Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Iron Man 3" (2013)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Kingsley
Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black
Directed by Shane Black
Rated PG-13 - Superhero violence, peril, language
Running Time: 130 Minutes

After fending off the alien invasion of New York, the Avengers have once again gone their separate ways. But life has not quite returned to normal. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can barely sleep. He stays up all night at home, tinkering and producing bigger, badder suits of Iron Man armor. His girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) runs Stark Industries, but comes home frustrated with her relationship with Tony. His best friend, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is also struggling to fit into his new role as Stark Industries' head of security.

Meanwhile, a vicious terrorist known as the Mandarin is taking credit for a series of deadly bombings across the United States. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), the Iron Patriot, can't seem to locate the Mandarin, and informs Stark that the bombings are strange in that there appears to be no actual bomb at the sites.

Unfortunately, the latest bombing has brought this battle to Tony's doorstep: Happy is left in a coma, near death. Stark, enraged, challenges the Mandarin to a one-on-one fight, and the Mandarin responds by sending attack helicopters to destroy Stark. Left with only one malfunctioning suit of armor, Stark takes on the investigation himself to locate and destroy the Mandarin. But what does all this have to do with a scientific research company called Advanced Idea Mechanics, run by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an old acquaintance of Pepper?

To figure it all out, face his demons, and stop the Mandarin's mad plans to destroy America, Tony Stark will have to abandon his fancy tricks and slick technology and learn what the man inside the suit is capable of.

I was surprised and excited when Shane Black was named as writer and director for "Iron Man 3." I've been a fan of Black's for quite some time, and I was eager to see what he'd do with a big-budget superhero picture. Thankfully, the world of Iron Man was perfectly suited for Black's particular talents. And, having worked with Robert Downey Jr. previously in the hilarious "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," I was pretty certain he'd get a great performance out of the actor once more. I was not disappointed.

While "Iron Man 3" has some minor faults, all in all it's a hugely enjoyable return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What's fascinating is how Marvel seems to be treating its movie franchise almost like its comic books, each adventure exists in the same world and weaves in and out of a larger narrative. It also reminds me of the "Star Trek" franchise in the mid- to late-1990s, which woulds reference and crossover itself. In this manner, the parts and the whole are bother complementary to each other. And while my opinion of "Iron Man 2" has tempered somewhat in the intervening years, it's also remarkable that the Marvel films are mostly consistent in look and feel, despite a huge variety of directors taking the reins of each entry.

But, back to "Iron Man 3," perhaps what I liked best about it is not the whiz-bang special effects, or really even its acknowledgement that it now IS part of a larger universe... but the simple fact that the script is designed to force Tony Stark to rely more on his genius and quick-thinking than his various suits of armor. The second film, and to some extent, "The Avengers," it felt like Stark just had to "level up" in the third act in order to win. But here, Stark spends nearly the entire film with a suit that malfunctions, or only wearing part of it, and at the end, finding that his suits are far less well-equipped to handle his enemies than he thought. A scene in which Stark, wearing only the glove and boot of a suit must fend off some of Mandarin's goons is full of clever, acrobatic fun. It's that kind of thought that Black and Pearce put into their action sequences that elevates "Iron Man 3" above what could just have been standard superhero fare.

Special note has to be made of the Mandarin. Brought to life here by Ben Kingsley, the character is not even remotely like what he is in the comics... and to be honest, I'm glad. I admit that my exposure to Iron Man comics is limited, but I just don't really care about the Mandarin, a fairly cheesy Wizard character. Reborn here as a terrorist with no magical abilities, not only does it bring Mandarin a bit closer to a relatable real-world character, but it also fits better into the style of the Marvel movie universe. The fact that Kingsley's performance is absolutely top-notch only helps to sell it further. I want to say more, but I'll avoid spoilers. I'll just say that Kingsley's ability to turn his performance on a dime for what the scene requires him to do is incredibly entertaining.

The rest of the cast all perform admirably, and reliably. Gwyneth Paltrow gets in on the action more - even getting to wear the Iron Man armor for a bit - which is welcome, though that does lead me to one of my minor complaints. While I accept that, at this point, Tony Stark would be proficient at cool superhero combat moves... I'm not sure I can say the same for Pepper Potts. Sure, what she does is cool and I enjoyed it on a surface, visceral level. But then when it was over I kind frowned and thought to myself that it seemed strange. It was, ultimately, a moment that drew me out of the film even though I was cheering during it.

Guy Pearce is always good to have around, here playing slimy scientist Aldrich Killian. Though the script handles his connection to the Mandarin well, it's also fairly obvious from the get-go that Killian is a bad-guy. He's slicker, and much less over-the-top than Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer character in "Iron Man 2," but that works to his advantage because he also gets to be much more menacing. Killian is a villain, while Hammer was just a buffoon (entertaining though he was). And, in fact, one of the script's issues is that a lot of its plot twists you can ultimately see coming if you're paying attention. Not all of them, but once the movie starts rolling, you can figure out what's what.

Special mention should also be made for Ty Simpkins as a young boy, Harley, who befriends Stark in the second act and helps him investigate one of the Mandarin's terror attacks. It's always a risky proposition to partner up your main character with a mouthy kid, but the fact that Stark is so immature himself is part of what makes this relationship work so well, even if the whole thing is riddled with cliches (Harley is the gifted child of a single mom who works at a diner after their father walked out). It's the dialog and performances that elevate a familiar concept, here. There are a number of exchanges between Stark and Harley that are riotously funny.

In fact, the script in general is pretty hilarious, thanks to Black's keen wit. One of the greats of the buddy-cop genre, he transplants that strength here by giving a lot of pep to Stark's conversations with pretty much everyone.

"Iron Man 3" is another fun entry in the Marvel series. While I can't really recommend 3D, I do heartily recommend that you see the film however you think you'll best enjoy it. It's a great way to start off the summer 2013 blockbuster season.

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