In 2008, Iron Man kicked off Phase One of the Marvel’s cinematic onslaught, surprising everyone by taking a B-list superhero and turning him – and Robert Downey Jr. – into an A-list megastar. (I saw it in Singapore.) In 2010, Iron Man 2 moved on from the origin story and forced the invincible Iron Man to face up to his history. (I saw it in Incheon, Korea.) Now, in 2013, Iron Man 3 is rightly given the task of beginning Phase Two, the first Marvel film to take place after Phase One’s culmination in The Avengers, taking Iron Man both back to his roots and into new places. (I saw it in Crawley. Oh well, it can’t always be glamorous.)
Based heavily, albeit loosely, on Warren Ellis’s acclaimed ‘Extremis’ storyline for the comics line, Iron Man 3 outdoes its immediate successor by returning to what made the first film so effective – Tony Stark, sans armour, relying on his prodigious intelligence and initiative. That first instalment was one of the best superhero movies made to date, falling down only in the last act in which the inevitable machine-vs-machine battle felt oddly anti-climactic after the exemplary character work that had gone before it. The second movie bettered the first in terms of physical spectacle, but, with the exception of the engaging dynamics between Stark and Pepper Potts, lacked the same level of character work as the first. Iron Man 3 manages, for the most part, to juggle these two elements successfully, as well as managing to stay out of the imposing shadow of The Avengers.
Quite rightly, this is an Iron Man film through and through, not Avengers-lite, but the events of the superteam flick do make their presence felt in their effects on Stark’s personal life. While Stark is, for the most part, the same cocky, vain swaggerer we know and love, he is a changed man. An opening sequence set in 1999 shows us how much more mature he has become over the course of the films, while the aftereffects of the invasion of New York have left him experiencing insomnia and crippling anxiety attacks. It’s a highly effective way of re-humanising a character who was on the verge of becoming too big for his iron boots.
The emotional core of the Iron Man films is in Stark’s relationship with Pepper, which has here moved into the difficult middle stage. There are three people in the relationship now – Tony, Pepper and Iron Man, as Stark spends his every free moment tinkering with yet another iteration of his supersuit. Both RD Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow shine in their scenes together, although the abundance of characters does cut into the time they should be spending together. Still, this fits with the themes of the film, including Stark’s obsession with his work threatens to push Pepper away, and the enforced physical separation of the couple halfway through the film.
For all his emotional difficulties and his far humbler demeanour when alone with Pepper, Stark still has a great deal of confidence. When bodyguard-cum-security chief Happy Hogan (an adorable turn by former director Jon Favreau) is critically injured in a Mandarin attack, Stark makes the brash, overconfident, and incredibly stupid mistake of threatening him on national media and even giving him his address. It’s a moment when the old Tony shows through, and proves why it’s so important that he doesn’t fall back too far into his arrogant younger ways.
The aerial attack on Stark’s mansion is the film’s first major set-piece, one that cleverly separates the lead couple while reinforcing Stark’s love and protection for Pepper. It’s fine writing; earlier in the movie, Stark’s experimentation with bonding his suit to his system led to it attacking Pepper, visibly symbolising thw wedge his work was driving between them. In the attack, the suit flies to the rescue, enveloping not Stark but Pepper, showing not only how much he longs to protect her, but giving her a chance to protect him. It’s well-told, sketching in the essentials of their relationship while hinting at the eventual culmination of the film’s developments.
RD Jr’s finest scenes follow this, with him lost, dumped in the middle of snow-laden Tennessee, dragging his inert suit around behind him. Finally, Stark is back where he was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, relying on his wits, his engineering skill and the help of one unlikely companion. The inclusion of a snappy, precocious child may scream of Disney’s influence on their newly acquired Marvel property, but it works, avoiding any mawkishness by keeping Tony true to his character throughout. It doesn’t hurt that Harley is played by a very decent young actor, Ty Simpkins, who shares some genuine chemistry with RD Jr. some of the funniest moments of the film arrive during their working together, with Harley’s garage den making the ideal base for Stark’s repair work.
There’s no shortage of villains in the movie, with various levels of villainy on display. Aldrich Killian, techie-nerd turned business emperor, is so blatantly a baddie that there is never any attempt to disguise this; all that we’re left to wonder is how he links to the mysterious Mandarin. I normally can’t stand Guy Pearce, but his standard sleazy character is exactly what Killian needs, a downtrodden loser suddenly raised to being a winner and desperate to take his frustrations out on the people who once snubbed him. Dr. Maya Hansen is a less obvious and greyer type of villain, but it’s still no major surprise that she turns out to be working with Killian, even for those who haven’t been exposed the ‘Extremis’ comic. She is present at a very convenient moment for becoming embroiled in events, and as the originator of the technology that became Extremis, it’s clear she was involved. Sadly, the very talented Rebecca Hall has little chance to show what she’s capable of, with Hansen kept as very much a subsidiary character. A scientist with a lost moral base is potentially a far more interesting character than the out-and-out evil maniac. In any case, if I had Rebecca Hall in my movie, I’d give her all the screentime I could (although at least part of that is because she kind of reminds me of my ex).
The Extremis virus itself provides for a fine source of superpower, charging not only Killian for his final showdown with Stark but also giving us an array of souped-up assassins and foot soldiers. The inhumanly fast regenerative powers and the ability to project intense heat gives us a type of human character capable of squaring up to a fully-powered, suited-up Iron Man, something a little more novel than yet another battle with a mechanically enhanced lunatic. Having it inherently unstable and capable of reducing people to devastating incendiary devices adds another level, and brings us to the man himself: the Mandarin.
The Mandarin, although one of Iron Man’s most persistent enemies in the comics, was always going to be a tricky character to update for a modern audience. While the alien power rings he used would fit nicely into the more cosmically styled universe of The Avengers, they’d seem somewhat out of place in an Iron Man movie. It’s the character himself, though, who would pose the real problem, with a Fu-Manchu-styled inscrutable Asian mastermind very likely to come across as today as embarrassing at best, actively offensive at worst. So instead, writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black reinvent the character, making him the absolute vision of the modern conception of a terrorist, Osama bin Laden stylee beard and all. The best moment of the film, the genuinely surprising twist in which we discover that the Mandarin is nothing of the sort, is a stroke of minor genius, exposing all our prejudices to examination. The clue was there from early on, of course, with Stark commenting on the Mandarin’s theatrics, the odd combination of elements that make up his character: a name and dress style taken from Chinese tradition, the physical look of a Central Asian Islamic fundamentalist, and the bizarre addition of an exaggerated American accent. That it’s all a feint takes the viewer by surprise because of our own preconditioned expectation of what a terrorist looks like. The movie’s faux-Mandarin is just as racist a caricature as his comic book equivalent, and no one is expecting the evil mastermind to be the well-dressed white guy.
Not everyone gets as much screentime as Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin. Don Cheadle has little of the banter he shared with RD Jr. in the previous film. His War Machine – now rebranded as the Iron Patriot – only really comes into his own during the finale, although Rhodey, like Stark, gets to prove his mettle without the metal. William Sadler is wasted as the President, getting very little to do but look concerned and be in peril. The vice president also has a brief subplot to himself, although you’d be hard-pressed to notice it during the frenetic events of the finale.
It’s the finale that really shifts the film into high gear. While some may have been concerned with lesser known director Shane Black taking over from Jon Favreau, it is he who finally manages to pace an Iron Man film just right. The final battle, with dozens of Iron Man suits zipping about on autopilot, is ludicrously over-the-top, but it’s a rip-roaringly exciting spectacle. The eventual showdown between the superpowered Killian and a desperate Stark does, however, go on far too long, with Killian making one to many returns from certain death. Thankfully, Pepper reappears, after a rather transparent false death scene, powered up by Extremis herself. Paltrow, perhaps surprisingly, makes a highly convincing action heroine. Where the producers will go with this is future Marvel instalments is a curious question. It’s unclear whether Stark removed the Extremis material entirely from Pepper or merely stabilised her during his voiceover epilogue.
The very final moments (before the credits, that is), see Stark finally taking the step to have his injury from the first movie healed, his ARC reactor removed, and seemingly having put much of his supersuit tinkering ways behind him. A final caption promises that Tony Stark will return, although whether this will be as part of the Avengers team or in his own movie is unknown. With RD Jr’s contract up for renewal, we may not even see him played by the same man. If this does see the end of the Iron Man film series, then it makes for a satisfying conclusion, closing a trilogy with a well-judged character arc with both style and substance, and a few snubs at American foreign policy along the way.