"Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher." ~ The Mandarin, Iron Man 3
Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in the third solo film for the Marvel comics character, and the fourth after last year's Avengers. The film starts out in the past, on New Year's Eve 1999 in Switzerland, where Tony is in the midst of seducing a botanist, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and crosses paths with a bookish and socially inept businessman-scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has a business proposal for him. Both characters will figure prominently what follows.
Flash forward to the present, where Tony is dealing with anxiety attacks and nightmares in the wake of the alien invasion of New York during Avengers. This is added onto his usual obsessive compulsive disorder, and he spends much of his time in his workshop, building new armors, experimenting with ideas that include remote controlled armor. His girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is running his company, his friend Colonel Rhodes( Don Cheadle) is using the War Machine armor for the military, newly renamed the Iron Patriot, and his other friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) has moved up to head up security for the company. Tony is pouring his energy into work, avoiding issues. Pepper, on the other hand, is navigating the corporate side of things, including a meeting with Killian, much less bookish and socially inept now. His company is working on a new project called Extremis, that might well regenerate damaged bodies by recoding DNA; it's a concept that Pepper can't sign off on, due to ethical considerations. As it is, Extremis is unstable in some people... leading to very bad consequences.
Meanwhile, America is coming under threat from a mysterious terrorist calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). He's capable of hijacking the airwaves, broadcasting apocalyptic videos and threats, carrying out attacks through his henchmen, challenging even the American President (William Sadler). These attacks include explosions with no trace of bomb debris, carried out by gunmen who are living weapons powered by Extremis, capable of regenerating from wounds, of transferring lethal heat to bystanders and turning them in effect into a walking bomb. One of the attacks wounds Hogan, and sets Tony on a collision course with the Mandarin, a course that threatens the people he loves and forces him to deal with the issues that he's been trying to avoid.
The director's chair has been taken over by Shane Black, a screenwriter from the Lethal Weapon series who has moved into directing, most recently working with Downey in the caper comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He mostly handles the film well, taking the reins from Favreau, who's one of the producers this time out. There's a bit off in a climactic scene with numerous Iron Man armors set at a dockworks; I found the camerawork a bit too close into the action at times, and thought it could have benefitted somewhat from having a more distant perspective. Essentially this is an editing issue that I would have preferred being done in a different fashion. These moments in that sequence were more than compensated for, however.
The action set pieces for the most part work very well, particularly one set at Tony's cliffside mansion and another involving a mid-air rescue. Black has assembled a good crew throughout, particularly in the designs of the armors. The Iron Patriot armor, a red white and blue design based on a comic book plotline (long story, don't ask, and it was written by a complete hack of a writer who I call He Who Loves The Sound Of His Own Voice... hi, Darth Bendis!) at least has the right guy in the armor this time out, and I do like the design. The CGI works well, particularly the Extremis-fuelled henchmen and the effects of the procedure on the body. Black and his crew keep the story moving along, taking Tony out of the armor for good portions of the film, putting him in a situation where he has to keep a low profile. The story is true to character, though the casual viewer might find the motivation of the villain needs a bit of fleshing out. I caught it, but it might pass by someone else.
I did appreciate the little details of the screenplay and the nods towards the comics. Killian's company as Advanced Idea Mechanics, or AIM, is one such example. AIM is an organization with a nefarious and long history in the comics and a tendency to have annoyed most every super-hero out there, and it's good to see the concept used here. And an executive being held hostage by the Mandarin at one point is identified as working for the Roxxon Corporation. Roxxon is a company with a shady reputation in the comics, one that makes Bernie Madoff look respectable. Even the Extremis procedure- adapted from a comics plotline- reminded me of other Iron Man villains, the Melter or Firebrand.
The film is cast very well indeed. Favreau has been something of the comic relief in his cameos in these films, and that's true here, though he's also a guy who takes his job seriously... and can be overzealous about it. Paul Bettany returns as the voice of the computer system JARVIS, and as ever has that dry British wit in his voiceovers. William Sadler as the President is an interesting turn for the actor. I'm more used to him playing the heavy or the villain (his ruthless Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2 comes to mind) that it's unusual seeing him as a principled political leader. Rebecca Hall is one of those wonderfully expressive actors with great range. I first noticed her in The Prestige, and enjoy her work. As Maya, she's linked to Killian, and her work leads to the Extremis process. Hall plays her in a way that's quite enigmatic, but it makes the character work so well.
Guy Pearce has a history of playing flawed characters or villains, and he's so very compelling at it. He first got noticed for playing the ambitious cop in L.A. Confidential, and he's played many roles since, including my favourite role for him, the vindictive Fernand Mondeo in The Count Of Monte Cristo. He starts out here as something of a geek in the past, a charming and suave man in the present, and gradually we start to see the dark and malicious layers beneath. He makes for a formidable presence in the film.
Sir Ben Kingsley steps in as the Mandarin, and the character is a significant departure from the comics. There he was a Chinese man empowered by alien rings. Here he is something of an Osama bin Laden-like man, a dark threat from the shadows. His ethnicity is uncertain; he speaks in an American accent, though he wears ten rings and the robes of the Far East. His ominous threats via video mark him as a serious threat, and yet there is more to him. Of which I will say no more. I will say that Kingsley, one of those actors who's usually the most interesting part of a film, plays the various facets of this man very well indeed. Of his previous work, I've always had a fondness for his turn as Feste the Fool in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, a version from the nineties (if you haven't seen it, look it up). There's a moment or two here where Feste doesn't seem that far off...
The returning cast, of course, is exceptional. Don Cheadle is back for the second time as Rhodes, after being cast in the role in the second film to replace the underwhelming Terrence Howard from the first one. Cheadle carries himself like a soldier and an officer, a good touch for the character. He has something of a sense of humor, the occasional impatience with his friend Tony, and he gets plenty to do this time out, as himself and in the Iron Patriot armor. Even though he's not fond of the moniker.
Gwyneth Paltrow has been playing this role in four films now. Her take on Pepper suits the character's history: spirited and feisty, but smart and capable. She worries about Tony, conveying the long history the two have, and she's believable as someone running a company. And the way she and Downey work together comes across as very natural.
The film belongs to Robert Downey Jr. He has given the character such a signature interpretation that it's hard to visualize anyone else playing Tony Stark. He brings across the character's sleepless obsessive streak, and rightly conveys the symptoms of an anxiety attack, something that's understandable given what the character has been through. When he realizes a way to deal with the anxiety (with help, mind you), it's simple and direct... and at the right time. He spends much of this picture out of the armor, and it's a good thing. It reminds us that Tony's greatest weapon isn't that armor, it's his mind and his ingenuity. Downey conveys all of these qualities, gives Tony his motormouth sarcasm... and even empathy, which shows itself from time to time.
I had a lot of fun watching the film. There's a lot of action, but the characterization was true to itself, the pacing of the film kept things moving along nicely, and even the small details were very welcome. In closing, keep your eyes open for a couple of cameos. Stan Lee does one of his signature appearances here, but it's a blink and you will miss it sort of thing. And in the sequence set in the past, a character killed off in the first film turns up briefly. That was a surprise to me.
And don't leave until the credits are finished. The post-credit scene features another cameo, and is probably the best of these post-credit scenes in these films. You'll get a kick out of it.