Iron Man 3 (2013)
EDIT: Apparently, there was a big twist in this film for fans of the Iron Man comic books, taking a major plot from the comics and going in a completely different direction with it. My knowledge of comic books (as opposed to the films and TV shows based on them) begins and ends with Watchmen, 30 Days of Night, and The Walking Dead, so I cannot comment on it either way, though a trip to Wikipedia means that I think I know what twist they're talking about. (For those who haven't seen this film, I won't say anything more.) In any case, I think it worked in the context of the film on its own.
Iron Man 3, the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of inter-linked, comic book-style continuities, has higher expectations placed upon it than either of its predecessors. While the first Iron Man did not carry any more baggage than any other superhero film, and the second film had to live up to the success of the first film, Iron Man 3 is coming hot on the heels of The Avengers, one of the biggest and baddest superhero films of all time. The question in everybody's head going into this film was, how could Marvel return to films focused on individual superheroes after the all-star team-up that was The Avengers blew every prior superhero film out of the water by proving that you could not only do those kinds of crisis crossover stories in film, but do them well?
Marvel's answer to that question is the same answer that they've used in comics: focus on the kinds of smaller, stand-alone stories that they did before, but incorporate the events of The Avengers into the characters' histories. Here, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what had happened in New York, making his struggle against a new villain, a terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) equipped with a technology that allows him to create super soldiers and human bombs, even more difficult. After a foolish display of bravado leads to an attack on his mansion that nearly gets him and his girlfriend/assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) killed, Tony, together with his friend James Rhodes, aka the Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle), and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), the scientist who created the Mandarin's super-soldier serum, must race against time to both prevent the Mandarin's next attack and to save Pepper and the US President.
In this age of dark knights and men of steel, it's once again refreshing to see a superhero movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. Tony, while emotionally scarred from The Avengers, is still fundamentally the same smartass we all know and love, played with mountains of charisma by Robert Downey, Jr. Here, Downey, Jr. manages to show his action chops outside the Iron Man suit, cracking jokes and bones with equal enthusiasm and making him arguably more convincing as a badass than a million sneering tough guys. A scene where he's been chained up and taken prisoner by a pair of the Mandarin's goons, taunting them with how he's going to kill them, makes for one of the best displays of this. He isn't just a joker, though, once again handling himself in the dramatic sections just as well. Just as Tony in the first two films was troubled by the bottle, here he is troubled by the stress of his experience in New York, by his insecurity at sharing the world with living gods, super-soldiers, and mutants, and by his efforts to keep Pepper safe.
The rest of the cast also handles itself very nicely. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle reprise their roles from prior films, both of them doing as well as they had before, though I did wish there was more of Cheadle's Iron Patriot in the first half of the film. Ben Kingsley creates a menacing villain in the Mandarin, and then takes the character in a very interesting direction that I didn't see coming, but which made for a great twist that I will not spoil. Both Kingsley and his character's arc were major parts of what made this film so awesome. Guy Pearce, as the Mandarin's second-in-command (or is he?) Aldrich Killian, starts off a bit less menacing than the Mandarin, coming off as an old friend/rival of Tony's, but all that changes by the third act, when he turns friggin' nasty. Lastly, while Rebecca Hall doesn't get much screen time, she makes every scene she's in watchable, playing a tragic scientist distraught that her work has been used for evil.
But what about the action? How is Iron Man 3 possibly going to live up to the impossibly high bar set by The Avengers, with its team of superheroes battling an alien invasion? The answer is to make the action smaller in scope without losing the intensity, something that this film does admirably. Instead of epic battles against hordes of alien warriors in the streets of Manhattan, we get human vs. human shootouts in hallways and in dockyards, with Cheadle and Downey, Jr. showing that they can be legitimate action heroes without CGI super-suits. Even Gwyneth Paltrow gets to kick ass in a few scenes. That's not to say that this film is lacking in special-effects spectacle, though. The finale in particular, with its swarms of AI-controlled Iron Man suits battling the Mandarin's super soldiers in the Port of Miami, is stunning, especially in the IMAX 3D that I saw it in. The only problem I had with the action had nothing to do with the film itself; I was sitting in an awful seat on the edge of the theater, watching the film at an angle rather than straight on, which reduced the impact of the action.
Any problems that I had were meager. As I mentioned earlier, I spent the first half of the film wondering just where Don Cheadle had gone off to, with him only showing up in for a few scenes before returning in the second half. Also (spoiler warning), I felt that Tony's decision to give up the Iron Man suits at the end of the film was fairly irresponsible of him, given how The Avengers established that there are threats out there that wish to conquer, enslave, and/or exterminate humanity, and how it was Tony who had saved the world at the end of that film. Overall, though, in the grand scheme of things it was fairly minor, and the post-credits promise that "Tony Stark Will Return" alleviated some of that issue I had. (Maybe Tony has some tricks other than the Iron Man suit up his sleeve? We can only wonder...)
Score: 5 out of 5
A great superhero film that's very different from The Avengers, building on that film's foundation while still working on its own merits, Iron Man 3 offers plenty of hope that Marvel's "Phase Two" of superhero films will be as amazing as the films that led up to The Avengers.
(Oh, and as always with these films, stay after the credits. No, it doesn't tease the next film, but it's still hilarious either way.)