In this cinematic day and age, where consumers are bombarded with superheros and supervillains to root for and against, it may be a bold statement to call Iron Man 3 one of the best superhero movies of all time, especially after the critical and commercial success of Marvel's The Avengers and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. While I'm not quite certain that this sequel is absolutely THE best comic book movie ever, it certainly deserves a place within that conversation, while setting the bar insanely high for the rest of Marvel's Phase Two slate.
There's a lot that I don't want to tell you about the story. Yes, there is The Mandarin, portrayed brilliantly by Sir Ben Kingsley, as Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) most nefarious nemesis yet. We see very early on that this villain is leaps and bounds ahead of the curve, orchestrating a number of dastardly disasters that he calls "lessons" to the Western world, which get Tony Stark's attention in intriguing ways. Set after the events in Marvel's The Avengers, Tony is still somewhat traumatized by that massive New York battle with alien forces from another planet. To keep his mind off those mind-shattering events, the eccentric billionaire has buried himself in his "work," creating several new specialized Iron Man suits that serve their own unique purpose. In fact, he's even up to the Mark 42, a suit which is amazing and quite important, but in Marvel's The Avengers, he was only up to the Mark 7.
Instead of the normal cat-and-mouse back-and-forth between hero and villain, we're plunged into this Iron Man/Mandarin conflict very early on, with one attack that hits very close to home, involving Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who now runs security for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) at Stark Industries, and another that, literally, hits his home, a sequence you've seen in all the trailers, TV spots, and whatnot. Practically everything that follows is unexpected, surprising, and completely awesome.
One thing I particularly enjoyed the most in this story, which was co-written by director Shane Black and Drew Pearce (Pacific Rim), is we finally get to see an emotionally vulnerable Tony Stark. Sure, he's been physically vulnerable before, whether it be due to a failing core reactor or Iron Man suits that never seem to have enough power, but this time around, Tony's head isn't exacly right. Without hitting the nail on the head too hard, it's made quite clear that what happened in Marvel's The Avengers scarred him deeply. What the Mandarin attack on Casa de Stark also provides is a chance for Tony to get back to basics, stripped of his precious suits (kind of...), where he must use his ingenious mind to beat the baddies, instead of just suiting up and destroying everything in his path. Sure, we still get the trademark Tony Stark wit, with one-liners aplenty, but this is clearly not the same man we have seen in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and I absolutely loved that.
At a meaty 130 minutes, Iron Man 3 accomplishes even more than I thought it could, while not dragging one iota and still managing to fit a rather large cast into the story while making everything flow quite beautifully. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle give their best franchise performances to date as Pepper Potts and James Rhodes, who gets to suit up himself as the newly-branded government toy Iron Patriot (a.k.a. War Machine with a red white and blue paint job). Oh, and Pepper herself gets to spend some time inside one of Tony's suits as well, which is incredibly cool to watch.
However, it is the fantastic new additions to the cast that really made an impression on me. Guy Pearce plays Extremis creator Aldrich Killian, whose well-told history with Tony Stark plays an important part in the story, and Ty Simpkins (Insidious) stars as Harley, a young kid who encounters Tony at possibly his lowest point in franchise history. Ben Kingsley is truly fascinating as The Mandarin, a character who was significantly reworked from the comic books in rather intriguing and modern ways. I would have loved if Stephanie Szostak and James Badge Dale, two villains who have been "modified" by Killian's Extremis technology, had more to do in this, because they both carve out impressive performances in the limited screen time they were given, and Rebecca Hall turns in yet another fantastic performance as Maya Hansen, one of Killian's associates. Also, keep an eye out for a hilarious cameo from Adam Pally, one of the stars of ABC's Happy Endings, who is great as a starstruck Tony Stark fan.
Director Shane Black straight up knocks it out of the park, in every possible fashion with this movie. While he only has one other directorial credit under his belt (2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang starring Robert Downey Jr.), Black is best known for his work as a writer, with fantastic films such as Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight under his belt. Like many of Marvel's directorial choices, Shane Black making a big-budget superhero movie might not have seemed like a surefire bet on paper, but it paid off in such brilliant way, with Black giving us the scarred and troubled antithesis to the ballsy and brash Tony Stark we saw in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Marvel's The Avengers, while showing a knack for action sequences in some of the most inventive scenes I have ever seen, including one with a number of Tony's Iron Man suits, and another that I will only refer to as "Barrel of Monkeys."
It should go without saying, at this point, but make sure you stick around until the very end of the credits for a special little scene that is well worth the wait. However, as great is that is, it seems to set up a fundamental difference between Marvel's Phase One and Marvel's Phase Two. While Iron Man 3 is certainly set up by Marvel's The Avengers, the story itself is quite contained within Tony Stark's world. Unlike the Phase One end-credit sequences, which simply provided a small thread to unite all of the movies together, Iron Man 3's end credit scene is just a lot of fun, without any future Phase Two implications. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the Phase Two sequels play out, and whether or not they will provide any clues as to what may or may not happen in The Avengers 2.
What might be most impressive of all is that Iron Man 3 found a way to give fans the same kind of action set pieces and humor we've come to expect from Mr. Stark, along with a that foreboding darkness that fans loved about Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Iron Man 3 shows us the real man behind the Iron Man, a Tony Stark who has to find his strength from within, instead of from his souped up ironclad suits. Iron Man 3 is a nearly-flawless film that may usher in a new era of superhero fare, expertly blending action, levity and dark drama in brilliant ways.