With The Avengers, supergeek Joss Whedon crafted an almost impossibly epic superhero movie. After years of buildup, we were finally given a movie that featured all of these larger-than-life characters joining together as a team to defend the entire planet. It worked because it fulfilled Marvel’s promise to its audience; it was a massive, unique event. However, many must have asked, “How can sequels starring only individual superheroes from the team possibly hope to top this movie?” By its very nature, an Avengers movie must contain more spectacle than an entry following one of the individual heroes. Any movie attempting to top The Avengers on its own terms is destined to fail.
Writer/director Shane Black succeeds by reversing the trajectory of the Iron Man franchise. Until this point, each successive movie featuring Iron Man was bigger and faster-paced than the last. Here, Black focuses on Tony Stark in a comparatively more intimate and character-driven movie. Iron Man 3 is still a superhero movie—it still has its share of explosions and one-liners—but it isn’t trying to compete with The Avengers for sheer spectacle.
The movie picks up where The Avengers left off. Having saved the world from an alien invasion, the Avengers have disbanded and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has been left to his own devices. As a result of his near death experience in the previous movie, Stark appears to suffer from PTSD, and as a result, spends his every waking hour in his laboratory, tinkering away on new sets of armor. He’s called back into action when The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a self-aggrandizing terrorist in the vein of Osama bin Laden, begins to execute increasingly vicious attacks on the U.S.
The Mandarin favors bombing civilian locations, but no one can identify his methods. The sites of his attacks yield no evidence of traditional explosives. Stark soon discovers that the reason the Mandarin’s bombs are evading detection is because they’re not inanimate. The bombs are actually genetically enhanced human beings, designed to explode on command. All the Mandarin has to do is drop one of his sleeper agents off in a crowded location and hit a button; the suicide bomber lights up like a Roman candle, vaporizing anyone in the vicinity.
Who exactly is the Mandarin? How did he unearth this technology? What are his goals? To give those details up would be to ruin the movie, and that’s because Shane Black has elected to tell a superhero movie that’s more like a plot-driven political thriller. Iron Man 3 isn’t about the invincible Iron Man flying into battle against a marauding army, its about Tony Stark solving a mystery.
Shane Black ups the tension by putting his hero in situations where can’t use his super powered suit to merely blast his way out of a predicament. He accomplishes this through a plot contrivance that actually works: this movie introduces a new variation of the suit that attaches to Stark piecemeal. However, the suit is a prototype and frequently malfunctions in combat. This results in many action sequences in which Stark fights against his foes with only semi-functional armor, or in some cases, without armor at all.
This tactic keeps things interesting, because the Iron Man armor is ridiculously overpowered. As we saw in The Avengers, Iron Man in fully functional armor is the rough equivalent of a Norse God in terms of sheer power. There’s no way the movie incarnation of The Mandarin and his ragtag band of exploding mercenaries could possibly stand up to a fully operational Iron Man for long. Taking Stark out of the suit raises the stakes.
I suspect that the refreshing shift of tone in Iron Man 3 is largely thanks to writer/director Shane Black. Black made waves in Hollywood by writing the screenplay for the first Lethal Weapon back in the ‘80s. With that franchise, he breathed new life into the action genre and helped mold the Hollywood blockbuster we know today. Decades later Black breathed new life into Robert Downey Jr.’s career by casting the seemingly washed up actor in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a completely underrated gem of a movie.
Here, Robert Downey Jr. has rewarded Black’s earlier leap of faith by handing the Iron Man franchise over to the largely untested director. The result is arguably the best film based on a Marvel property yet. Iron Man 3 represents the absolute best the superhero genre has to offer, boasting a clever script, satisfying action sequences, and a brilliant supporting cast that includes the likes of Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Rebecca Hall.
Iron Man 3 still owes most of its greatness to star Robert Downey Jr. Some pop culture creations are loom larger than the actors who portray them. Batman will always be bigger than Christian Bale; Superman will always be bigger than Christopher Reeve; James Bond will always be bigger than Daniel Craig. However, Robert Downey Jr. transformed Iron Man into a full-fledged A-list property on the strength of his talent and charisma. He carries these movies; he’s one of the few actors who can perform the verbal gymnastics necessary to make dialogue from the likes of Joss Whedon or Shane Black sound as if it were his own.
As much as I bemoan Hollywood’s obsession with tent-pole blockbusters, Iron Man 3 represents mainstream, big budget filmmaking at its best. Thanks to all of the elements in play here, Marvel and Disney have released a superhero film to rival The Dark Knight. The bar has now been raised for The Avengers 2.