“Threequels” are a notoriously tricky business. There aren’t many film series where the third installment really comes back so strong that it regains that excitement you felt back when you first saw the original. Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3 comes as close as you can expect. Is it as mind-blowing, as revelatory as the first? No, but I don’t know how it could. But IRON MAN 3 is immensely satisfying, an exceedingly worthy follow-up to Jon Favreau’s original (and much better than IRON MAN 2, which I liked better than most people, but have to admit suffered in comparison) and a fitting closing to Marvel Studios’ IRON MAN series, if indeed this is to be the final solo IM film.
Taking place some time after the events of THE AVENGERS, we see Tony Stark struggling with the repercussions of the alien invasion of New York, and channeling his anxiety and near-madness into his work, creating new armored suit after armored suit. Meanwhile, Jim Rhodes’ War Machine has been re-branded into the more image-friendly star-spangled “Iron Patriot,” and has been tasked with tracking down a mysterious terrorist calling himself “The Mandarin,” responsible for a number of terror attacks on American soil. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts, now running Stark Industries, is re-introduced to Aldrich Killian, an old acquaintance who’s now shopping around a “miracle cure” called Extremis. In other words, there’s a lot going on in this movie.
It’s no surprise that the heart of this film is Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark. For the majority of the film, it’s mostly an action film starring Tony Stark, not Iron Man, and Downey’s Stark is so engaging that you don’t really miss the armored suit. Much credit has to go to Black’s screenplay, as Stark is funnier than ever here, even while we see him at his lowest point, often paralyzed by crippling anxiety attacks and longing for the safety of his armored shell.
But everyone else is good here, from returning folks like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau to new antagonists Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley. Kingsley’s Mandarin in particular is excellent, with some surprising choices that make perfect sense in the world of the Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe.
Don Cheadle is much better as Rhodey this time around, especially in the scenes when he’s out of the armor and shown for the competent military man that he is, and the sequence with Stark and Rhodey on the run and packing pistols has the feel of a kickass ’80s buddy picture.
Black was wise to make this feel like a successor to THE AVENGERS too, if not a direct sequel. By referencing the world-changing events of that film so directly, it actually brings a greater depth to both this film and even AVENGERS retroactively. It’s also refreshing that this film, unlike the last two, doesn’t concern itself primarily with guys in armored suits pounding on each other. A new kind of antagonist was definitely needed for Iron Man here, and it’s executed very well.
As the kickoff to the second batch of Marvel Studios films leading up to AVENGERS 2, as a worthy successor to the original and in its own right, IRON MAN 3 succeeds on all counts. Marvel continues to set the bar for how to do these films right: make a decent long-term plan, trust in your source material, hire very good people and get out of the way. Warner Brothers should be taking notes.
Make sure to stick around not only for the closing credits, which have the zip and panache of your favorite 1970s TV action shows, but for the traditional Marvel Studios post-credit button, which, while it isn’t as specifically universe-building as the previous ones, is worth the wait nonetheless.