Renn Brown: Tony Stark has always been the bedrock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both by virtue of being the first character we spent time with once the shared universe plan was in place and by the sheer magnetism of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. As that universe has expanded and introduced half a dozen new heroes and pit them all against bigger and bigger threats though, the question arises- who is Tony Stark and what role does he play in this world now filled with demigods, magic, and beings stronger and as smart as him? Steve Rodgers asks this question explicitly in The Avengers, and it plagues a panic-attack suffering Tony Stark at the beginning of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3.
There’s nothing subtle about the image of Tony Stark struggling to haul the powerless husk of his Iron Man suit through a lonely forest, but it’s this dynamic that the filmmakers proficiently weave through a film that is at times an exciting action flick and always a hilarious, distinctly Shane Black-styled thriller. Granted, even Black’s film does not escape the compromise that marks every Marvel movie, but it does make some of the boldest choices we’ve seen from the studio. And it is also certainly the best Iron Man film.
With that, allow me to loop in sirs Miller and Nunziata and get this tag-team party started!
Josh Miller: Speaking of that distinctly Shane Black style — Marvel’s willingness to allow their filmmakers to infuse their own quirks and fetishes into these films (while of course still kowtowing to the continuity and macro tone) continues to impress me. And I don’t think any filmmaker has left their stamp quite as blatantly as Black has here. I already knew Marvel had let Black set the film during the Xmas season, but when Robert Downey Jr’s stuttering voice opens the film and he screws up his narration, then needs to start his narration over, I no longer wondered how reined in Marvel had kept Black. As you say Renn, Black can’t escape the demands of the brand (nor should he), but at times you could have called this Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2. With Black around, Downey can’t seem to resist slipping into a bit of Harry Lockhart. Hell, during the film’s big action climax you could have easily swapped out Don Cheadle for Gay Perry, the way to two men bicker and blunder their way through the scene. Point being, after the uber-success of The Avengers I had to wonder what to expect from the Phase 2 films, and I walked out of the theater quite hopeful. Or at least hopeful for the ongoing Tony Stark franchise.
I don’t agree that this is the best Iron Man film. I still consider the first Iron Man a somewhat perfect superhero film — I never had a problem with Jon Favreau’s action direction, as some seemed to. But that’s neither here nor there. Iron Man 3 is a dandy of a film too. Within its own franchise it didn’t have a hard act to follow. Iron Man 2 was a turd, and it gave good reason to wonder if the Marvel Universe was willingly running on creative fumes just to get to The Avengers. But Shane Black (who already gave Favreau and Downey some uncredited dialogue help on Iron Man) really was the perfect person to pick Tony Stark back up. Whereas IM2 began with a flash and then slowly puttered out til it reached a wildly uncompelling ending, Iron Man 3 is a steady build throughout, full of Kiss Kiss-esque twists and turns. Everything feels revitalized. Especially Jim Rhodes. I’ve never liked Terrence Howard, so when I heard that Don Cheadle was replacing him as Rhodes in IM2 I was excited- until I actually saw the film and suddenly wanted Howard back. But Cheadle has now made Rhodes his own. And, as I alluded with the Gay Perry comment before, Cheadle and Downey finally get their chemistry figured out.
Nick Nunziata: I agree with Josh about Iron Man. The first film lacks the third act wallop expected of films of this size but there are too many intangibles there that make the movie special to write it off. Though the second film gets a lot of flack, there are too many good elements (Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, and some great Iron Man moments) to dismiss it entirely. Marvel movies aren’t filmmaker films. They’re actor and effects films and though the dialogue is key, Iron Man 3 almost veers too much into Shane Black’s identity to make it as universally effective as the previous entries. As a fan of Black’s work, there are times the film is staggeringly fun and more than we deserve but there are also moments where a little more “man in suit” action wouldn’t have hurt.
Another concern is how little time Tony Stark spends in the Iron Man suit. Where the films distanced themselves from movies like Transformers was by virtue of the fact that there was always a human being in the armor and the third film is laden with remote controlled suits doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Though the action is well choreographed there is a sense of overload without much risk. The trade-off is that audiences get a Tony Stark as James Bond movie that’s not without its charms.
Renn: I would, frankly, be shocked if Iron Man suits are on screen for any less time than the other films, but the point remains that this is a largely Stark-based affair.
To put it out there I’ll come down on being enthusiastic about the first film until it begins to spiral into dull, routine nonsense, and completely, all-the-way dismissive of the second. From my seat that movie only loses more points for wasting the good assets it does include. So from that perspective Black’s higher highs and less damaging lows comfortably make for the most effective film of the series, if not by a huge gulf. The improvement is having that pure, unstepped-on Shane Black wit filling Stark’s mouth with words, rather than the decent knock off writing till now. Black’s sensibility permeates the film deeper than just dialogue though- the tone of the film is very Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as is the way the film will pull the rug on its melodrama and use of superhero movie cliches. I found it to be a terribly refreshing, game-changing way to make a superhero film, and I never wanted the first hour to end.
Action-wise this is still a Marvel film, rattling on the rails as it becomes more about spectacle and villainous plots revealing themselves. To that end there isn’t really a bit of notable action in the whole film. The destruction of Tony’s home is effective spectacle (nearly ruined by post-converted 3D) and the free fall rescue scene works, but these are not even close to all-timer sequences. Even the Iron Man army siege at the climax is mostly a mess of flying parts recalling Transformers, without any of Bay’s panache. It’s built in the same mold as the city-wide spectacular of The Avengers, but it lacks the brightness and variety of action that makes that such a barn-burner sequence. It all smacks of by-committee action filmmaking, lazily cut to ribbons and robbing the audience of the joy of three dozen different Iron Man suits doing things.
Josh: I’m in agreement about the action. But again, I’m the guy who had zero problems with the level of action in the first film. So maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. Of all the Marvel Studios heroes, Tony Stark is the most complex and interesting to watch — entirely because of Downey and how he melds with the writing and filmmakers. To a certain extent I’m not even after action here. I’m after Tony’s interplay with other characters (like a lot of people, I was over the moon for his stuff with Banner in Avengers), and also his interplay with himself. My favorite parts of the first film where Tony fucking around in his lab with his goofy robots.
My one real complaint about Iron Man 3 is that the panic attack subplot (if you can even call it that) felt forced to me. The first film had the catastrophic injury to Tony’s body that necessitated his glowing chest. The second film had the chemical abuse. So they clearly felt they needed something here too; some kind of human weakness for Tony to struggle with. But it didn’t feel like Black was very inspired with the anxiety dilemma. It is just kind of there, because Marvel doesn’t want Tony – rich, handsome, brilliant, powerful – to seem too perfect. And I understand that Marvel isn’t eager to dedicate an entire film to Tony Stark having an alcohol addiction (like the comics did), but they’re clearly running out of ideas. Will he develop IBS in Iron Man 4?
Nick: It’s not the “Best Marvel Film” as many say but it’s definitely the most creatively ambitious in how its uses its running time and some of the ideas at play. Guy Pearce’s Aldritch Killian is absolutely out of a Spider-Man movie, the scorned nerd who is empowered and brings a ton of attitude to the hero but he’s having a lot of fun and it works. Gwyneth Paltrow is another aspect of these films that gets no credit but does a fantastic job of elevating the “damsel in distress” thing to the point of being a value add. She and Downey are a great pairing and Pepper Potts continues to be an aspect of the series that is paying dividends. By the way, she’s in shape.
But it’s Ben Kingsley who will open eyes here. The Mandarin is an inspired element to the film and the great coup the studio has done with Iron Man 3 is how they’ve marketed it. Younger viewers are going to be baffled and bored at times with how the film unfolds but adults are going to really get a treat.
Renn: 100% agreed about each of these supporting turns. The twists and turns that come with Aldritch Killian’s character often border on silly, but Pearce owns it and appears to be having a ton of fun. He nails the Black tone perfectly. Paltrow gets a fair amount to do and is weaved into both action and our hero’s emotional arc in very specific, very meaningful ways. Marvel should take the Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3 as a lesson on how to ensure the women of its universe have a real impact in the films. And yes, finally, Kingsley quite simply nails the most awesome villainous turn I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s no accident that the Mandarin includes every characteristic of the post-Nolan, modern blockbuster villain (terrorist tactics, over-affected vocal performance, etc.), and suffice to say they do great things with him that Kingsley is uniquely suited to pulling off.
Going back to Tony, the film’s consistent interest in examining his relationship with his greatest invention is one of its biggest triumphs. As unsatisfying as much of the spectacle turns out to be, a large amount of it is at least designed with the film’s subtext in mind. While many thought the Extremis sub-plot would ultimately turn Tony into a superhero outside of the suit and give him telepathic control of the Mach fleet, the film actually starts with this pretty much already being the case. We first see Tony as he tinkers with the finished MK42, which can be summoned in discrete parts and operated remotely. This leads to moments in which the suit and Tony interact with one another, or action sequences that are punctuated with the comic fallibility of the suits design. It’s a way Black has subtly imbued one of the big CGI, blockbustery elements of this whole endeavor with his sensibilities. You’ll know what I mean when you see the Iron Man suit literally giving a hand to itself and Tony.
That said, I don’t think there’s a single triumphant beat in this entire moment that isn’t undercut by an abrupt joke at its end- almost like Shane Black doesn’t trust us to buy his action scenes. They are a real weakness though, as Black is not an accomplished action director, even when buoyed by the Marvel machine. His filmmaking deficiencies also leave the aforementioned thread of Tony’s panic attacks out to dry- Downey, Jr. does his best anxiety attack, but that’s a hard thing to pull off visually and Black doesn’t even try.
Josh: I’ll join the circle jerk on the supporting cast. After the embarrassment of Lockout and his perplexing usage in Prometheus, I delighted in Guy Pearce getting such a great showcase in a film of this mainstream scope. He’s a phenomenal actor that deserves to be referenced by the kids these days, who probably aren’t spotting him in films like Animal Kingdom and The King’s Speech. And let’s not forget Jon Favreau, who looks like he’s having an absolute blast with his Happy Hogan duties — especially with his Travolta-in-Pulp-Fiction-esque look during the film’s flashback period.
If Iron Man 3 is our barometer for the Phase 2 films, I think we can expect a slate of sequels and original films at least comparable in quality to the Phase 1 films — which while generally flawed were overall quality entertainment. As a Marvel Studios’ film I give it 4 stars. Objectively I give it…
Nick: Iron Man 3 is a real good flick. I can see why some folks find it to be the most delicious thing ever. It’s a gift to people who have supported Shane Black and Robert Downey, Jr. through thick and thin. It’s deliverance. As a business decision it’s going to have mixed results in the long term. People are ravenous for these movies and the machinery is in place to ensure success. This is the time you can get away with having Shane Black drive your fancy car. It’s also a film whose humor will only get better with repeat viewings.
But there’s something untapped here that really could have elevated it to someplace truly special.
Here’s hoping he and Whedon do a team-up down the time. Then we’ll know we’ve won.
Renn: What I don’t think we hit on here yet is in how many ways this film feels final. It doesn’t suggest Iron Man won’t be a part of the MCU going forward, but it makes some irrevocable changes to the character that will shock many. It also ties things up thematically such that if Robert Downey Jr. really does walk away, this serves as a trilogy capper of sorts. With next to no crossover easter eggs and no real nods to Phase 2 activity, it’s also the most independent Marvel film since the first Iron Man.
To wrap things up though, what Black nails best in Iron Man 3 is tone. All Marvel films are best when they hone in on and ride whatever hero’s ideal tone, and few of them have done it better than what we see here. This is a triumphant follow up to The Avengers, and sets a high bar for the next wave of Marvel films.
And as much as I’d like to change it up, I’ll ride the wave:
Join the conversation in the comments below, or in the Post-Release forum thread!