Robert Downey, Jr. and intelligent screenplay endow Iron Man 3 with heart

Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 3.

Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 3.

Regular readers of this column must be growing weary of my rants against Hollywood’s increasing reliance on movies based on comic books to deliver the blockbuster bucks. I thought that The Avengers was the most overrated movie of 2012, and didn’t even bother to write a review of it, feeling that it would have been intellectually dishonest to call it disappointing when I hadn’t expected ever to like it in the first place.

But for all the excess megatonnage of special effects and loud noises involved in miscegenating Ragnarök with The War of the Worlds in the streets of Manhattan, The Avengers did have its moments of charm; and the vast majority of those occurred when Robert Downey, Jr. was onscreen. If I’m going to plunk down my hard-earned cash to see a cinematic product of the Marvel universe, I’d rather it be for a concentrated dose of Iron Man. This particular alleyway of the franchise works as well as it does primarily because this particular actor is so perfectly suited for the role that it’s nearly impossible to imagine sequels with anyone else shouldering the burden of the shiny metal suit.

That the suit has become a burden, and a further obstacle to human connection for a man who’s horribly inept at that sort of thing to begin with, is the basic theme that runs through Iron Man 3. It’s the cross that he bears; there’s even a sort of Via Dolorosa scene where he’s dragging an especially buggy and unresponsive model behind him iconically through the wilderness. We adore Tony Stark for his snarky asides and his defiant attitude, but we can sympathize completely with his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when she wants to go sleep on the couch because he can’t stop obsessing over upgrading his wearable hardware. The plot of Iron Man 3 is the logical progression from the testy exchange in The Avengers where Captain America tells Stark that he’d be nobody without his Iron Man suit.


So in pursuit of enough character development to hang a tale, director/screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) forces Tony Stark to spend most of the third installment in the saga literally without – in the archaic sense of the word, meaning “outside of” – his suit. Although he has grappled with post-traumatic panic attacks and insomnia by compulsively building at least 42 of the things, a spectacular raid on his home/workshop by the latest team of villains takes most of the suits out of commission. Stark’s best pal Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) holds the franchise to the War Machine armor (painted red-white-and-blue and redubbed Iron Patriot); suit Mach 42 hasn’t had all the bugs worked out of it and can’t seem to hold a charge; and bad guys keep trying to put the suits on and do bad things with them. So as the movie’s PR tongue-in-cheekily puts it, Tony’s left to “his own devices” – meaning not the gadgetry so much as his own ability to think strategically and, Odin help us, to form alliances with other, more ordinary humans.

And therein lies the strength of this well-written movie: It has its share of battles, exploding stuff and showy CGI effects, but you could take all those scenes out and a compelling narrative would still remain. The best bits are the ones where Tony is finding his deeply buried fatherly instincts while trying to cut an advantageous deal with a 10-year-old boy (Ty Simpkins), or facing up to his failings as a mate when his actions put Pepper in jeopardy. Downey still gets plenty of funny lines and stumbles into plenty of funny situations – notably an encounter with an overeager Iron Man fanboy in a broadcast truck – but, like the most recent cinematic incarnation of James Bond, his character has to do some stretching in the humanity department and stop being so damned Aspergery all the time. It’s gratifying to see that the actor is up to the challenge.

As for the villains du jour, Marvel true believers may be disappointed in how the filmmakers treat two long-running plotlines of the comic series. The movie absorbs one of Iron Man’s traditional arch-villains, the Mandarin – here portrayed as a sort of Osama bin Laden character who likes to plant bombs and can take over all the world’s TV screens at will – into the doings of a biotech conspiracy known as Extremis. Botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a former one-night-stand of the earlier, jerkier Tony Stark, has invented a MacGuffin that enables humans to regenerate damaged body parts, and the dangerous secret has fallen into the hands of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a formerly nerdy inventor once dissed by the same jerky Tony.

Trying to thwart the Mandarin’s next bombing puts Tony’s former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man 1 and 2) into a coma and Tony and Pepper into Killian’s crosshairs. Ben Kingsley’s performance as the Mandarin deserves extravagant praise here; but unfortunately, the appropriate adjectives to describe it would be way too spoilery to include in a review, so you’ll just have to watch him yourself.

Oh yeah, there’s a plot to kidnap the president (William Sadler) of the US as well, which creates an opportunity for a very nice action set piece that, refreshingly, relies as much on expert formation skydiving as on CGI effects. PTSD and the exploitation of wounded war veterans are subthemes, along with terrorism; and yet this isn’t really a tale of political intrigue so much as a meditation on garden-variety greed and vengefulness. Tony’s true nemesis here is not the anti-American Third World despot dominating the airwaves, but rather the start-up corporation that sees Stark Enterprises as a business rival that must be toppled.

If you’re really looking to take home a topical message from Iron Man 3, I suppose it might be that the payoffs from being a really canny capitalist like Tony Stark turn sour in the mouth in the long run, and that one must look elsewhere for meaningful rewards. Maybe we’ll see some Iron Babies in the next installment, presuming there is one. Nah, probably not. But with any luck, we’ll see Robert Downey, Jr. again.

P.S.: Do sit through the entire closing credits. There’s an Easter egg at the end, including an uncredited cameo appearance that’s worth the wait.