Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Cinematography by: John Toll
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley
Marvel kicks off Phase Two of its cinematic universe much in the way it did Phase One back in 2008 with the first Iron Man: with a simple, yet highly effective film that’s immensely grounded in reality. I know we hear that a lot. Every film of this genre is said to be grounded in some sense of reality, but there aren’t many that make you forget you’re watching what in essence is a “superhero movie.” Now that may sound degrading to the genre, but I assure you it’s not. In fact, I’d say it’s a testament to that genre if I no longer wish to call it just a “superhero movie.” The genre is allowing itself to be taken a little more seriously, with an exceptional balance of humor and heart, which can only be a good thing for audiences looking to get more than your generically scripted, pointlessly loud, special effects driven fare.
It also helps that Iron Man 3 is incredibly standalone once all is said and done.
The Iron Man of The Avengers is almost nowhere to be found here, no longer having a super solider, the God of Thunder, or a Hulk to play off of, but they’re not necessarily needed here either, and the film greatly benefits from this sometimes literal stripped down approach. Since we last saw him, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has been keeping extremely busy building numerous variations of his armor because he’s experiencing post traumatic stress after the events that took place in New York. Taking a break from saving the world, that responsibility falls on Colonel James Rhodes’ (Don Cheadle) Iron Patriot, while Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) heads Stark Industries, with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) now being promoted to Chief of Security. When old faces from the past Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) resurface, Stark is forced to confront them, as well as a maniacal Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) behind the scenes, along with an army of regenerative, flame resistant, Extremis laced super soldiers.
There’s a reason Iron Man 3 falls closer in line with the original rather than its predecessor, and that’s because it’s not bogged down by anything. There’s no detour with S.H.I.E.L.D. or Nick Fury, and the few times the events of The Avengers are brought up, it’s to further explore Stark’s own worsening condition. There’s no question that Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man. What’s remarkable is that now four films in, he can still find a way to create a character that’s not only still interesting, but refreshingly so. Stark has always been charismatic, and brilliantly arrogant, but for the majority of this film, he’s not the cocksure man in the iron mask we’ve come to expect. He’s vulnerable in a way we haven’t seen before, precisely because the story is very contained, very personal, and very much in the here and now–that sense of grounded in reality I had mentioned earlier–even when Stark is nowhere near his element. He’s a man on the run, with limited resources, and only his mind and vengeful drive to work with. The rest of the cast gets a lot more to do this time around, from a highly involved Paltrow, a finally engaged Cheadle, and even Favreau manages to infuse Hogan with a great backstory, all of them further building upon their relationships with Tony.
On the flip side, Rebecca Hall feels vastly underused, having shown great promise in just the opening flashback alone. Conversely, Guy Pearce’s Killian feels like Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2 finally done right (and far more competent at that), with just the right amount of brawn to back up the brain, giving the character a sense of gradual growth as we watch him go from scientist to supervillain. That leaves the versatile, and I do mean that in every sense of the word, Sir Ben Kingsley, who takes the Mandarin in a direction that I assume many will not expect. It fits the narrative of the story extremely well, and further enhanced my appreciation for the grounded in reality approach this film, by creating a terrorist much in the vain of OBL. The man plays his part not only effectively, but efficiently, never letting on anymore than we have or need to know.
Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the masterful execution by writer/director Shane Black. From the ongoing narration, to the eventual team up of Rhodes and Stark, I was all smiles at how reminiscent it was of his feature debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as well as his other scripted features like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. From taking place around Christmas, to the witty and sharp bits of humor throughout, not to mention the extremely clever placement of the action set pieces (especially with all of the different suits), Black not only picks up the mantle from Favreau effortlessly, but infuses the franchise with his unique brand. Iron Man 3‘s model really accentuates its individual character, and despite Marvel taking great pride in its ability to successfully connect every possible thread among its films during Phase One, one can hope that the rest of Phase Two follows suit before converging again in The Avengers 2.
You know, it’s moments like these when I realize how much of a superhero I am.