The first Iron Man was really the canary in the coal mine for all of this, the film to see if a common cinematic universe shared by several key characters could actually work and build up to the first ever superhero team-up movie. Keep in mind one of those characters is a Norse god and another begins his hero’s journey in the early 1940s. Long story short, it worked. Iron Man 2 came two years later, but it was a bumpy ride. Iron Man 2 was saddled with a less than compelling story and a genuinely subpar villain in Whiplash. Sam Rockwell was great fun, but every time the movie started gaining momentum, things came to a screeching halt as a metric ton of S.H.I.E.L.D. exposition got info-dumped into the proceedings. Iron Man 2 isn’t terrible, but it was a badly conceived.
Now, we have Robert Downey, Jr.’s third spin as Tony Stark, the seventh overall production from Marvel Studios. It kicks off Phase II in extremely high style, and it’s easily the best Iron Man movie they’ve made. In many ways, it’s every bit as satisfying as The Avengers was.
Jon Favreau deserves all the credit in the world for what he brought to the Marvel film universe. If the first Iron Man tanks, there is no Phase I. There is no Avengers. As he turns over directing duties to Shane Black, Favreau should get major props for creating a look and a tone for this world and for championing the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a choice that seems so obvious now but was so out of left field at the time. Seriously, can you imagine anybody besides him playing Tony Stark at this point? Having said that, this new movie just feels more sure of itself. Some of that confidence must come from Black’s collaboration on the script. He is, after all, the writer of the first Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Face it, the dude knows his way around an action picture. Black and Downey have also previously worked together on Black’s only other film as director, the film noir/Hollywood satire Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Tony Stark can’t sleep. He’s troubled by visions (and possible PTSD) from the events of The Avengers. He spends his sleepless nights in his shop, working on a boatload of prototype Iron Man suits, including one he can summon piece by piece to his body. Stark’s world is going to be rocked by a terrorist known as The Mandarin (the great Ben Kingsley). If the first two Iron Man films suffered from a lack of a proper villain (There was something very silly in the first film about Jeff Bridges running around in a super suit yelling, “I built this company, Tony!), the new movie makes up for that in spades. The Mandarin is a great villain, full of violence and theatrical flair. Also along for the ride is Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, a rival tech geek who has developed a new nano technology called Extremis. The Extremis tech allows the brain to re-grow limbs on amputees, but it has glitches that overheat and cause its human hosts to explode. How Killian and the Mandarin work together is one of the great pleasures of the movie, and it involves a scene with Kingsley that is simply astounding in its awesomeness.
After The Mandarin destroys Stark’s Malibu home, Stark goes into hiding to regroup. He’s befriended in Tennessee by a kid named Harley. While Stark does learn an important life lesson from the kid, it’s handled in the least sentimental way possible. Great stuff. Young actor Ty Simpkins more than holds his own against Robert Downey, Jr.
The film is very funny, with Black providing a lot of his trademark zingers, but it’s never as glib as Kiss Kiss was. Things happen that definitely had dramatic weight. Things matter and choices have consequences. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Chedle are back, and, luckily, they get to be a lot more integrated in the action. I wish the TV commercials hadn’t revealed Pepper suiting up; that would have been a nice surprise. And, as always, Paul Bettany brings true elegance and expert comic timing as the voice of Jarvis. Jarvis is as important a character in this series as anybody.
For my money, Iron Man 2 had a really lame action finale, as it devolved into a bunch of CG robots fighting each other. It was like watching somebody else play a video game. The multi-tiered finale here is similar, but a lot of the film’s action features Stark and Rhodey out of their suits and thinking on their feet, which is a nice change of pace. A sequence with a suitless Stark storming The Mandarin’s Miami compound with homemade weapons is a highlight. Do I need to remind you to stay past the end credits? Of course I don’t.
Much credit must go to Marvel movie chief Kevin Feige, who just makes one great choice after the next. Who would’ve imagined Kenneth Brannagh as a director for Thor? Feige did. Shane Black is another outside-the-box choice, but once you see the movie, it makes perfect sense. He’s set the bar very, very high for the rest of the pictures to come in this phase.