What would an Iron Man movie be without the suit? What if we got Tony Stark at his sardonic best, using his brilliant mind, not just the armor, to solve problems? That is what makes this rarity among the usual series killing third films that have come along. We get to see Tony Stark not only delivering rapid-fire quips, but also out of his element. He's forced to face off against some rather substantial threats without the benefit of his armored suits for a lot of the film.
The taste of Iron Man 2 has been in my mouth for some time and, as a sequel to the brilliant first entry in the series, it disappointed. The ante had to be upped, of course, but it just didn't deliver, was far too bloated and long and, well, just didn't work. It still made a boatload of money so, of course, a third film was inevitability.
The choice of director for the third flick was a bit of a shock, to most anyway, when it was announced. The guy who wrote Lethal Weapon (and subsequently helped invent the modern action movie) was going to direct this latest superhero extravaganza? It's not as crazy as you might think. Black, who hasn't been behind the camera since 2005's criminally underrated Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang shows that he is, indeed, hungry to create again as he not only directed but co-wrote the thing with first-timer Drew Pearce.
The hallmarks of Black's style all come through here. The self-referential, quick-fire banter that is just seething with pop culture references shines here and, frankly, I don't know if there's anyone better at delivering that dialogue than Robert Downey Jr. It reminded me, honestly, of Christoph Waltz and Tarantino. Some pairings are just a match made in Heaven. Downey and Black are one of those. The humor is definitely present and a constant vein that pulses throughout the film. There is, also, a darkness to it that is at times a bit disturbing but so very welcome. The personality of this film is, at best, fractured. Giddy highs and techno-wizardry spectacle are followed by blistering one-liners, MacGyver-esque moments of brilliance and hitting the pavement like some everyday normal Joe Schmoe. It provides an uneven sense of pacing at times, too, but somehow the disparate elements of film all work even when they don't do so in the best of ways.
So, Tony Stark has withdrawn into his makeshift "Stark Industries R & D Department" in his Malibu mansion to tinker with his suits. He has done so at the expense of his relationship with his now live-in girlfriend Pepper Potts and sleep. His bouts with insomnia and anxiety are a result of his now greatly expanded understanding of the known universe. This was such a brilliant touch on the character as having Stark react, as any sane person would, to being sucked into a god damn wormhole and dealing with aliens and gods might just cause a bit of angst and shatter one's world view! It also afforded Downey, who has arguably never been better in this film, to serve up not only the usual "You're not the boss of me!" sort of spirit he's imbibed Stark with but also a very nuanced delivery that, whenever the action ratchets up and the suits do get involved? The man behind the faceplate remains the most important part of the movie.
Pepper Potts, now in the role of CEO of Stark Industries, serves as the grounded heart of the film and the love of Tony's life. She is the perfect counterbalance to all the snark and his Mensa playboy ways. I know there was a recent poll taken where Gwyneth Paltrow was one one of the most hated actresses in Hollywood but, frankly, I couldn't have loved her more in this role. We're not just getting some arm candy for Tony here but a much more developed and real character here and not just another damsel in distress.
Don Cheadle's turn as Col. James Rhodes in the rebranded War Machine suit(The Iron Patriot was something Norman Osborn came up with once he came into control of S.H.I..E.LD. and was one of those little nit-picky things that bugged me throughout the film) is fantastic. He gets to be an action hero and also a great partner to Tony as he goes about in unraveling the mystery of the Mandarin.
The Mandarin, originally a Fu-Manchu-esque villain bent on world domination, is more of a techno Osama bin Laden analog and is so DAMN good at hating America. "Some call me a terrorist," he proclaims. "But I like to think of myself as a teacher." Sir Ben Kingsley just rips into this role with dizzying gusto that was a delight to watch. His jihadist ways merged with the "I can't quite place that accent" delivery of dread lines of terror made for a captivating performance that proved to be one of the best components of the whole. The robes, the fantastic beard and the medieval haircut? This guy just chews scenery ravenously and spits out vowels with elegance and vitriole.
One villain is never enough though! Guy Pearce at his magnetic and creepily charming best as Aldrich Killian. The formerly bespectacled and hobbled geneticist who was spurned by Stark now made a suave and perfectly coiffed CEO of AIM, Inc. (A think tank turned global corporation). He is a forceful personality that comes to Stark Industries looking for aid with their new project: Something he likes to call Extremis. Rewriting the code of any living organism? Sounds a bit dangerous! Pepper seems to think so as she promptly turns down Killian's inquiries.
Extremis provides the film it's most comic-bookish moments as Iron Man or Iron Patriot tangle with these super-powered mortals who, sadly, have this bad habit of spontaneously combusting. Ouch. It's interesting that they went with the Extremis storyline for the underpinning of this as, compared to the rest of the series, there has always been a tendency to try and stay as grounded in reality as possible. Despite the Extremis element there are very real, and at times, dreadfully similar, events that shake up the story. Rebecca Hall plays the botanist who's breakthrough in genomics leads, ultimately, to the implementation of Extremis. She does well in her first big-budget outing and I hope to see more of her soon. Especially in a low cut top.
A bombing at Chinese Mann's Theater, for example, is so abruptly violent that I felt a little jarred by it honestly. The analog of the Mandarin to bin Laden, the way Stark blatantly offers his home address and says "He's already dead. I just need to collect the body." a bit of reference to our defense policy within the last ten years. Further riffed on by Rhodes dropping in on various Afghani and Pakistani locales to catch the Mandarin though it's all based on false facts. The only real problem with the plotting is that the motives of these two villains are a bit unclear. World domination? Power? A date with Pepper Potts, in the case of Killian, or what ?
The uneven plotting doesn't bring the movie down though as Black deftly navigates through the tropes of not only action movies (a genre he helped to define) but even infuses it with a buddy-cop feel at times. The unerring lightheartedness of the film is, at times, contrasted by the darker almost noir elements of Black/Pearce's scripting. This contributes to some uneven pacing but ultimately gives the film a personality unlike any we've seen out of the superhero set.
The action set-pieces are marvelous and a master-stroke of execution. The attack in Malibu, a mid-air rescue and the explosive finale are all so expertly done that, frankly, if you're wanting action you'll get it. It isn't a constant thrum of it but when it comes it feels like multiple punches to the face. The finale, in particular, had a similar feel in the beginning to the end of Iron Man 2, but it was also vastly different. Multiple suits are involved, sure, but here we have that times ten. The more suits that get thrown in, though, the less it matters. The man in the suit ultimately got lost in the madness in the prior film whereas here they are just the means to an end. That's where, ultimately, th the heart of the film lies.
The suits are things. They are all created by the Marvel Universe's foremost genius, Tony Stark. They are disposable. He can build more. He will build more. "You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys. The one thing you can't take away: I am Iron Man." It was a wonderful way to cap off an, if a bit off-kilter at times, very satisfying third entry and such a great entry into the Marvel canon.