The events of The Avengers have left Tony Stark in a different place at the beginning of this sequel. The genius billionaire playboy philanthropist may have survived his first major team-up, but the mind-boggling sights of gods, aliens, and an interstellar wormhole have left him rattled, gripped by anxieties, and obsessed with pushing the design limits of his world-famous armors beyond their mortal limits so that he might have a ghost of a chance in future encounters with powers beyond his considerable imagining. His plus-one and CEO Pepper Potts remains by his side — stronger than ever and generally more composed than Tony manages — but is hard-pressed to help him cope, especially when conflict emerges on two new fronts. A series of sourceless explosions have taken innocent lives worldwide, full credit claimed by a madman calling himself the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley, as hammy and overbearing as the role demands) in his pirate broadcasts that denounce the usual American hypocrisies and whatnot. Closer to home, an eccentric scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, a talented name in a deceptively small role for reasons that pay off in surplus) — whom Tony once blew off at a New Year’s party — has reinvented himself as a suave and sophisticated businessman, eager to sell an advanced idea involving brain modification, genetic upgrades, and possible human weaponization.
The film takes its time setting its stages, upping the stakes, watching business turn personal, and standing by helplessly as Tony brings upon himself a series of calamities that test his resolve and, more daringly from a marketing perspective, the man without the armor. The film’s key questions: if you take away a man’s favorite toys and conveniences, how hard is it to rebuild himself from the ground up? Are we defined by the stuff we own, or by our talents and what’s inside us? What makes a hero: their shiny wardrobe or the inner qualities that drove them to keep donning it in the first place? And is it okay to ask for help with all of these questions?
Many young and several older viewers may be uninterested in these questions, possibly tapping their foot in irritation and demanding more scenes of Downey in armor, or even Downey-shaped stuntmen in armor. To a certain extent, Iron Man 3‘s greatest strength is that most of its running time is spent not being a standard super-hero film. I expect much of the blame/praise can be laid upon director/co-writer Shane Black. In Black’s very first feature film in over twenty-five years to avoid an R rating, longtime fans can spot numerous elements from the strongest works of his screenwriting career: the high-octane desperation and slow-burn crescendo of Lethal Weapon; the unpredictable twists of The Long Kiss Goodnight; the road-to-redemption themes and man’s-man theatrics of The Last Boy Scout; and the rambling Downey narration and blatant defiance of audience expectations that made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang such a skillful, back-in-the-saddle spectacle when Black returned to Hollywood after a years-long hiatus. Though all-ages content has never been his forte, Black has time and again demonstrated his dramatic capabilities over the years, particularly a penchant for turning inner turmoil into an emotionally grinding cinematic journey — taking men apart and seeing what makes them tick. (It’s gratifying to confirm that IM3 isn’t a guys-only affair — Gwyneth Paltrow is hardly neglected arm-candy here.)
Seen in that career context, distanced from a world of four-color twenty-two page fight scenes, and unshackled to the rigors of preexisting character continuity, Iron Man 3 accelerates past its burning plot-hole questions, enlists a company’s worth of forceful performances, and allows more insight into the mind and mettle of Tony Stark than we ever thought we’d want to see. It means fewer action scenes in the first ninety minutes, but everything builds to an outrageous climax that demands a big-screen viewing and rewards the patience of all viewers, even that of the little girl sitting behind us who told her parent around the eighty-minute mark, “This is boring!” The madcap grand finale shut her up pretty firmly.
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want an idea of what they missed without seeing it a second time because of budgetary concerns…
[Insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship. Those same people should also not read the spoiler-tastic WikiPedia entry for the Mandarin at this time.]
…whereas Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had Downey’s narration breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, here we learn that Downey has been sharing this 129-minute story to a coworker and friend, in hopes of working through his psychological issues. Too bad for Tony that the friend in question isn’t that kind of doctor, and has his own destructive emotional problems on his plate. To him, Tony’s anxiety issues seem pretty boring by comparison.
In other words, you missed a neat cameo by a character you know.
Comics fans will be interested to know the end credits also offer special thanks to a few past Iron Man creative teams: Warren Ellis and Adi Granov (creators behind the “Extremis” arc on which this film is loosely based); David Michelinie and Bob Layton (creators of Jim Rhodes, and whose seminal early-’80s run is the definitive Tony Stark in my mind); writer/artist John Byrne (who helped redefine the Mandarin with fewer clichés than his creators did); and Len Kaminski and Kev Hopgood (creators of the original War Machine armor). If there were mentions anywhere of original Iron Man contributors such as Jack Kirby, Don Heck, or Larry Lieber, I missed those completely.
[Updated 5/11/2013: after a second showing of IM3, I can now confirm Heck, Lieber, Kirby, and Stan Lee do indeed receive screen credit, billed eventually in the end credits after the stuntmen. It still sounds inadequate, but it’s more attribution than some super-hero creators receive.]
Oddly, I caught no overt hints of foreshadowing for an Avengers 2 story arc. For all we know, perhaps the clues were hidden in plain sight. We’ll find out by the end of 2014, then.