“Big man in a suit of armor; take that away and what are you?”
This is the question that Captain Steve Rogers (or Captain America for the uninitiated) asks of Tony Stark/Iron Man early on in last summer’s mega hit The Avengers. Stark, a character that America has come to know in painstaking detail following his and SHIELD’s obligatory origin story in 2008’s Iron Man and the seemingly even more required bloated middle chapter in 2010’s Iron Man 2, answered the question just as we would have expected him to: with a quick wit and even quicker arrogance.
“Genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist.”
And yet, what was simply fodder for an easy one-liner just one film ago, now instead becomes the driving force of Marvel’s greatest solo film to date as we finally see Stark without his armor, both literal and emotional. Serving effective doses of drama alongside the sarcasm that has become expected of the character, Iron Man 3 is a great film, feeling nothing like any part of Marvel’s phase one nor like a cheap attempt to cash in on the success of the third highest grossing film in movie history. It’s not even fair to title it Iron Man 3; Tony Stark would have been much more appropriate.
The film begins in a surprising fashion, with Stark (Played once again by Robert Downey Jr. in what has become his career-defining role) narrating over a black screen. His words aren’t necessarily surprising here, delivering some rote speech or another about villains and how we create them. What does manage to shock, however, is what happens after he’s finished his little speech. Apparently recognizing how cliché it is, Stark breaks the fourth wall, basically saying, “Well that was rubbish, let’s try it again from the beginning”, instantly setting the film on a completely different path from both the third sequel that it might have been under another director as well as the movies that came before it.
Suddenly the audience is whisked back to 1999 when Eifel 82’s one hit wonder was running strong and Y2K fever was in full force. This sequence, besides offering a fun little return to Stark the 100% shallow rock-star, who we met only briefly in 2008, also sets the plot in motion, showing how Stark’s actions managed to create two villains in one night. By spurning biologist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) after a one night stand and rejecting scientist Aldrich Killian’s (Guy Pearce) pleas for assistance, he inspires the two to combine forces to create what Stark refused to: a genetic coding that could make mankind the ultimate weapon.
When the night concludes, Stark’s voiceover puts the focus back on where he thinks it always should be: himself. Zeroing in on Stark in a post-Avengers world, writer/director Shane Black shows a character that is clearly still rattled by his near death in that film. Indeed, Stark finds it almost impossible to sleep at night even though his dream woman Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) now shares his bed. Causing even more stress on him is the emergence of a new villain: The Mandarin, an Osama Bin Laden-esque terrorist who orders attacks on innocents and then releases videos of himself apparently trying to relay a message to the American people. Quickly it becomes clear that the Mandarin and Killian are working together to defeat Stark, either by getting him in the fold or by eliminating him once and for all. Taking the fight to Iron Man, they destroy his home and kidnap Pepper, leaving the hero with nothing.
One of the main problems with the Iron Man franchise since day one is that Iron Man has simply never had a challenge worthy of the character. The villains he’s faced have been one dimensional, non-threatening entities. While the Mandarin and Killian are unfortunately still not up to par in the pantheon of iconic film villains, Iron Man finally does have a nemesis worthy of him: Tony Stark. While there are still several beats typical of a summer blockbuster (gunfights, explosions, etc.), this film is mainly about the internal war going on between the two personas within its protagonist, the arrogant and panic-stricken villain vs. the selfless, love-struck hero.
It’s never the moments of action that stick with you in this film, (though make no mistake, the action in this installment puts the first and especially the second to shame) but rather the relationships between Stark and those who revolve around him. The Pepper-Tony relationship is especially poignant, finally removed from the cute, but harmless flirtation to a full-blown romance, the film cashes in on the obvious chemistry Paltrow and Downey Jr. have shared all along. Pepper is the most fully realized female character in the Marvel universe to this point and her journey in this film though clearly secondary to Tony’s is just as exciting, finally giving her a chance to shine as more than an awesome accessory to Stark’s ego.
Almost just as effective as the Pepper-Tony dynamic is the odd ball pairing of Tony and Harley,a kid he meets along the way (Ty Simpkins), who helps him out on his way to facing the Mandarin. In lesser films this relationship could have crippled the entire enterprise, and just as it seems like that’s going to happen here in a scene where Harley reveals that his father left him and his mother six years prior (my eyes were ready to roll at the attempted pulling of the heartstrings I thought I would witness), Iron Man quickly saves the day saying “Father left, alright, no reason to be a pussy about it.”
Much thanks has to be given to writer/director Shane Black, whose touch here makes the film seem more like his and Downey Jr.’s one previous collaboration, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, than just another superhero film. Black finesses every aspect of the film in such a way as to make it seem unique to the character of Iron Man. Even though the basic formula (hero is stripped of his powers and forced to watch the world he loves burn) seems borrowed from last year’s The Dark Knight Rises, Black and Downey Jr. find the correct alchemy of comedic energy and paranoid desperation to make this journey its own beast.
Downey Jr. has never been better as Stark, effortlessly shifting from Iron Man to Stark and back again. While the dead pan delivery is still in full effect, his is a performance filled with subtleties and when Black takes us inside the machine to close ups of Tony we see a million different thoughts flying across his face simultaneously. Hilarious and ultimately powerful and triumphant this is one of the best performances of Downey Jr.’s career, taking what seemed to be a simple extension of himself and making it the fully rounded hero that one had hoped would always emerge.
Ultimately Iron Man 3 is a surprising and remarkable film. While many times the third film seems to be the kiss of death for a superhero it seems that only now has Marvel’s number one priority found a firm footing. The first chapters showcased a great performance from Robert Downey Jr. and helped lay the groundwork for an all time superhero classic last year, but this film is a success on an entirely different level from those first two. It shows us what Tony is without the suit; not a genius, billionaire, philanthropist. No, quite simply,
He is Iron Man.