It’s strange that a second-tier superhero like Iron Man—the billionaire playboy, industrialist, super-genius engineer, and all-around über-mensch based on Howard Hughes and conceived at the height of the Cold War—has emerged as Marvel’s cash cow, helping the Iron Man film franchise gross a massive $1.2 billion over two films (along with an additional $1.5 billion worldwide haul for The Avengers, an Iron Man–centric enterprise). Is it because, like his blockbuster compadre Bruce Wayne/Batman, he’s the preeminent technocrat in an increasingly tech-reliant world? Grand patron of individualism? Or an overblown manifestation of the American Dream?
Sure, it’s some of those things. But the main reason why Tony Stark—and his metallic alter ego, Iron Man—has become the most popular superhero property in the game can be chalked up to one thing: the quippy brilliance of Robert Downey Jr.
And Downey is at his sarcastic, vulnerable, and megalomaniacal best in Iron Man 3. Some of the credit should also be given to Shane Black, who has taken over the directorial reins from Jon Favreau. Black, best known for scripting the fast-talkin’ Lethal Weapon, helped fashion Downey’s current smartass on-screen persona with his 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which defibrillated the actor’s once-dead career (remember the 15-episode arc on Ally McBeal?). Here, Downey’s Tony Stark is like a verbal Muhammad Ali—juking, jabbing, and ultimately exhausting his opponents with his relentless barrage of witty rejoinders. While we may have reached peak Downey here, his gift for gab—even under the most dire of circumstances—never seems like overkill.
“Dads leave. No need to be such a pussy about it,” he says to a lonely boy. In another scene, he calls a bespectacled young kid A Christmas Story. That Downey is openly mocking young children and we’re still totally on board is a testament to his likability.
The third Iron Man opens with a prologue that takes us back to New Year’s Eve, 1999, where Tony Stark beds brainy young botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who is working on a formula to regenerate dead plants. He's also busy rejecting the professional advances of acne-faced young scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, somewhat disguised).
Flash-forward to the present, where Tony is spending his days tinkering away at his Malibu mansion on remote-controlled Iron Man prototypes while his former secretary—and current paramour—Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) runs Stark Industries. While his physical health is fine, Tony still hasn’t recovered mentally from the battle royal in New York depicted in The Avengers. He can’t sleep due to night terrors and experiences frequent anxiety attacks. To make matters worse, a dashing Aldrich Killian (still Pearce) has resurfaced with a mind-altering new project, Extremis, and is putting the moves on Pepper. Oh, and a bearded terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been wreaking havoc on the world with a series of bombings. With his beard, anti-American streak, and penchant for hijacking TV broadcasts with proclamation videos, the Mandarin is an obvious reference to Osama bin Laden. His southern drawl, however, confuses Tony.
A “bombing” at Los Angeles’s Chinese Theatre in which a former Army man overheats and explodes leaves Tony’s sworn protector, Happy (Favreau), on life support—lighting a fire under Tony’s ass. In a spectacular display of hubris, Tony openly challenges the Mandarin in front of a gaggle of TV cameras—to whom he offers his home address. This of course backfires, and moments later—in one of the films most spectacular set pieces—his entire Malibu mansion is destroyed by a series of missile-shooting helicopters. Tony narrowly escapes and, with his Iron Man suit fried, ends up in Tennessee investigating a previous bombing that may be connected to the Chinese Theatre incident and unlock the key to the Mandarin’s identity and methods.
Iron Man 2 was a disappointing affair that spent far too much time on Tony’s love of pricey pageantry, but here, Black has made a good choice to send Tony on an investigation, sans Iron Man and Gucci suits. It’s not just a fact-finding mission but a soul-searching one as well, and gives audiences a good look at the vulnerability of Tony Stark, which is a big part of what makes him such an intriguing, dynamic figure.
And in addition to a typically strong turn by Don Cheadle as Tony’s trusty sidekick, Colonel Rhodes, Paltrow’s Pepper really shines in this film. The newly crowned most beautiful woman kicks a considerable amount of Extremis ass and shows off her six-pack abs every chance she gets. In one scene, her body is contorted, dangling from a crane, and her hard abs are literally shoved in your face (in unnecessary 3-D). They’re pretty damn impressive, and it’s pretty damn refreshing to see a strong female character in a testosterone-heavy superhero flick.
Much like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with its wittier-than-thou narration, the plot is a bit—OK, way—too self-aware at times, including a deeply unsatisfying, too-clever-for-its-own-good midmovie twist. And the baddies, who light up, regenerate body parts, and occasionally overheat and explode, are pretty silly. But this is Downey’s show, so it’s best to just sit back, adjust your 3-D glasses, and enjoy the bombastic ride.