Every now and then, reviewers are put in the tight spot of having to review a movie that is brilliant -- hands down the best action film released this year, if not one of the best movies Marvel Studios has created outside "The Avengers." Yet, if there's any discussion of specific details as to why it's so great, the whole thing is ruined.
On one hand, there's the feeling that if you, the person who just watched "Iron Man 3," tell readers they need to immediately drop what they're doing, even if it's important -- something on par with surgery or a funeral -- and rush to the theatre, they should take your word for it. On the other, it's hard to convince the public that a movie will blow their minds without divulging key details of the film. However, with minimal spoilers and in the most specific and glowing terms possible, this is the best Iron Man movie Marvel has made to date.
The film opens to the strains of an Eiffel 65-loving 1999. It's Tony Stark in full playboy mode, flirting with Dr. Maya Hansen (actor Rebecca Hall), who is working on the Extremis project, pioneering accelerated genetic regeneration. Stark's also having a ball picking on geeky Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) a long-haired weirdo trying to fund a new think tank called AIM.
Fast-forward to the modern day and Stark's an insomnia-ridden mess, experiencing flashbacks to his wormhole near-death in "The Avengers." Racked with anxiety attacks, his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on the rocks, as is his friendship with Rhodey (Don Cheadle). Enter the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley channeling his best crazy person), a terrorist detonating bombs across America and releasing Osama Bin Laden-esque tapes threatening more. While Tony is happy to try and track him down, the US government disagrees, rebranding Rhodey's War Machine "Iron Patriot" and officially putting him in charge of the search.
Things go off the rails, however, when Happy (Jon Favreau) is injured during the Mandarin's most recent attack. Tony Stark publically calls out the terrorist -- a move that literally backfires, leading to destruction, devastation and the possible death of both Stark and the people he cares about most.
Just like "Iron Man" in 2008, the success of "Iron Man 3" rests squarely on the shoulders of its director, Shane Black. With a script co-written by Black and "Runaways" adaptor Drew Pearce, "Iron Man 3" is a tightly plotted thrill ride that shows why Black was once Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter. The fact that this is only the second movie he's ever directed (the first being Downey vehicle "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang") is all the more astonishing.
Black spoke with CBR previously about his disdain for the blah action plots of modern day movies, and "Iron Man 3" is definitely a throwback to the '80s/'90s action-genre Golden Age with all the twists, turns and kid/adult team-ups on which those movies thrived. While Black's '90s-infused creative stamp is all over the film, it never feels dated. The director very purposefully set out to create a reality-grounded flick that made character growth and plot development first priority. It's no spoiler to say he's succeeded. "Iron Man 3" is intelligent and utterly unpredictable, and raises the bar not just for "Thor: The Dark World" and Marvel's upcoming films, but for all Hollywood blockbusters.
Before evaluating the superb casting, lay your fears to rest: Ben Kinsley is great. Many, including myself, worried about the racial overtones of using the Mandarin as the film's central villain as he is ostensibly one of the early "Iron Man" comics' yellow menace characters. I'm telling you right now, stop worrying. There is no one who could pull off this character better. It's difficult to explain exactly why without spoiling the film, but trust me. Ben Kingsley is great.
Equally amazing is Guy Pearce, who must be part chameleon for his ability to transition between environments and emotions at the speed of light. However, the true heart of "Iron Man 3" and the reason it manages to ascend the heights of the first film, is Robert Downey Jr. Charismatically arrogant and as witty as ever, Black and Downey smartly turned the movie into a Tony Stark character study. Downey more than carries the bulk of the movie -- he is the movie, to the point where it may be accurate to call Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle cameos rather than supporting cast.
The only dark spot on the face of an otherwise pristine ensemble is Rebecca Hall's Dr. Hansen, whose problems stem more from convoluted plotting than her acting chops. Maya is a mess, shifting through rationale for her actions faster than a con artist at a shell game. While eventually her motives are revealed (and credit to Black, they make consistent internal sense), Hansen is a superfluous character in an otherwise carefully structured screenplay.
By far the cleverest and most intriguing part of "Iron Man 3" is the central (delightfully pro-engineering) message. Stated at the end of the first "Iron Man," but restated over and over in subtle ways by this film, that message is simple: Tony Stark is Iron Man.
It would be easy to see Iron Man as nothing more than a bank account with fists, a billionaire playboy who can buy new suits whenever he needs. It's even easy to see him as a knockoff Batman, especially since both the "Iron Man" franchise and Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy approached superheroes from the same ultra-realistic and grounded perspective. Black and Downey's Tony Stark isn't a superhero because he was in the comics. He earns the title.
Strip away his money, strip away his house, his cars, his allies, his suit, even his sanity --and what remains is Iron Man. Stark's armor is not the most valuable weapon in his arsenal; it's his engineering know-how, and Black and Downey strongly emphasize that. The best parts of the film are when Stark's out of the suit, because it reveals the kind of man he is -- a man who can kick ass with nothing more than a glove, a bit of wire and a deep-rooted sense of right and wrong. Tony Stark doesn't become a hero when he puts on the suit. He's a hero because of who he is, an all-important idea that so many modern action flicks and superhero movies (and even comics) miss.
If you love the "Iron Man" films, go see this movie. Even if you don't, go see this movie. If you love action films, hate action films, are indifferent to action films, aren't even sure you like watching films of any sort, go see this movie. Bottom line, if you are breathing and have a pulse, go see this movie. "Iron Man 3" isn't just great -- it's the type of wildly intelligent genre film audience members, geeks and cinephiles should be demanding Hollywood create moving forward.