The least interesting thing about the otherwise hugely entertaining Iron Man movies is, ironically, Iron Man. The suit of powered flying armor, that is. Hiding Robert Downey Jr. behind a metal mask and giving his idiosyncratic performance over to CGI cartoon battles make for an enormous squandering of quality cinema time. If only, I thought as I was waiting for the lights to go down on my screening of Iron Man 3, we could have an Iron Man movie without Iron Man.
Dang if I haven’t nearly gotten my wish.
The comic-book purists are going to howl over Iron Man 3 for various reasons, the least of which is the fact that Tony Stark, the billionaire genius playboy philanthropist who now has in his garage a veritable army of Iron Man suits, spends barely any time at all in any of them over the two-hours-plus runtime here. I’d be delighted to be wrong about what the purists will think, because this could be the whip-smartest and most affecting superhero movie yet… because it’s about the man, not the armor. Which is, I think, why people who love comic books defend them, and rightly so: because they’re not about capes and superpowers but about the guy (or, very rarely, the girl) in the cape, and how being a superhero kinda sucks more than you would expect it to.
There’s a lot of spirit-of-the-law stuff here, I think, if not the letter.
It’s very much not ironic that screenwriters Shane Black — yes, Lethal Weapon Shane Black — and Drew Pearce, a British TV writer, are playing around a lot with trying to figure out just what it is that makes Tony Stark Iron Man… and what makes us believe that a suit of armor represents heroism. Where does Tony Stark end and Iron Man begin? Stark went out of his way in the first film to continually point out that he was not a superhero, but this time he’s living with genuine insecurities — and admitting to them — that that younger Tony would have taken great pains to hide. I cannot recall a comic-book movie ever before broaching the topic of PTSD, as Tony is clearly suffering from since the events of The Avengers. He’s all nightmares and panic attacks these days, and it’s forcing him to reconsider just what the hell he’s doing playing supersoldier in the first place. “Nothing’s been the same since New York”: it’s such a simple line, but it’s startling coming unironically from the reflexively snarky Stark. And also coming from director Shane Black, who dresses it in the same unexpected combination of sweetness and verve and vulnerability that he got out of Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Due Date) in his last film, the sublime Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. And when Tony repeats that thrilling final line from the first Iron Man movie again here — “I am Iron Man” — it takes on a much deeper and far more intriguing meaning.
So Iron Man 3 has already nudged Tony out of his comfort zone — which is always where the interesting things start to happen — before it really goes to work on him. He publicly challenges a terrorist known only as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley: The Dictator, Hugo), which ends in the destruction of his home and tinkerer’s garage HQ, and so he’s now lying low trying to figure out his next move, which would appear to require solving a series of mysterious suicide bombings attributed to the Mandarin. Always, though, Tony’s biggest obstacle is himself. There’s never a moment here where you’re tempted to wonder just where the rest of the Avengers are, and why don’t Thor and Hulk and the rest come to Tony’s aid, not only because of the clever structuring of the plot — Tony is believed dead after his house is blown up, and later, events simply move too quickly for anyone to have had time to scramble — but simply because of how intimate the electromagnetically powered heart of this story is.
And yet… And yet… Black and Pearce leave us with lots to ponder in a grand scale, too. Empty suits, broken-down suits, suits with someone else inside ‘em: how do they change how we see Tony? How much of “Iron Man” is image… and how much is image-driven propaganda we willingly buy into? Stark’s military buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle: Flight, Hotel for Dogs) is now officially dubbed, in his own suit of starred-and-striped armor, Iron Patriot, which they both snicker over, yet this is a world — both onscreen and off — in which such nonsense is effective. How much of the power of the Mandarin to terrorize comes from his pirate television broadcasts, in which he appears as an outlandish caricature of an “Eastern” boogeyman? Hell, we’re even left to wonder why we’re more likely to accept as plausible a genius industrialist rival of Tony’s — biologist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce: Prometheus, Lawless) — when he’s slick and handsome, after he’s upgraded himself from the awkward nerd who’d once approached Tony with a partnership proposal years earlier. Double hell: we’re left to reconsider how our notion of the traditional damsel in distress can be upended so easily thanks to our own preconceptions about the genre; thankfully, Black and Pearce have chosen to let Tony’s life and business partner Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow: Contagion, Country Strong) continue to be one of the most intriguing lady sidekicks the genre has seen — she’s never less a damsel in distress than when you think she is.
There isn’t a single thing wrong with this flick. Okay, the 3D is even more pointless and superfluous than in most 3D movies. But the cloud of air I was walking on afterward meant I was hardly bothered by that. It’s rare that the threequel is the best of the bunch: savor it.