Movie Review: IRON MAN 3 is a Unique Marvel Studios Triumph

Credit: Marvel Studios

***The following review contains minimal spoilers, but those aiming to stay completely pure should proceed with caution.***

'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Before the record-breaking $198.4 million international opening of Iron Man 3, it was easy to wonder if the outsized success of 2012's Avengers might not have poisoned the well a little bit for future Marvel Studios productions. After all, if moviegoers were able to get Iron Man, Thor and Captain America (not to mention Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye) all for the price of one, how much interest could they realistically have in the already-planned solo sequels?

Rather than taking the easy route and directly capitalizing on last year's film, what director and co-screenwriter (and Marvel Studios newcomer) Shane Black does in response is offer a follow-up that is only connected to Avengers on an emotional level. There are multiple references to the team-up film — even some footage seen in flashbacks — but it's presented as the psychological toll that fighting off an alien invasion alongside a god, a monster and a time-displaced super soldier had on Tony Stark, whose life was relatively grounded just a few movies ago.

This makes Iron Man 3 a truly standalone film, and a great one. Much of the film strips down the usual superhero trappings on such a basic level that Robert Downey Jr. is out of the armor for an extended period, and it works just as well as when he's in it, which might be the truest homage a comic book film could pay to the best of the Marvel source material.

In these scenes, where circumstances find Stark exiled to a small town in Tennessee, Downey's obvious charm gets its biggest showcase yet as he bonds with young kid (Ty Simpkins) in a way that skillfully avoids schmaltz. Black and Drew Pearce's screenplay gives the movie a sense of place that isn't always obvious in these types of films, as it becomes clear that there is a "real" world out there that's far removed from the high-stakes superhero action but inevitably affected by it.

Of course, there's plenty of action. Despite exploring some different territory, Iron Man 3 is not afraid of being a comic book movie or an action film, if that wasn't already clear from the previously previewed scenes of Iron Man being joined by his armored cavalry. Sequences like the attack on Tony Stark's Malibu mansion (already immortalized as a Lego set) and the airplane rescue (teased in a Super Bowl commercial) are legitimately thrilling, even more so given that they're contrasted by quieter moments.

The film explicitly uses many of the ideas from the 2005-2006 "Extermis" storyline by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, likely the most frequently referenced Iron Man comic book story in recent years. Naturally, things play out differently in the film, but it's refreshing for comic book fans to see something from the last decade — along with the Iron Patriot armor, here operated by James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, apt for Black's buddy comedy) — make it on screen in a significant way. While Rescue doesn't appear in the film as such, we do see Pepper Potts (Gwyenth Paltrow) in a suit of armor, part of a welcome character evolution for the assistant-turned-CEO.

Much has been made over the film's primary villain, The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley. Black once was quoted as saying he had no interest in using the "racist caricature," and some viewers were taken aback by the glimpses of Kingsley's character choices revealed in trailers. Like Extremis, this isn't the exact same Mandarin you're used to seeing in the comics, but it's executed in a way that fits perfectly while also taking the audience — be it those new to the mythos or hardcore comic book fans — by surprise. 

Also new to the franchise are Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), both from the "Extremis" story arc. Hall doesn't have all that much to do — although her scenes with Paltrow are a welcome sight, given how rare it is for two female characters to interact with each other in a superhero movie — but each of their stories, while embroiled in the larger superpowered terrorism plot, are tied to events in Stark's life far before he escaped from the cave in the original Iron Man, helping to deepen the more personal approach.

Iron Man 3 is a very different film for Marvel Studios. There's no Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury or S.H.I.E.L.D. presence at all, and it doesn't set up any future outings in an obvious way. What it does do is deliver a character-driven story that's also heavy with action movie spectacle, and balances both in a way that few have before. If this is the template for November's Thor: The Dark World and next April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel movie fans are in for a fun year.

Iron Man 3 opens domestically on Friday, May 3.

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