"You're not a man. You're nothing more than a maniac. I'm not afraid of you. No politics here: just good old fashioned revenge."
That is the message that Tony Stark delivers to the The Mandarin about an hour into the new Iron Man film. That one quote largely sums up the ideas within the third installment of the widely popular franchise, which sees Stark struggling to keep up with his life as Iron Man while retaining relationships with those around him.
The film opens on events from 1999 and helps to establish much of what is to come. Stark is his normal self, but it is his interactions with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) that will hold great significance. In the present day, Stark has been left emotionally affected by the events in New York portrayed in 2012's The Avengers. This has come to affect his work as well as his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). On top of that, a new villain known as The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) has begun to terrorize the United States and its leaders through a series of videos and violent actions. The Mandarin vows to make the United States pay for the atrocities that it has committed both at home and abroad. After Stark's head of security is injured in an attack supposedly orchestrated by The Mandarin, Stark is determined to find The Mandarin and stop him.
Superhero movies were given something of a rebirth in 2000 thanks in large part to Bryan Singer's X-Men. Ever since, summer blockbuster season seems to be dominated each year by a crop of new superhero movies. There is no doubt that the film are marketable, but are they truly great films? Films like 2003's X2: X-Men United, 2008's The Dark Knight, and 2012's The Avengers could be used to argue that superhero movies are just as impactful and important as the most heart wrenching dramas, while others like 2003's The Hulk and 2011's Captain America prove the opposite. The entire Iron Man series, though, is unique in that its entries thus far have ranged from great in quality to at least mildly enjoyable. For my own taste, 2008's Iron Man was actually a better film than the more noticed The Dark Knight. The second entry of the series, 2010's Iron Man 2, was something of a let down but it was still enjoyable. In retrospect, it is possible that the entire film was used primarily as a setup for The Avengers two years later. Iron Man 3 doesn't seem to be held back by this limitation, though, allowing it to become one of the best films within the Marvel canon.
The driving force of the entire series is, of course, the central performance from Robert Downey Jr. Since the first Iron Man film, Downey Jr. has provided great depth to the character of not just Tony Stark, but to Iron Man as well. The problem I have with most superhero leads is that their performance tends to lack in some aspect. The real life counterpart, whether it be Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, may present itself as a great performance, but once they become their superhero selves, everything goes downhill. That has never been a problem for Downey Jr., though. His performance on both sides is as equally impactful. As one synopsis of the film poignantly stated, in Iron Man 3, Stark is forced to answer the following question: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man? The conflict to resolve this question is what helps Downey Jr. to craft such a great performance. This time around, he spends more time out of the suit than he does in. This allows us to get to know Stark better, and helps us to understand his motivations. For a superhero film, the entire performance is so well crafted that I sometimes forgot that what I was watching was a summer blockbuster film that also represented the third entry in a series. After two previous films, many viewers may think they know everything there is to know about Stark. That is not the case though, and the character development in Iron Man 3 is what makes most of the film work.
Aside from the performance of Downey Jr., Iron Man 3 is filled with a number of other great performances. Guy Pierce delivers a great performance as one of the main villians of the film, and establish Aldrich Killian as one of the best characters within the first three Iron Man films. He even overshadows the great Sir Ben Kingsley, whose overall performance is something of a let down. More on that later though.
The women are also given some room to create memorable characters for perhaps the first time in an Iron Man film. As viewers, we have come to know Pepper Potts a little better, but Paltrow's performance in Iron Man 3 is her best. Potts is portrayed not only as a determined and wise businesswoman, but also as an extremely self sufficient woman. In a number of scenes within the film, Potts is made to fend for herself and she is more than capable of doing so. It is this kind of character evolution that makes audiences pay attention to Paltrow throughout the entire film. She is not merely the girlfriend of Tony Stark; she is somebody that can match Stark's creative genius on more level than one.
Along with Paltrow, Rebecca Hall is also very good in her role. The character of Maya Hansen is sometimes treated as a more minor character, and this ultimately hurts the overall performance. Still, Hall has enough charm and such a great screen presence that Hansen is made something much more than a throw away character. She serves a purpose within the entire story arch, and she is ultimately remembered throughout much of the film. Again, the only complaint would be that she was often underutilized at times.
As I briefly stated earlier, the performance of Sir Ben Kingsley is perhaps the most disappointing of the entire film. Throughout the film, we are led to believe that The Mandarin is the source of great terror and destruction. Yet, there is a major plot twist within the last third of the movie that argues differently. I should state that this twist is not completely unsatisfactory; it is actually quite hilarious and pretty believable. Yet, the character could have been used for so much more. In an era when films like The Dark Knight and Skyfall have helped to create incredibly dramatic and impactful stories for often generic summer blockbusters, Iron Man 3 stood to benefit heavily. The Mandarin is made out to be an individual whose discontent with the actions of the United States causes him to claim responsibility for terrible acts of violence. Sound too far off from where we are now? The truth is that it isn't, and I believe that Iron Man 3 could have pursued this plot line instead. Doing so would have resulted in a film with more heft and with more to say about the current state of the world. Again, it is hard to argue that a summer blockbuster is not a great film because it was not serious enough for my liking; I just think there were other narratives that would have resulted in a more polished final product.
Even with this shortcoming, Iron Man 3 is still a very good film and a great start to the summer movie season. The direction and writing of Shane Black is wonderful, calling to mind other great works by this action director. It balance the comedy and the drama incredibly well, too. Tony Stark is left with his witty comments intact, yet there is enough underneath the action and special effects to allow Iron Man 3 to challenge the original Iron Man film as the best within the series. As the opening quote said, Iron Man 3 promises to be about revenge. Yet, when the screen fades to black (and we are left waiting to see what Marvel has hidden after the final credit), we are left with a film that has touched on everything from honor to love and friendship. How very refreshing that is for a big budget action film.