Tony Stark might be at his best with his gadgets, but ironically his movies are best when he is without them. ‘Iron Man 3’ is a perfect demonstration of that – for the first 40 mins, Stark is the same arrogant, cocksure person he was in the self-important ‘Iron Man 2’; and then after crashing and burning in his damaged suit in the middle of a wintry expanse, Stark is forced to start over, and that rebirth brings back what made the first ‘Iron Man’ so infectiously entertaining in the first place.
Indeed, you’ve been warned – don’t expect ‘Iron Man 3’ to be firing from all cylinders right from the get-go as ‘The Avengers’ did; rather, the road to that payoff is slow and bumpy. This is a ‘post-Avengers’ Stark, traumatised by his near-death experience closing the Chitauri wormhole back in New York. At the expense of sleep and his relationship with the ever-lovely Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark throws himself into work – which to him means further refining his ‘Iron Man’ armour. In the meantime, he leaves the heavy lifting to Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle), commissioned by the President to fight terror in the War Machine suit (basically the ‘Iron Man’ fighting machine but in the patriotic colours of red, white and blue).
Col Rhodes’ latest target is a terrorist going by the monicker of ‘The Mandarin’, who has brought his war to home soil after targeting US installations abroad. Only when his former driver cum good friend, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is fatally injured does Stark sit up and pay attention, and in an ill-advised and egotistical move, reveal his home address in an outright challenge to The Mandarin. That, as you would already know from the trailer, leaves his oceanside home decimated and Stark in a barely functioning suit in the snow-covered wilds of Tennessee.
Up to this point, a lot of what is meant to pass as wisecracks is exchanged as dialogue among Stark, Potts and Hogan, but the smart- talking isn’t particularly amusing or engaging and gets increasingly tiresome after a while. But as we said at the start, it is precisely when Stark is forced to start over that the movie starts getting into the groove. Abandoning the slick and sleek mechanical tricks and gimmicks, the middle act settles into a surprisingly old-school act in a small-town-USA where Stark had meant to visit to investigate a recent incident which he suspects is linked to The Mandarin.
There, some of the sparkiest repartee unfolds between Stark and a young kid he meets, Harley (Ty Simpson), who will not only enable him to overcome his PTSD but also become an unlikely pre-pubescent sidekick. The rapport between Stark and Harley significantly enlivens the film, with the ‘connection’ (there is a special meaning to the quotation here) between them perhaps the most poignant relationship developed here. Thankfully, the delightfully warm and witty midsection only makes the film better from here onwards.
Surpassing expectations of a straightforward good-versus-bad showdown, veteran action movie screenwriter Shane Black and his first-time feature film writer Drew Pearce engineer a couple of elegant twists, including an ingenious revelation on the true identity of The Mandarin. Not to worry, we’re not in spoiler mode here, but suffice to say that it is probably the very reason why Academy Award-winning actor Ben Kingsley was enticed to the role. And with that surprise comes the action that you’ve been waiting for from this summer blockbuster.
Black, who is making his sophomore feature film, offers up two eye- popping set pieces. The first sees a daring attack on Air Force One in mid-air, leaving 13 people in free-fall and a truly exhilarating sequence where Iron Man gets to play ‘barrel of monkeys’ with all of them and guide them to safety. The second is the elaborate and game- changing climax – not only for the fact that it is the first and only time in the whole movie that we see the Iron Legion in action, but also because it comes to a startling conclusion that re-establishes the dynamic between Stark and Potts. Both are even more astounding considering Black’s last and first movie was a crime caper called ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ that never would have primed you into thinking he was capable of such spectacle.
But one supposes that Robert Downey Jr must have seen that potential in Black to recommend him as the candidate to take over Favreau, the familiarity between actor and director paying off in how the former trusts the latter to take the character in a different direction. While he was vulnerable before, Stark did not have the same attachment as he does here with Potts or the same sense of introspection that is evident in his voice-over. In turn, Downey Jr. gives his best performance as Tony Stark/ Iron Man yet, with a newfound sense of frailty that develops convincingly into humility to match his heroics.
Disagree if you must, but we always loved Stark more when he was less full of himself, and a refreshingly new aspect here is the buddy element that sees Stark pairing first with Harley and then with Col Rhodes. In particular, the finale sees a rousing partnership with the latter – both Downey Jr and Cheadle clearly enjoying trading quips and barbs at each other while saving the day. And given how the ‘Iron Man’ movies have been at their most rousing when Stark rebuilds himself, the last shot of Stark beginning a new phase in his life bodes well for the future of the franchise, especially if it is to continue its life outside of ‘The Avengers’.
8 out of 10 stars