The original “Iron Man” was a game changer, but one that changed the game to something we’d already seen many times before. Robert Downey Jr. played arguably the most iconic film role in the last ten years by playing himself, and why not? His personality—his wit, his intelligence, his physical machismo and the humility it hides, though faintly glimpsed in his eyes—has all the makings of a memorable film character, and that’s all a superhero needs: the same charm leveled at us by the likes of Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck. They are mere mortals outside the silver screen, but captured on film, they become invincible, amazing…We fall to their feet in adulation.
Even by this new superhero standard, where character is everything and the costume a bonus, the “Iron Man” trilogy looks exceedingly quaint. It’s never cared about pyrotechnics, not to the same extent as “Captain America” or “The Avengers,” popcorn flicks that wanted to be both smart and bombastic. It sustains itself with a different current of energy that courses equally through the films’ loudest and quietest, most non-violent moments. “Iron Man 3” has some very loud moments, louder than anything from its predecessors. It’s much better at being loud than they were. And yet our attention still lingers on a man who’s soft-spoken and built on subtleties. He doesn’t even need a high-tech suit for most the movie to make us care.
Tony Stark and his third movie exist in equilibrium. One informs the other and together they propel our interest. There’s none of “Iron Man 2’s” bumbling eagerness, which yearned to feel spontaneous like the first film and thus forced its improvised stutters and tics into the script, stripping away their authenticity and leaving a hollow, middling husk of a movie. Director Shane Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce cautiously sidestep this temptation. Instead, they accommodate Downey Jr.’s performance, giving him material that finds the layers in his persona as Tony and encourages the character’s best depiction yet. He’s still a show-off, still droll and still comically morose (Bill Murray as an action hero, basically), but he’s also saddled with a real anxiety induced by his near-sacrifice in “The Avengers.” He enacts countless defense mechanisms, puts on so many faces for the public and himself; and the film mirrors his masquerade by slowly weaving a multitude of yarns together, letting some strands cancel another out until one image emerges in the end, approaching something that resembles the truth.
It’s a structure well suited to comic book storytelling, loosely episodic and unafraid to continually introduce startling new characters into the story world. As a result, it solves the dearth of compelling villains in previous “Iron Man” films by filling itself to the corners with antagonists, creating a dynamic vision of evil through Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, and James Badge Dale. Which one is the main villain? They all are, and they all aren’t, but they’re all necessary. They each evolve organically from Tony Stark’s crisis, and afterward branch off into their own distinct voice that doesn’t stop evolving. Audiences might be surprised to find they love one villain for different reasons at the end of the film than when they first met them; both reasons are valid and make for a fun viewing.
Often, it only takes one humbling line from a villainous subordinate or a chance meeting with two of Tony Stark’s biggest fans to color the film with a defiantly youthful energy that all superhero films aspire to, though few achieve. “Iron Man 3” even has some trouble maintaining that spark. The plot coagulates with such excruciating obsessiveness that it sometimes loses the forest for the trees, and a few moments have trouble articulating their connection to the larger narrative, especially those involving vague political intrigue. Don Cheadle, while now firmly established as James Rhodes in place of Terrence Howard, bumbles in and out of the film and affects a detached glibness with his role that slides off of the more engaging cast around him, leaving him floating and chemistry-less. Rebecca Hall is worse. She performs with a palpable disdain for the material, her face convulsing with hammy tongue lolls and eyebrow wiggles to distract from the sheer lack of conviction in her dialogue, reciting lines written for a role that even the film can’t afford to care about.
If one element prevents full investment in “Iron Man 3,” it’s the insulated man’s world that Shane Black constructs at the cost of its female cast, which is not insubstantial. His style favors the firefights and bicep-flexing of 1980s action cinema, where he started off, chomping cigarettes and acting alongside Schwarzenegger in films like “Predator” and “Robocop 3.” So it’s explainable, I guess, when Gwyneth Paltrow turns into a damsel-in-distress after maintaining relative integrity as the token girlfriend character for two films. I can see where the line of bikini-clad models come from within this style; and they’re presented within reason, don’t get me wrong. It’s explainable and understandable, all of it, but not excusable. And the film only draws attention to this absence by empowering Paltrow’s Pepper Potts during the film’s smoking climax and acting as if she will suddenly have the prowess to rub shoulders with the Avengers; to keep Johansson company and kick just as much butt. Sadly, it’s a feint. The film strips away her new abilities just in time to roll the credits, her role as Tony’s emotional anchor re-cemented.
“Iron Man 3” flies on the back of personality and soars with the wings of a boy’s imagination. It’s infectious enough to light up a movie theatre and everyone inside. Now, I’m just thirsty to see that personality spread out to the characters that a boy’s imagination overlooks. That would truly be a game changer.