Iron Man 3

The Superhero Movie is dead. Long live the superhero movie.

There are films that have defined the evolution of comic book movies. If I had to give a course list, I’d probably assign the following 10: Superman: The Movie, Batman and Robin, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers.

My first question would be, what do you see when you look at that list?

What I see is assimilation.

Superman made audiences believe a man could fly. X-Men gave us the tour of the Xavier Institute. Even Iron Man merely perfected the formula. But the Dark Knight changed things.

The Dark Knight opened with a bank job; it was a crime movie. The story of two criminals and a lawyer. Then Captain America and X-Men: First Class showed us the superhero period piece. And then the Avengers gave us a superhero film less like a comic event and more like a modern summer blockbuster.

The history of comic book films has been a slow crawl towards acceptance. Spiderman told the Spiderman story, but The Amazing Spiderman told a Spiderman story.

It’s been a fight to make comic book movies feel less like a genre and more like just movies. Now, Iron Man 3 is a movie that finally feels like a comic book.

We find our favorite inventor billionaire tinkering with all sorts of new Iron Man models, trying to fill his insomniac nights as his mind begins to process the ramifications of fighting aliens led by a Jotun. Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan have taken over Stark Enterprises, Rhodey taken on a truly awful name, and America finds itself attacked, within and without, by a mysterious terrorist mastermind called The Mandarin.

The set up is strong, the characters vivid, and the pacing superb. I mean, how many superhero movies have you watched where the action starts a fourth of the way in and you’re sitting in your seat whining ‘wait, I want to know more about the day to day of the company.’ I would think not many, but that’s Iron Man 3.

One thing I will say about the film is that it feels rougher than its brothers. I, personally, thought that Iron Man 2 was a joke of a movie that wasted everything that its predecessor had pioneered, but Iron Man 2 still had the taste of Hollywood writing about it. This time the jokes fall flat here and there, superfluous or underutilized plot points survive the editing process, and expectations of the genre are not so much subverted as they are irrelevant. There are just too many little details to make a fully streamlined film and more than once a plot point is foreshadowed, only to still feel like it’s coming out of nowhere later. To be honest, the movie feels a little raw, but after watching so many years of superhero films overcooked in the Hollywood jargon ovens until they’re tasteless blocks of charcoal, it’s not that bad.

That said, Robert Downy Jr.’s performance does suffer a bit in certain scenes, but he continues to imbue Tony Stark with humor, charm, and heart. Robert Downy understands this man and insists on finding the human reality of the near perfect “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist”.

Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall give strong performances, if lacking consistent depth, as two scientists working for a familiar think-tank who have developed a new nanotechnology system called Extremis.

The rest of the Iron Man ensemble is still in fine form, giving more or less the quality you’d expect from them, but I imagine that the actor that inspires the greatest curiosity is Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. I’ve never read a Mandarin comic, but I think I’m pretty accurate when I say that Kingsley’s interpretation differs significantly from the comic book version.  That’s not a bad thing, just an interesting one. While Kingsley stays shrouded in mystery throughout most of the film, I assure you that his scenes are highly memorable.

Director and Co-Writer Shane Black ought to be very happy with himself, cleverly weaving elements of the Extremis arc, spy-thrillers, and probing character study into a story worthy of the Iron Man brand and ably bringing it to life, but perhaps Black’s greatest achievement is a quiet one.

The task of following The Avengers’ act, is not an easy one and after the two threats to his family legacy that Tony has faced in his own films, it would have been difficult to raise or personalize the stakes for this film. Problems like this are the things that sink franchises, but Iron Man 3 takes the bold move of not playing that game. Instead of trying to make a bigger or better story, Black gives us a smaller one that defines itself not in opposition to what came before but in sequence. There are many big comic book stories, but some of the best are a single issue well executed. In a world where Marvel knows they’ll be making movies until they absolutely can’t, it appears they’re willing to take that risk. I think it paid off.

Iron Man 3 has some flaws, but, like its protagonist, manages to play these off as lovable quirks. Strong writing, great action, and a razor wit, make this a true comic book movie. Whether you know which issues feature the nose armor or have never been in a comic shop, Iron Man 3 will let you know what’s great about comics. It may not be as good as the original, nor The Dark Knight which quickly dethroned it, but Iron Man 3 feels fresh and likely still will, even after you’ve seen it enough times to make any other superhero film a monotonous dreary experience. Iron Man 3 doesn’t transcend the genre, but it does take a comfortable position near the top of the heap.