“The world is getting weird,” declares faithful former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) early in the first act of Iron Man 3. He’s not wrong. Everybody’s favorite genius billionare playboy philanthropist is back for a fourth round, facing a changing world, and a changing self. After the invasion of New York, and the start of the Avengers, there’s plenty on the table for Mr. Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to handle, from terrorists to his mercurial relationship to his own obsessions. Fortunately for us, though, IM3 doesn’t take too steep of a dive into Tony’s demons. It stays at a neat cruising altitude: charming, effusive, with requisite explosions aplenty. Much like the most used and battered of Tony Stark’s suits, Iron Man 3 has some loose pieces that rattle, but it holds together for a fun, familiar ride.
Material under the cut contains arc-reactor-powered SPOILERS. Read at your own discretion.
IM3 kicks off with our hero in a bad place. Still in mental recovery from a small fiasco involving a wormhole some time ago, Tony’s been in a wired-up cocoon of his own devising, which involves…not recovering at all. Building suit after suit on sleepless binges, Tony’s begun to worry the people in his life, including best pal Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and freshly minted C.E.O. and Tony’s #1 squeeze Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). His relationship with Pepper in particular is taking some hard hits, exemplified when a misunderstanding over a giant stuffed rabbit (yes, the one from the trailers) escalates into a full-scale fight. Pepper, her own life full of the corporate responsibilities of Stark Industries, is trying to keep her cool with the frustrating man she loves. But even her patience is tried when an automatically controlled suit attacks her by accident in the middle of the night.
The world outside will hardly give Tony a moment’s rest, however. Bio-tech entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is encroaching on Tony’s company and on his love life. The product he’s pushing is Extremis, an unstable compound developed by bio-chemist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) that can heal wounds and regrow limbs, but has the unfortunate tendency to, nine times out of ten, turn its recipients into human bombs. Killian and Hansen are unconcerned with the defective product (or are they?), blinders on in the search for perfection beyond human frailty. The search is one that Tony himself might relate to too closely for his own comfort. After all, it is his own sense of frailty in the wake of the New York invasion that’s kept led him on a panicked manufacturing spree.
As though that wasn’t enough to handle, up pops a new terrorist superstar claiming ties to Tony’s old favorites The Ten Rings; a confusing clash of dramatic cues known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Hijacking the airways to claim responsibility for a series of bombings, The Mandarin gets on Tony’s personal radar after Happy is critically injured in an attack at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The link between these two foes seems impossible at first, but slowly comes together in an interesting, sinister, and yet oddly humorous coup for the film, one we hesitate to spoil for anyone, even with our warning.
There are some interesting ideas at play here, and, though the film doesn’t have time to follow each one of them through, it gives a few space. In particular, the focus on Tony’s PTSD is compelling, with Downy Jr. delivering some of his best performances of the series. Countering any appearances of vulnerability with harsh quips, Tony’s defensive reactions are both acerbic and understandable. This highly in-character, if slightly overused, reaction helps the audience to connect on a more basic level, essential when there’s so much else going on.
And there is a lot going on. Cover-ups. Mysterious ties between terror and the Vice President. Global bio-weapons conspiracy. Fire-breathing bad guys? When the loose threads finally begin to wind together, the film loses its momentum instead of picking up, leading to a weak conclusion and a pile-up of questions. (Why don’t the suits have better security protocols in place? Wouldn’t there be more guards around the Mandarin? Would Aldritch Killian really risk his elaborate, highly funded plan to have a pissing match over an obsessive crush? Aside from the excuse of mistrusting authority, why doesn’t Tony share his amazing crime-scene analysis and ability to trace the untraceable Mandarin’s signal with S.H.I.E.L.D., or someone else who could help? Etc.)
It’s best not to think too hard, or you’ll miss the point…that there is none. IM3 is another puzzle piece meant to get us between points in the grander scheme of the MCU. One could see this as a stunting factor – the film can’t make any large-scale changes – or see it as a blessed freedom to do whatever it pleases. IM3 imparts enough goodwill that it secures the latter, getting away with a hasty wrap-up that includes Pepper’s offscreen recovery from Extremis she’s been unwillingly infected with (what?), as well as Tony’s sudden discovery of the key to ending his arc reactor dependency (whaaaaat?). Like Tony, the movie would rather smash a wall than worry about fitting everything through the front door. Details, details, the film says breezily, and carries us right along.
There’s one area where more attention should be paid, and it’s right there in the title. At this point in the run of Iron Man movies the use of multiple suits, gadgets, and A.I. to help Tony is well established. But the dependency on fantastic technology may have reached its saturation point here. Such is the overuse of tech in the movie that it feels like there’s nothing special about wearing one of the suits, which can, evidently, be easily commandeered, remote controlled, or used by the totally inexperienced. When Tony performs a daring maneuver to rescue the rapidly falling crew of Air Force One, the sequence has all the tension and excitement one could hope for. But at the fall’s conclusion, when it is revealed that he was remotely controlling the suit, suddenly the daring stunt feels like a cheat. If the heroes aren’t in the path of danger, our investment in their safety, and in their success, drops.
This disparity is in highest form at the film’s explosive climax. Amidst the kinetic ballet of 40+ Iron Man suits fighting the Extremis-laced baddies are the real nail-biting moments of watching an unsuited Don Cheadle (and his brave stunt doubles) fling themselves into danger to secure the President. The Iron Man movies lavish love on the tech, and they’re expected to. But the dazzle of coordinated CG is no match for the jeopardy of real, human bodies put in harm’s way.
Humanity isn’t only preferable where action is concerned. The parts everyone always talks about from Iron Man, the parts that make us like that film, and invested us in Tony as a character, are the parts where he is definitely, vulnerably, human. Everyone can dismiss the forgettable final battle between a suited-up Stane and Iron Man, spatially confused, and laden with VFX. But we love watching Tony build the suit, figure out problems and kinks. For the middle third of IM3, as we are transposed into a Spielberg film (there’s an earnest, but not treacly kid sidekick), Tony responds to the question of who he is by saying he’s a mechanic. This simplicity of fact is what guides the better moments of these movies, especially this latest. A series of scenes that involved Tony dealing with a traumatic attack by going to a hardware store and building devices are some of the best in the film. An arrogant, if delightful, genius, Tony is at his most relatable, and most interesting, when he’s got to figure his way out a jam without the full aid of his billionaire workshop. Sure, we laugh at Tony the Playboy, but the heartiest responses in the audience I viewed it with were reserved for Tony the Mechanic.
Ironic to a franchise about engineering brilliance, it is the human element, whether wisecracking, worried, or rising to the challenge, that remains the most compelling part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Tony Stark is fond of intoning, he is Iron Man. That’s a good thing. It’s just the way we like it.