To begin my review of Iron Man 3, I should probably confess that Iron Man is my favorite superhero. The nerd in me appreciates Tony Stark’s genius and “smarter-than-thou” attitude. The girl in me appreciates Robert Downey Jr. This latest installment in the Iron Man franchise features its hero on the brink of a new crisis, a nervous breakdown.
Iron Man 3 picks up a short while after the events of last May’s The Avengers, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) nearly died to save the world. In the aftermath, our hero can’t sleep and spends days at a time in his lab tinkering with a veritable army of iron suits, made for no reason in particular. Despite Jarvis’s (Paul Bettany) attempts to advise him, Tony continues to bottle his feelings until he starts having panic attacks. By keeping his anxiety a secret, he also puts a strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is busy running Stark Industries. Meanwhile, a string of terrorist attacks by “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) demands a response from The Iron Patriot, aka Col. Jame Rhodes (Don Cheadle). When Tony threatens The Mandarin personally, however, he gets caught up in a complicated plot involving a think tank run by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), an old fling. Iron Man has to fight demons of his own making, externally and in his head.
I think what worked best about Iron Man 3 is seeing Tony Stark cope with anxiety. He’s an arrogant, funny, genius, billionaire superhero so when he starts to have panic attacks he becomes more human (and therefore, I think, more interesting), but that raises the stakes of the plot. When Tony can’t control his anxiety well enough to sleep, interact well with others, or even operate the suits, his fight has to take a different route. He ends up teaming up with a kid from Tennessee who both increases his anxiety and helps him move forward.
Trapping Tony temporarily in Tennessee also allowed for the audience to see him interact with his biggest fans away from the glamour of his normal life and forced Tony to show how smart he really is by creating tools with limited resources. These parts of the film are the most compelling but are superseded by the fight with The Mandarin.
The problem, then, is that the villains of the film are bound up in a pretty disjointed storyline. The film starts strongly with Tony Stark explaining in voice over the beginning of his own demons—both personally and professionally. As the arc develops, however, the tale is dragged down by The Mandarin element. I’ll try to explain without giving the story away. On one hand, there’s something pretty sharp about how that character plays on current discourses about terrorism. On the other, despite Ben Kingsley’s solid performance (alternately scary and funny), the character is a weird mixture of stereotypes that falls short of satire and lands in a mess. Paired with the story about Aldrich Killian, the driving conflict of the film feels overly busy and far less interesting than Tony fighting a meltdown.
Though the script is kind of a hot mess, as Tony would call it, there are some really fun scenes and strong performances. Downey Jr. and Cheadle have great chemistry, so watching them battle together is usually entertaining. In one particularly awesome stunt, Iron Man saves thirteen people falling from an airplane in a “barrel of monkeys” maneuver, ending with a twist that was both jarring and clever. It was also pretty rad to see Pepper Potts in Iron Man’s suit a couple of times. Overall, these scenes are bright points in a pretty sloppy story.
For its usual wit and fun performances but a meandering and unsatisfying plot, I rate Iron Man 3 3.5/5 stars.
Iron Man 3, based on the Marvel comic book, was written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black, who also directed. It runs 130 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content.