"The Avengers" ends with a cataclysmic battle between superheroes and alien invaders over, around and through the city of New York. Oh, and a nuclear missile thrown through an interstellar wormhole by a billionaire playboy wearing a flying robotic suit of armor.
"Iron Man 3" shows a hero still reeling from the effects of that experience, and pits against him (and the world) a very real, relatable threat. Americans were recently reacquainted with the spectre of terrorism on our home turf, so The Mandarin — with his slick propaganda videos, Bin Laden-esque visage and determination to kill innocent people — doesn't feel like a ludicrous supervillain. We know that real people are capable of such horrors.
Tony Stark's crusade against The Mandarin begins, sans suit, in a small town in Tennessee, where he sees the aftermath of one of the presumed attacks. Here we see Tony Stark stripped of his power, his allies and his enormous mansion, and for the first time in a long time the Marvel Universe feels like it exists in ours. Tony has to rediscover the ingenuity he once had in that cave in Afghanistan, resulting in two wonderful action scenes that dazzle us even though that iron mask is nowhere to be found.
Bringing this superhero back down to Earth could have worked against the film's third act, when the action rockets way over the top, but the story and characters build in such a way that the film's pyrotechnics feel like the natural outcome. This is no small feat for director Shane Black, who is as essential to this film as Joss Whedon was to "The Avengers."
2. The screenplay by Shane Black and Drew Pearce is truly funny.
"Thor" mostly didn't work for me because the jokes fell flat. (And Kat Dennings was interminable, and the product placement was really distracting, and Tom Hiddleston hadn't quite found his groove ... but enough about that.) "Iron Man 3" of course benefits from Robert Downey Jr.'s effortless charm and natural good humor, but the script seemingly goes out of its way to give us moments of levity amid a film full of pretty grim stuff.
Improbably, it works. The biggest mistake "Thor" made was to rely on pop culture references in telling fish-out-of-water jokes. "Iron Man 3" has its share of pop culture jokes, yes, but the bulk of the humor grows organically from the characters or informs us about them in some way.
And hey, Robert Downey Jr. doesn't even get the funniest line in the movie.
3. S.H.I.E.L.D. is out of the picture.
My main problem with the Marvel Universe films prior to "The Avengers" was how concerned they were with selling "The Avengers." "Iron Man 2" was particularly guilty of this, handing large sections of the film over to Agent Coulson, Black Widow and Nick Fury instead of trying to make us care about Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer. (I mean, did you ever care about those characters? I sure didn't.)
"Iron Man 3" puts the focus right where I wanted it, on Tony and those close to him. Those high stakes I mentioned before are also very personal — the way the film plays out, we feel like anything could happen to anyone. Everyone knew the superfriends would triumph in "The Avengers," but there are moments in "Iron Man 3" that test our confidence, and that's a very good thing.
I really can't think of a good reason why Tony didn't enlist S.H.I.E.L.D.'s help to fight The Mandarin, but I also can't think of a good reason why I should care, given how good the movie is without them.
4. I found myself humming the theme on the way out of the theater.
For years, I have bitched and moaned about the lack of rousing, recognizable musical themes in superhero movies. I was baffled by Danny Elfman's score for "Spider-Man" — the guy who gave us the iconic Tim Burton "Batman" theme couldn't give us anything to grasp? — and Hans Zimmer's "Dark Knight" scores, while effective, certainly aren't hummable. Alan Silvestri had a near-miss with "Captain America: The First Avenger," and his perfectly wonderful theme for "The Avengers" was woefully underused.
Then there's the music for the first two "Iron Man" flicks. John Debney gave us a score as bland as "Iron Man 2's" villains, but even that was light years better than Ramin Djawadi's downright offensive efforts in the first film. Crunching, tuneless rock guitars interspersed with AC/DC songs do not an effective score make.
But Brian Tyler, of all people, comes to the rescue in "Iron Man 3," giving Tony Stark the melodic and anthemic music he deserves. (And AC/DC? Nowhere to be heard. Unless I'm forgetting something.) Tyler's previous work had not impressed me, but he gets a tip of the cap for this one.
5. The movie isn't afraid to take risks. (This section contains A VERY BIG SPOILER.)
The fine web-based film critic @scottEweinberg tweeted this earlier today: "Congrats to @marvel, not for the opening weekend, but for making a good film despite knowing it would be a smash hit anyway."
Marvel and Jon Favreau made a risky bet in casting Robert Downey Jr. for "Iron Man," and it paid off handsomely. That spirit continues in "Iron Man 3," which enlisted the services of Shane Black, a writer/director not known for crowd-pleasing kiddie movies. The result is an unlikely success that is very much a Shane Black movie, but also very much an Iron Man movie.
But perhaps the biggest risk taken in "Iron Man 3" is the subversion of The Mandarin, Tony's biggest villain in the comic book world. The film's big twist reveals that The Mandarin is just an actor, and that the Extremis-producing scientist Aldrich Killian is pulling the strings.
Turning The Mandarin into a boogeyman played by a desperate addict is a crazy idea that works for a number of reasons: The ads never hinted at it, the casting of Ben Kingsley doesn't suggest it (and pays off in big laughs), and Aldrich Killian turns out to be a very formidable foe indeed. I'm sure hardcore fans of the Iron Man comics are upset with this twist; as someone who is strictly a fan of the films, I have no problem with it.
"Iron Man 3" is not a perfect film. I thought it was a bit dodgy until The Mandarin's assault on Tony's home, and that some of Black's more unsavory tics were on display. Rhodey gets marginalized again, and I found myself wishing that it had been a Downey/Cheadle buddy pic or that Cheadle had been cut altogether. And clearly, those infected with Extremis should have burned through all their clothes. (Right???)
But I don't demand perfection from my superhero movies. I do demand that, in this age of superhero saturation, they try to surprise and delight us. "Iron Man 3" certainly did that.