With The Avengers, Marvel Studios completed the first phase of one of the most ambitious franchises in film history, and they did so in spectacular fashion. The Avengers is a tough act to follow, but rather than faltering under extreme expectations, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 does the exact opposite: it soars higher than its title character.
Different from any previous superhero movie, Iron Man 3 is essentially a massive-scale, high-tech detective story that has Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) investigating a series of attacks that link to his past, leading him to go toe-to-toe with The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), the leader of a terrorist group known as The Ten Rings. Leaving behind the suit vs. suit formula and the excessive world building that hurt Iron Man 2, the new sequel delivers a fresh, fascinating look at the hero, an exciting, original adventure that's 130 minutes of pure entertainment.
It’s impressive to watch Downey Jr. hop back into the character, who is very much a changed man in Iron Man 3, deeply affected by the alien invasion and destruction featured at the end of The Avengers. Everything we love about Tony Stark is back, from his tremendous ingenuity to his smartass attitude, but Black layers in Stark's changed perspective, altered values (particularly as they pertain to his relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts), and surprising vulnerability. A mere mention of the events in New York is enough to send him into a hardcore panic attack that has him rushing for his armor, and you have genuine empathy for him, both because of how much we’ve seen him go through and Downey's fine performance, his best in a Marvel movie yet.
Paltrow also shines as her character’s relationship with Tony reaches deeper levels than we’ve ever seen before, and she even gets her chance at some kick-ass action. Same for Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who finds a story beyond Tony Stark by serving the U.S. government as Iron Patriot. Without saying too much, as the layers to their characters are best discovered on the big screen, both Kingsley and Guy Pearce, as rival industrialist/genius Aldrich Killian, are excellent antagonists for Tony all levels – personally, professionally, and heroically. If there’s any actor that gets the short stick it’s Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, an old flame of Tony’s who invents a revolutionary medical serum called Extremis that winds up being an integral part of the plot. The truth is, however, that her character serves her purpose in the story and can’t really be called underwritten – it’s just a small part.
Iron Man 3 is the first movie that Black has done in eight years and only his second in 17 years, but is proof positive that true talent doesn’t go away. The writer/director’s greatest strengths, honed by decades in the action genre, flawlessly match the pre- established world and tone of the Iron Man franchise. His impressive ear for witty dialogue dials the sharp-tongued Tony Stark up to 11 and makes the film regularly laugh-out-loud hilarious. His long-evident appreciation for winding detective stories keeps the audience guessing at every turn and results in wowing twists. His lengthy history with buddy movies keeps all of Tony’s relationships fresh, meaningful, and fun, from time spent with Pepper and Rhodey to a random kid (Ty Simpkins) he meets while investigating a possible terrorist attack in Tennessee. The film succeeds simply by being a Shane Black film.
Black's a newcomer to the large-scale, CGI-heavy action sequences, but what he presents in the field is without question the best of all the Marvel Studios solo films. While Joss Whedon certainly raised the bar high with his 30-minute-long battle between superheroes and aliens at the end of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 is stunningly comparable. From a missile attack on Tony’s palatial Malibu home, to a strike on Air Force One, to a firefight at a dockyard, the movie is littered with massive setpieces, with smaller-scale action sequences in between just to keep movie-goers’ hearts racing at all times.
Iron Man 3 is the rare sequel that feels like it’s grown out of a perfect understanding of what worked and what didn’t in the previous films. It embraces the universe it lives in without exploiting it or letting it weigh down the story, and offers its hero a personal, dangerous challenge without ever losing its popcorn charm. Beyond the pressures of being the follow-up to The Avengers, the movie is the first film in Marvel’s Phase Two plans and has the responsibility of setting the pace for what’s to come. We can only hope that what they come up with going forward is even half as incredible.