Coming off the success of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 had to be something truly special for it to not feel like a letdown. The expectations placed upon it are unfair, but they are there nonetheless. Not only does Iron Man 3 have to follow the previous two films in its own series, both of which were quite fun, but it also has to be the first film out of the gate to directly succeed the aforementioned crossover superhero film. That’s a lot of pressure to put on director Shane Black, who has taken over from Jon Fraveau, the man behind the first two installments in the Iron Man franchise.
The result is kind of what you’d expect given what I’ve already said. It’s a good summer blockbuster that tries but fails to live up to the expectations that moviegoers are going to place upon it, all while concluding the journey of its lead, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who hasn’t come all that far since the first film, but does at least have some sort of arc that will finally reach its finale — even if the final few lines of voiceover narration and a single line following the post-credits scene contradict this development. If this is the last Iron Man film, it is not a great conclusion but it is a fitting one.
By this point, you’ve seen Tony Stark in the leading role in three films (if you haven’t, go watch all of the aforementioned films because they’re all worth seeing). We know what he has to offer. We’ve seen him change from an egomaniac to slightly less of one. We’ve seen him save the world. We’ve seen his relationship grow with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the damsel in distress. His arc is almost complete, and just a bit more change needs to happen. Iron Man 3 is going to push him to the limit, and to that very change.
The villain this time around is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), essentially every real-life villain of America rolled into one. He bombs places without bombs, can take over every cable network at will, and can even hack the phone of the President of the United States. After one of those bombs winds up putting Happy (Jon Favreau) in a coma, Stark vows to kill the Mandarin and put his reign of terror to an end. So begins a mystery, the likes of which we haven’t yet seen in the post-2007 Marvel movies.
I’m not kidding, either. The majority of the second act is dedicated to Stark, without all of his money, suits, and technology, attempting to find out where the Mandarin is. There’s one big action scene in the middle section of Iron Man 3, while most of the action is saved for the very end. The film definitely has a different feel than the previous works, with the focus more on Stark having to live, alone, in a post-Avengers world than on the action scenes and Iron Man being really cool.
Despite this noticeable change in tone, the film still feels very breezy, moving along at a good pace and rarely dragging. The shift in focus works as it tries to function as a conclusion to the character arcs that were started way back in 2008, the villain is a lot of fun to watch, and the special effects have never been better. And while there wasn’t a lot of action, what we do get is pretty good. Shane Black penned a lot of the action films back in the ’80s and ’90s, and he shows here that he can direct them just fine, too.
However, it still doesn’t add up to something greater than The Avengers, or possibly even the first two films in its own standalone series — it’s definitely not better than Iron Man, anyway, and I’m still trying to determine if it’s better than Iron Man 2. I’m having a lot of difficulty figuring out exactly why this is, because on paper most everything checks out. On film, however, the result isn’t quite as good as you’d expect. I think it comes down to needing to do more with its material, as if a 150-minute cut existed and was chopped down in order to get in more screenings and make more money.
For instance, there are some things that are brought up and then never matter or get completely ignored. Tony Stark suffers from anxiety attacks every so often, but that never actually affects him during anything important, and the resolution to dealing with that is a simple suggestion by another character that wouldn’t help in, say, a battle. Another character is also revealed to be able to breathe fire — which is even commented on in the film — but then that power is vacant from the climax. A character played by Rebecca Hall comes and goes and does nothing but act as a plot device. It’s the little things that hamper Iron Man 3.
With that said, the film is definitely different from the earlier chapters in the life of Tony Stark. You have to applaud the filmmakers for having the guts to stick to their guns and take the story in a different direction, while also still managing to make it feel like the conclusion to a trilogy.
Iron Man 3 isn’t a home run, but sometimes a bunt single is good enough. And that’s kind of what it feels like. It doesn’t measure up to the first Iron Man, and it certainly doesn’t reach The Avengers‘ lofty heights, but it’s a worthwhile possible finale to a trilogy primarily built on action scenes and the charisma of its lead actor — both of which is downplays in order to make things feel fresh. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially if you’ve seen the other films in the series.