Review: ‘Iron Man 3’ rewrites Marvel’s winning formula (but still wins)

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I like to imagine that Disney and Marvel have a Scrooge McDuck-like vault somewhere, filled with crumpled-up dollar bills that execs and stars take the odd swim through. Maybe they bring the family and a picnic basket to make a day of it, lazing around on the shores of cash. Every once in a while the levels recede, like when $4 billion was taken out to buy Lucasfilm, but then a movie like Iron Man 3 is released and it’s back to frolicking.

Iron_Man_3_theatrical_posterThis is a ridiculous image, of course. The bills would be too difficult to swim through easily and the buoyancy would be a major issue. But it could happen, and it would be due in no small part to Marvel’s silly lucrative franchises that began with Iron Man in 2008. Fast forward five years, and once again Disney and Marvel are looking to Iron Man to make sure the cash will flow as the Phase Two of Marvel projects begins. That includes Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and culminates with The Avengers 2 in 2015.

That makes Iron Man 3 a crucial truss in the larger house of cards Marvel has been building. But surprisingly for a film with so much riding on its shoulders, Iron Man 3 shows that Marvel isn’t afraid to mess with the proven formula. It’s told with a zeal and a familiarity with the characters that can only be born of experience. Downey knows Tony Stark, and Iron Man 3 allows him to take a more introspective look at the character than we’ve seen in the past.

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Historically, when huge budgets are on the line, studios and filmmakers want to stick with what works.  Details change, but the main core values remain the same. You don’t often see a director come in and take the characters down paths that significantly change them, but Iron Man 3 does just that.

The events of the past have begun to weigh on Tony Stark. In his own words he is a “man in a can” fighting aliens and gods, and that combined with his near-death experience has left him damaged and distant. His bravado and swagger are gone, even if his humor isn’t. When an attack by the terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) leaves Tony’s friend in the hospital, he vows to get revenge, unknowingly stepping into part of a bigger plot he is already involved in.

Fans of the Iron Man comic will recognize then name “Extremis.” The film very loosely adapts that storyline and combines it with Iron Man’s oldest enemy, the Mandarin. In the film, the Extremis project begins with inventor Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). His goal is to reactivate the healing qualities in the body and help to fix damaged bodies, going so far as to regrow limbs. It has side effects, however, and Tony finds himself battling superpowered enemies because of it (best exemplified by Rubicon and The Pacific’s James Badge Dale in a memorable performance).

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The movie is far more about Tony Stark than Iron Man, and much of the combat takes places sans armor, forcing Tony to out think his opponents. It all leads to a CGI- and explosion-heavy finale, however, that will satisfy the action fans looking to see pretty things explode.

The film does have plenty of action, and director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) in only his second directorial outing acquits himself well in these. Black is known more for his character work though, and you can see that at play in Iron Man 3. Black and Downey prove once again that they work well together, and they cut right to the heart of the character. Stark is funny and brilliant, but his life is also fraught with problems. The film analyzes that, and at this point in the franchise it makes sense and works.

The rest of the cast compliments this approach. Paltrow as Pepper Potts is more of a plot point than a character, but she does well in her role. Pearce, however, shines as Killian, a dark reflection of Stark himself, and he embraces the role with glee. Cheadle does well with the surprisingly limited role he is given, and hopefully he will have earned himself a spot in the next Avengers film. Kingsley steals the show, and he and Downey play well off each other. The less said about his character the better.

Oddly, the trailers for Iron Man 3 are misleading. They make the film look dark – and it is a bit, but it also features some genuinely funny moments. The dialogue is crisp and well written, and often the humor is unique to the impossible and original situations the characters find themselves in.

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If you pick apart the plot, you will find plenty of errors, including one that seemingly contradicts the larger story Marvel has been building. It is easy enough to overlook, but when creating this new universe, it’s hard not to wonder where the other heroes are throughout Tony’s troubles. Marvel went out of its way to make the point that this film is one piece of a bigger universe, so to exclude most references of it is bizarre. At least SHIELD should be represented, even if it is only as an explanation of why they aren’t there.

Conclusion

Iron Man 3 is better than the last Iron Man film, and on par with the original. It may even be better, but as a middle piece of a larger story arc, it’s hard to say. Either way, it’s a much more introspective film than its predecessors, and it shows that Marvel knows what it is doing.

It would have been easy to succumb to the temptation of just making another film with the same formula, but even the modest change here feels refreshing. Marvel’s decision to let characters grow should serve it well across its franchises, preventing them from turning stale as they wear on through movie after movie.

Despite his good reputation, hiring Black was a huge gamble. It’s only his second film, and his previous film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was much smaller in every way. Black hasn’t even worked in Hollywood for eight years, but after this he should have his choice of jobs.

Hopefully this isn’t Downey’s last film as Tony Stark, now that his contract is up. If it is though, he will go out in style.

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