It’s been a long and slow haul to this point, but we’ve finally made it to the summer movie season of 2013. And once again, as with four of the past five summers, Marvel Studios takes the honor of being first out of the gate. The first weekend of May is prime real estate, which makes it all the more impressive that Marvel has managed to claim it as their traditional stomping ground, and to do it with virtually no competition.

Whoever thought that Marvel would have gotten to this point five years ago? As recently as 2010, Marvel’s film division was little more than The House That Tony Stark Built. Now, they’re the masters of the inter-franchise crossover and can lay claim to history’s third highest-grossing movie. With all respect to Iron Man, it isn’t the foundation of Marvel Studios anymore, nor is it their cornerstone franchise. That burden has successfully been passed on to The Avengers.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Phase Two of Kevin Feige’s master plan should begin with Iron Man 3. It feels right that this movie should close the door on Marvel’s former crown jewel, and to do it in a way that pays loving tribute to the movie that started it all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To start with, Tony has been incredibly busy since The Avengers. He suffers from chronic insomnia, and he spends every waking moment building suits. The reason for both is simple: He traveled through a wormhole into deep space to throw a nuclear goddamn missile at a fleet of alien warships. Also, that happened just after he fought with (and beside) a tactical genius with super strength, a god of lightning, and a gamma-radiated giant. Stark caught a glimpse of just how weak and insignificant he is in the grand scheme of things, and if you know anything about Tony Stark, you’d know that his ego is a perilously fragile thing.

So Stark has been developing a wide variety of suits. He’s already worked his way up to Mark 42, a suit that he can control by remote. Even more impressively, Stark can call the suit to his location from just about anywhere. Basically, Tony is trying to make himself as superhuman as possible. He never wants to be in a situation where his suit and his “powers” are beyond reach. Naturally, fate has other plans.

After so many years in hiding, the leader of Ten Rings has finally made his presence known. The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has come out of the woodwork to threaten the United States by way of terrorist bombings and creepy propaganda films. It’s not entirely clear why he’s doing this, nor do we know why he’s chosen this exact point in time to step up his game, but he appears to have some kind of grudge against the U.S. president (played by veteran character actor William Sadler).

Anyway, the Mandarin arranges for an attack on the Grauman Chinese Theater, and Happy Hogan (played once again by former Iron Man director Jon Favreau) is caught in the blast. Tony, being Tony, reacts to this distressing event by flying off the handle and doing something rash. He threatens the Mandarin with “good old-fashioned revenge,” going so far as to put his home address on international airwaves. Inevitably, the Mandarin comes calling and blows Stark’s house to kingdom come. Even worse, since the Mark 42 is still relatively new and not combat-ready, Stark gets his ass handed to him. And so, Stark retreats to Tennessee (I’ll get to that later) to regroup while the whole world thinks he’s dead.

And while all of this is going on, there’s another huge plot thread going on. It starts just before the year 2000, during a New Year’s Eve party in Switzerland, where Tony Stark bumped into a molecular biologist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). Keep in mind, this is back when Stark was a rampant womanizer who would bed and instantly forget any halfway-attractive woman he met. Stark also meets a total nobody named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) with dreams of starting a think tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics (Otherwise known as AIM. Again, more on that later.) Stark completely blows the guy off, but Hansen strikes up a deal with him.

Together, Maya and Aldrich develop the Extremis virus, which can rewrite the human genome to grant superhuman strength and an accelerated healing factor. The only catch is that until very recently, test subjects proved highly unstable. And by “unstable,” I mean that they generate temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Celsius when they spontaneously combust.

…Look, this is comic book science. We’ve already got a new synthetic element that could “make a nuclear reactor look like a AAA battery.” Just go with it.

Really, the most important thing about the Extremis virus is in what it represents. It goes back to the idea of good intentions and visionary genius getting perverted by compromised morals. That was one of Tony’s most central inner conflicts back in the first movie, and this storyline does a brilliant job of expanding on it. Additionally, the filmmakers have spent the past couple of years promising a symbolic return to Tony Stark in the cave, with nothing but his brains and a box of scraps to get him out. I’m glad to report that they delivered on that promise in spades.

In fact, Tony even gets a kind of “Yensin” character. In this case, his assistant is a little boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins), a scientific prodigy who forces Tony to confront his inner demons through humor. The character works surprisingly well, though that’s mostly because Harley’s comedic banter with Tony is pure gold. The only downside is that Harley brings up a lot of character points for Tony that are never really resolved. We see that Tony tends to get panic attacks at the mention of New York and what happened there, but we never see him get over those bad memories. We never see Tony accept his place in this new expanded universe. Then again, maybe they’re saving that for Avengers 2. But I digress.

Speaking of sidekicks, the villains in this movie have a pair of notable heavies. They’re played by two very promising up-and-comers named James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak. Their characters are a bit one-dimensional, obviously, but both actors still play their roles exceptionally well. It also helps that they’ve both got outstanding action chops, and Szostak certainly isn’t bad-looking. I wish them both all the best going forward.

Moving on to RDJ, I don’t think I really have to say anything. The man is Tony Stark, but you already knew that.

Instead, the real surprises here came from Gwyneth Paltrow and Paul Bettany. Though Pepper’s trademark banter with Tony has been greatly trimmed down, she was given a significant taste of action in its place. She gets to wear one of Stark’s armor suits for a brief time, and she damn near steals the show during the climax. As for Jarvis, he gets some much funnier lines in this movie than usual, and he also steps up to be a kind of bona fide badass during the climax.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Don Cheadle. Aside from a few comedic moments and the occasional badass stunt, I’m sorry to say that Rhodey doesn’t really have a huge effect on the proceedings — certainly not when compared to his role in Iron Man 2. No, Rhodey takes a distant backseat to the Iron Patriot, which is basically his War Machine armor (now controlled by the U.S. government) with a new name and a new paint job. Cheadle does a good job with what he’s given, to be sure, but he still deserved better.

Sadly, the booby prize goes to Jon Favreau. It’s bad enough that Happy gets a negligible amount of screen time, since his character spends most of the film in a coma. It’s even worse that the promotion to Stark Industries’ head of security has apparently turned Happy into a total dumbass. But the crowning ignominy comes at the end of the Chinese Theater bombing, when Happy leaves an improbable and incomprehensible clue involving dog tags. This diminished role is a damn shame, especially considering all the action and humor that Happy was part of back in Iron Man 2. And that was with Favreau behind the camera. Such a shame that he couldn’t have been allowed to do more while he didn’t have to worry about directing.

As for the newcomers, I’ll say that Maya Hansen made for a very intriguing character… right up until a plot twist that comes right out of nowhere. After this point, the character just keeps going from bad to worse. Heaven knows that Rebecca Hall certainly looks the part of a brainy scientist, but it seems all too often like she’s sleepwalking through this role. Hall is a very underrated actress, and I know that she’s better than this. Damn shame.

Conversely, there’s Guy Pearce. He swings for the cheap seats with this performance, gleefully chewing scenery as a hapless geek and as a ruthless tycoon. He reminded me of Sam Rockwell’s character from Iron Man 2, but with one vital difference: Aldrich was totally immoral while Justin Hammer was merely amoral. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Last but not least, we’ve got Ben Kingsley. I knew he would be good, but I did not know he would be great. The Mandarin turns out to be a highly dynamic role, in need of a powerfully charismatic actor equally gifted in drama and in comedy. Mercifully, whether he’s acting goofy or solemn, Kingsley is amazing to watch throughout. In particular, there was a line about fortune cookies (of all things) that was genius in so many ways.

However, the Mandarin still represents my biggest problems with this film. Many other geeks have already commented on the plot twist that strongly resembles a certain DC film that came out recently. I’ll agree that it was done much better in the previous film, and that cribbing from DC’s playbook is one of the last things that Marvel should be doing right now. But no, that resemblance isn’t my main problem.

My main problem is that it cheapens the Mandarin. For those who aren’t aware, this character has traditionally been the closest thing that Tony Stark has to an archnemesis. Moreover, he’s apparently one of the most powerful and cunning supervillains in the Marvel Universe as a whole. I’ve frequently heard him mentioned in the same breath as Doctor Doom and Magneto, and that’s no small thing. The guy should be a pivotal player in the Marvel Universe, yet he turns out to be essentially nothing.

Additionally, the comic Mandarin’s powers came from alien artifacts. That origin would fit perfectly with this continuity, given how Marvel Studios has been eager to push their cinematic universe toward the stars. Yet in the end, the Mandarin has no superpowers of alien origin or otherwise. After the extraterrestrial presence in Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, this feels like a step backwards to me.

Last but not least, this setup for the Mandarin makes no sense in the context of the film trilogy. Remember, the Ten Rings organization has always been lurking around in the background of the previous two films, working toward the Mandarin’s big reveal in this movie. For God’s sake, it was Ten Rings that put shrapnel in Tony’s chest, locked him up in a cave, forced him into making a missile, and inspiring him to build Iron Man Mk. I in the first place. Ten Rings — and therefore, the Mandarin — play a crucial role in Tony’s life, yet it’s never so much as hinted at in this movie. In fact, it makes almost zero sense with this new context.

Speaking of wasted potential, let’s talk about AIM. In this movie, the organization essentially begins and ends with Aldrich Killian. There’s no implication of a greater force at work somewhere, and that is a huge mistake. AIM is an extremely powerful terrorist group, responsible for dozens of supervillains in the comic universe. Luckily, a great deal of those are Captain America villains, so hopefully this oversight will be fixed in a later movie.

Aside from those nitpicks, the big problem is in how thin the plot gets at times. The clue Happy leaves at the bombing site is one example. The other big one is how a near-incapacitated Iron Man could fly from Malibu to Tennessee without being noticed. Oh, and there’s also Maya’s sudden change of heart that comes for no other reason than the plot needed it to. That’s not to say such issues are completely implausible, but they push right up against that line. That connective tissue is perilously thin, is what I’m saying.

Speaking of connective tissue, it’s worth noting that there are no sequel teases in this movie. Not one. No references to Thanos, no talk about the Guardians of the Galaxy, no hint of what SHIELD is up to, no nothing. There are some callbacks, to be clear, but they all refer to previous films. Naturally, this leads me to wonder about how this movie fits into the grander plan for Phase Two, and what shape this particular franchise will take going forward. More importantly, it begs the question of why Tony or the US government doesn’t call in for backup at any point in this movie. The president’s life is in danger, and where the hell is Captain America?

(Side note: The film does talk about what happened with Bruce Banner after he drove off with Tony in Avengers. Stay after the credits if you’re interested.)

With all of that said, I still had a great time watching this movie. Why? Two reasons. The first of them is the action, which was brilliantly creative throughout. Tony Stark has to fight superpowered beings in this picture, and he often has to do it without his suit. The guy uses his brains and his surroundings to ward off danger in ways that would put MacGyver to shame.

Even so, the suits play a huge role in the proceedings. The movie features suits being controlled remotely, suits splitting into autonomous pieces, suits getting swapped between owners, suits self-detonating, the list goes on and on. The movie kept finding new ways to utilize the concept of robotic armor, and every single one kicked ass. Obviously, this creativity reaches its apex at the climax, when all 42 versions of the Iron Man armor come out to play.

The second big reason is the comedy. It should go without saying that RDJ has no shortage of quips and one-liners, though Ben Kingsley, Paul Bettany, and Don Cheadle get some laugh-out-loud moments as well. Even so, my favorite comedic moments are those that come during the action. All too often, an action scene will pause for a little while to break out a joke, and it works very well.

Of course, both of the great things about this film have the same root cause: Shane Motherfucking Black. Yes, I know that his name is spelled “Shane Black,” but it’s pronounced “Shane Motherfucking Black.” Anyone remotely familiar with Lethal Weapon or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang should already know that Black is a criminally underrated storyteller with a keen gift for both humor and action. That gift does the film all kinds of favors, especially in terms of action. It’s incredible how Black can stage such enormous fight scenes while keeping everything coherent. This is a superbly directed film, and it can only be a good thing if this gets Black more work.

Finally, I must give all due props to the score. Brian Tyler turned in some wonderful music for this movie, even going so far as to write an identifiable theme for Iron Man. I appreciate the effort, and it’s a very good theme, but I still don’t think it’s quite good enough. With all respect, if I want a piece of music to represent Tony Stark taking flight and kicking ass in full gear, I’ll stick with the original.

To sum up, Iron Man 3 is not perfect. There are some nagging plot holes, a few weak performances, and a lot of wasted potential. Even so, the action and the humor in this movie are beyond reproach, and the franchise’s core cast is as great as ever. It also helps that the concept of robotic armor was played to the hilt, with dazzling results. Last but not least, the film does a great job at paying tribute to the first movie in the franchise, particularly in its theme about good science gone wrong. I don’t know if I’d recommend the 3D option one way or another, but I absolutely recommend seeing this on the big screen.

All of that aside, there are a lot of questions as to where this franchise will go from here. Obviously, RDJ has to come back for Avengers 2, but then what? Personally, I’m going to express the radical notion that this series should end as a trilogy. Obviously, RDJ should stay on as Tony Stark, but in more of a supporting capacity. I just don’t think he has anything more to do with the character, at least not enough to sustain another solo film.

Moreover, the Marvel universe is so much bigger than just Iron Man. For the past several years, I’ve heard fans clamoring for Black Panther, Luke Cage, or Dr. Strange to reach multiplexes. There’s also the matter of Blade, Daredevil, and the Punisher, all of whom are begging to be rebooted now that they’ve come back home to Marvel.

(Side note: Ghost Rider is next, I’m calling it right now.)

We’ve only got 52 release weekends per year, and multiplex screens are far more limited than bookstore shelves. That isn’t even getting started on all the millions that it takes to get these movies made. The sad reality is that franchises will have to come and go if all the fan favorites are going to get their due.

Plus, I’m still holding out hope that Marvel Studios will someday find the guts to bring an original superhero property to the screen. At this point, they have no excuse not to. The goddamned superhero parody division at Vivid came out with their own original superhero, so why the hell can’t Marvel?!

Getting back to my initial point, there is a real sense of finality to Iron Man 3. It feels like the end of an era, though maybe that’s just the sign of a new beginning. In any case, we may safely assume that Marvel is preparing some great things for us in the years ahead. I’ve been saying it for years, and it just keeps getting more true: This is a damn good time to be a movie geek.

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