Iron Man 3 (***)

iron man 3Continuing the thrills, fun, and near-endless laughs of last year’s The Avengers, Marvel’s Iron Man 3 is a considerable upgrade from the tainted sophomore effort that is Iron Man 2. Tony Stark is no longer throwing hissy fits or purposefully wreaking havoc on his luxurious Malibu mansion (at least not intentionally), but his ego remains as endearingly damning as ever and the stakes are appropriately raised. There’s also nobody who steals the frame from the devilishly charming Robert Downey Jr. this time, a la Sam Rockwell’s goofy weapons manufacturer villain from the previous film. If Downey Jr. isn’t wholly captivating your attention with his cheeseball one-liners that always manage to score, you’re left with nothing but a routinely competent if unspectacular narrative and stoic characters who forget they are a part of the humor-fueled Iron Man franchise. It’s a good thing, then, that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Shane Black is aware of this, centering nearly every minute of running-time around his ginormous star and the iron hero he plays. Iron Man 3 isn’t as shockingly groundbreaking as the 2008 inaugural film, but its visually-inventive action sequences and post-Avengers hero introspection make this latest Marvel offering a memorable one. Plus, Robert Downey Jr.’s innate comedic value never, ever lets up. And neither does our laughter.

The iron-clad adventure begins with Tony Stark in voiceover mode, retelling/reliving his fateful encounter with two seemingly harmless scientists at a 1999 New Year’s Eve Party. Stark, ever the pompous egomaniac, makes a false promise to socially awkward Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), head of R&D company AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics), that subsequently leads to cruel humiliation and a long-held grudge. Stark’s playboy shenanigans also ruffle the feathers of the intelligent and beautiful Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a scientist whose body he uses and brain he discards. Maya’s research has revealed a way for mankind to essentially become invincible: activated by a special treatment (known later as Extremis), formerly unused quadrants of the brain will undergo an internal healing operation to cure any injury or ailment. Stark ignores Maya’s pleas to help fund her research, and fourteen years later the two shunned scientists make it known just how a bad a concoction booze, buffoonery and baseless sex really is.

Pay close attention to this villain...
Pay close attention to this villain…

Guy Pearce is perfectly cast as Aldrich Killian, transitioning from feeble dork to slick-haired corporate billionaire with astounding ease. This type of victim-to-villain arc isn’t new whatsoever, but Pearce’s mastery of the Machiavellian archetype distracts from any cliches that abound. Rebecca Hall is an actress who always grounds a film with real human emotion and she does so again in Iron Man 3, exuding sincerity and passion as Maya. Because Hall has such a charming disposition, audiences will be guessing right until the end what her motivations are and where her true loyalties lie.

Other newcomers include Ben Kingsley as elusive terrorist The Mandarin; Ty Simpkins as Harley, a a gizmo wiz who aids Tony Stark after his home life is literally stripped away from him; and James Badge Dale as the brutal and cunning Eric Savin, an evil henchman of sorts who seems ripped out of a Bond film, showing Stark and the world just how deadly and destructive the Extremis treatment can be. This may sound confusing to you but Ben Kingsley is both horrific and brilliant as The Mandarin, emitting a one-of-a-kind performance we’ve never seen the British thespian conduct before. My lips are now sealed on the matter, so go watch the film if you want to dig deeper into Iron Man’s latest global nemesis. As far as James Badge Dale goes, he’s as equally dangerous and menacing as he was in The Departed, but with the addition of superpowers he’s a new beast altogether. Calamities befall the ground Dale’s Savin walks on, raising the threat level and critically wounding a dear friend of Tony Stark. Dale is effective in this roles, making Savin more than just a throwaway henchman part, and deserves a film of his own to singularly carry.

Is this the end of Iron Man?
Is this the end of Iron Man?

Simpkins and Robert Downey Jr. have a great rapport together; their interactions often have us clutching our stomachs because their exchanges are so riotously hysterical. Normally in films where a kid tags along with a popular superhero, fans at home grunt in disapproval since these child characters usually annoy more than assist. That’s not the case with Harley. The young prodigy not only nurses Tony Stark back to life but also forces him to confront deeply buried emotions that have caused panic attacks of late. Stark is stricken with what I’m coining as PTAD: Post Traumatic Avengers Disorder. After nearly walking through death’s door in last summer’s The Avengers, not to mention discovering the existence of hostile extra terrestrials that more than likely will be back for another round of Earth-abuse, Tony Stark is plagued with nightmares and the added pressure of protecting those he loves from enemies he doesn’t understand. These introspective scenes add an extra layer of complexity to Tony Stark as Iron Man, a former rich snob who used to rid his fears by way of drink and women. Shane Black, along with writing partner Drew Pearce, provide ample time for such development despite the humor and explosions constantly thrown our way. As a result, Robert Downey Jr. arguably delivers his greatest performance yet as Marvel’s iron defender of humanity.

The only characters that don’t work for me — and possibly the weakest components of this third installment — are veterans Pepper Potts and James “Rhodey” Rhodes/The Iron Patriot, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle respectively. It seems with each new Iron Man film, Stark and Pepper’s relationship becomes less and less believable. The pair hardly share any screen time together in Iron Man 3, and when they do their chemistry isn’t as tight-knit as in the first film. Pepper’s character undergoes a radical change near the end of the movie that comes off more random than earned, leading to a truly silly moment that perhaps was better in theory than execution. Paltrow fits snugly into Pepper Potts’ shoes once again, but the character’s fastidious demeanor is beginning to wear thin. As for Rhodes, I still prefer Terrence Howard in this role since he seemed to understand and jive with Stark’s humor a bit more. Cheadle is maybe too stoic an actor to really nail the Iron Patriot (ironically), and while the lines he’s given are funny, the delivery doesn’t always land well. Rhodes is less of an annoying Jiminy Cricket character this time around, but I just wish the bromance between him and Stark was as concrete as both their suits. Speaking of suits, the visual effects department considerably ups their game with some eye-popping imagery of Stark’s trusty suit splitting apart and then reforming, made even better with 3-D glasses. In my eyes, Iron Man 3 deserves to be considered for “Best Visual Effects” for next year’s Academy Awards™ ceremony. Next to Oblivion, this is the most visually striking film I’ve seen thus far in 2013.

Robert Downey Jr. has never been better as everyone's favorite hunk of metal.
Robert Downey Jr. has never been better as everyone’s favorite hunk of metal.

Somehow, Lethal Weapon director Shane Black amps up the drama and humor for this terrific third film in the Iron Man franchise. Sure, it doesn’t have the creative spark that made the first film such a delight but this is a fine follow-up to The Avengers. These back-to-back films have set a standard in superhero filmmaking that I hope Marvel and Disney never fall beneath from here on out. With a spectacular action sequence that unfolds in the tradition of “barrel of monkeys,” Shane Black proves he’s capable of handling such action-heavy material and executing it with aplomb. I prefer Black’s confident yet humor-driven direction to Jon Favreau’s, although the actor-director has a nice little cameo with the reprisal of Happy Hogan, “bodyguard” and chauffeur of Tony Stark. His character has quite the relationship with a familiar PBS British costume drama, and it’s these small touches in the script that greatly impress. I’ve always been upfront in stating that Iron Man is my favorite role of Robert Downey Jr.’s, and this third outing is more than enough evidence to prove my case. I can’t imagine an Iron Man film without Robert Downey Jr. as the brashly confident Tony Stark, but if this is truly the end of Iron Man’s standalone adventures, then it’s one that ends on a satisfying note without requiring any additional story to be told. Those who want even more fan service — meaning everyone — need to stick around after the credits. I promise you that the twists and laughs aren’t over yet. While not perfect and at times more silly than it needs to be, Iron Man 3 nevertheless offers up that same zippy fun as The Avengers except with more consistent bouts of laughter.

Iron Man 3 will be released stateside this Friday, May 3rd, and I’m sure you’ll be there contributing to its hefty weekend numbers. Below is the final trailer to get your excitement level even higher than it already is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mz3yUcZGHpM