"I am Iron Man."
These were the words that closed out the first Iron Man film back in 2008. It is also one of the main themes of this second sequel directed by 80's action super-scribe Shane Black (who many remember as Hawkins from Predator).
But these words can only be understood as spoken by lead actor Robert Downey Jr.
He IS Iron Man.
This is the last movie that Downey Jr. is contractually obliged to appear as the titular hero. But it is unthinkable that anyone can fill his iron boots. I have often said that the success of the Marvel Universe of movies can rest primarily on Downey Jr.'s shoulders. He makes you love Tony Stark. Guys want to be him and women want to be with him. There is a charisma there that cannot be faked, which is on top of his amazing talent as an actor. We judge Tony for his flaws, but we love him because of Robert Downey Jr's charm.
And this special role the actor plays explains much of the structure of Iron Man 3. It begins with Tony years before he became the hero in the suit. It shows his careless lothario days and how he toyed with the hopes and dreams of aspiring scientists like the partially crippled Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and one-night-stand Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). As Tony says during his beginning voice-over, "I didn't know it, but I was creating demons."
The story jumps forward to life after the events of The Avengers. Tony is having trouble dealing with his near-death experience and is overwhelmed with panic and anxiety. This causes strain on his relationship to Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). His fears causes his thoughts to race and he cannot turn his mind off. Through events in the story, Tony is then drawn into a conflict with an international terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
It is difficult to talk about the Mandarin and his significance without giving away major plot points. Suffice to say that when a confrontation finally occurs between Tony and the Mandarin, it is not what you might expect. Online there is a lot of debate about what occurs. Some love it, some hate it. I apologize for being vague, but I should not like to ruin this for you. My own take is that I think that what the film makers had in mind was very cool. But I don't think it quite hit the execution.
That is the main problem with Shane Black's movie: it tries too hard to be cool. Make no mistake, this is a cool movie with a cool superhero. In fact, it is the coolest of the Marvel movies. The cool factor is through the roof. But sometimes Black will take Tony on little diversions that are fun and awesome in themselves, but detract from the main thrust of the story, like when Tony encounters a super fan when he hijacks a news truck. When Tony and his friend Rhodie (Don Cheadle) aka the Iron Patriot team up, you can see the DNA of Black's Lethal Weapon scripts peaking out. They banter like Riggs and Murtaugh for the 21st Century.
But beyond that, Iron Man 3 is an excellent movie. If you've noticed, I've been primarily calling Downey Jr.'s character Tony and not Iron Man. The reason is that Black focuses much more on the man in the iron mask. Through the course of the story, Tony is stripped of all of his usual technological safety nets. It's as if he returns to the days in the Afghani cave where he had to win his freedom with his mind and determination.
The dialogue zips and zings. The best lines are between Tony and a little boy tinkerer named Harley (Ty Simpkins) he encounters. This lets Downey Jr. lay out some of his meanest, most insensitive lines you could level against a child. These were the lines that made me laugh the most. And we laugh because we have come to love his embodiment of Tony. He's like the best friend that makes jokes about your misfortune. You let him because you trust his heart. Again, this falls squarely on Downey Jr.'s shoulders.
The other performances are also spot on. Pearce chews the scenery but does it enliven the story, not detract. Paltrow's Pepper is much more assertive and combative this time around, which fits the dire circumstances. Even those unhappy with the Mandarin admit that Kingsley's performance is wonderfully delicious in its evil and ambivalence.
And the movie is feast for the eyes. The scene oft played in commercials where Iron Man must save people falling through the sky is captivating. Black wisely comes up with new ways to use the Iron Man armor that hold surprises half way through and at the end. The final battle is played out with such high-octane action that I could scarcely keep track of all the explosive spectacle.
I do like the theme of the haunted past. This deals very much with the Catholic idea of atonement. After the events of the first Iron Man, Tony is a changed man. He experiences that metanoia, which means a complete change of heart. But while his soul is reforged, that in and of itself does not undo the damage he has caused to the people in his life. Even though we can receive forgiveness, we have to take on the responsibility of setting right what we once set wrong. We have to make reparation. Tony may be a hero, but he has to clean up his non-heroic messes or people will suffer.
This is the movie that Iron Man 2 should have been. Unlike that movie, the events of the film feel like they change the characters permanently.
Will there be an Iron Man 4? Or will Iron Man be in Avengers 2?
If they don't have Robert Downey Jr in it, I'm not sure I'd want to see.
After all: he is Iron Man.
4 out of 5 stars.