There are almost as many concepts floating around in Iron Man 3 as there are suits of armor. The only difference is that the armors have a clearly defined purpose. In an attempt to bring Tony Stark back to basics, his latest outing is a strangely bloated affair that still manages to be an incredibly fun thanks to the hilarious comedy and exhilarating action. Without question, it’s the funniest and most exciting of the trilogy, but it’s also surrounded by a host of underdeveloped ideas relating to notions of desperation, augmentation, and obfuscation, not to mention the aftershock of The Avengers. Like riding in one of the Iron Man suits, it’s a bumpy but highly enjoyable ride.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t sleep. He’s haunted by the overwhelming events in New York that sent him through an intergalactic portal, and so he spends his nights building new suits of armor. His latest is the Mark XLII, an armor that can be controlled telepathically, and a foreboding symbol of an armor that is as unpredictable as its controller. It also becomes his only defense when the terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) attacks, and Tony is forced to go on the run and find a way to retaliate. Desperate, broken, and determined to protect his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), our hero must content with fiery, regenerating soldiers who are powered by a genetic enhancement known as “Extremis”, which has been developed by the malevolent scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).
The core of the story is to show Tony Stark’s true superpower as a genius inventor. His armor has always been an extension of that power. What makes him a superhero is combining the two, but he’s still a hero without the armor. It’s a similar point to when Peter Parker loses his powers in Spider-Man 2 except Spider-Man’s powers came from transformation whereas Iron Man is augmentation. Surrounded by the Extremis soldiers, there’s a notion of how power can corrupt, but like most of the ideas in the movie, it’s never fully developed.
Early in the picture, when the Mandarin is creating mysterious attacks in the Middle East using bombs but with no evidence of bomb casings, Rhodes (Don Cheadle) tells Tony that it’s “An American problem, not a superhero problem,” even though the task of stopping the attacks falls to the Iron Patriot (formerly War Machine but now with a red-white-and-blue paint job). So is Iron Man now separate from America? Rhodes said “Iron Patriot” tested better in focus groups, and dog tags are found at the site of an Extremis attack, so is the movie commenting about the optics of war?
The movie doesn’t require some deep commentary, but it still raises these issues, and then can’t do anything with them because they’re either left by the wayside or never fully articulated. Characters will drop out of the film for long stretches, and other characters have nebulous motives that seem deep—such as finding true character in times of desperation—but never coalesce because surrounding forces, like the Extremis soldiers, never seem to have a clear purpose other than to serve as foes that are almost as faceless as the drones in Iron Man 2.
But whereas that movie seems far more concerned with Tony refining his power source in between being forced inside the developing Avengers plotline, Iron Man 3 always keeps its primary focus on Tony Stark’s journey. Even though supporting characters provide a shaky orbit around the protagonist, Iron Man 3 is about asking the question of what it means to be “Iron Man” and then letting the humor and emotion spring from there.
This focus allows director and co-writer Shane Black to take his time, and while he does branch out into overall threat of the Mandarin’s plans and the Extremis soldiers, the real danger comes from Tony Stark trying to save the day without the armor that has come to define him. Obviously, Tony Stark is a “hero”, but Black and Downey have no reservations when it comes to indulging the character’s lovable narcissism. Black has always been a master of dialogue, and the wise-cracks, comic pauses, and set-ups/pay-offs provide big laughs throughout the picture.
What’s more surprising is how well Black handles the action. His only other film, the phenomenal Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was a character-driven narrative that only cost $15 million. That film’s finale hints at how well Black knows how to put together an action scene, but it’s still not enough to prepare his fans for the spectacular job he does with his first blockbuster gig. Working with an amazing sound team, editors Peter S. Elliot and Jeffrey Ford, and Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll, Black has made Iron Man more impressive than ever (and it would still impress without the 3D). The character takes a serious beating throughout the picture, and the versatility of the piecemeal Mark XLII provides terrific action and comedy in equal measure.
Furthermore, Black never gets overeager to put action at the forefront or use it as a crutch. It takes 40 minutes to get to the first big set piece, and when it finally arrives, it’s absolutely worth the wait. But after the collapsing debris, death-defying escapes, and various pyrotechnics, the film returns to its main focus: Tony Stark in the wilderness. The strength of Downey’s character-defining performance and Black’s emphasis on getting to the heart of his Tony Stark’s heroism is what keeps the film intact. Without those central pieces, every jumbled element would fall into a slog of confused plotting and muddled motives.
Iron Man was about Tony Stark taking his new lease on life to right the wrongs of his careless past. Iron Man 2 isn’t really about Tony Stark but about where Iron Man fits into a larger world and how he can keep a grip on that power. Iron Man 3 finishes out the trilogy by breaking down the character, and showing that while he may be surrounded by colorful armors, supporting characters, and half-developed ideas, he’s never dwarfed by them. Iron Man doesn’t get dwarfed by distractions. He blasts through them.