occurring not long after the terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon...)
Oh, and make sure to stay all the way through the end credits for an Easter egg that wraps the whole thing up in a very amusing bow. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.