Note: This review contains spoilers for Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness.
Marvel is making cinematic history. In the wake of 2008’s Iron Man the studio called their shot and planned a series of films that would culminate in the first cinematic superhero team-up The Avengers, and while they stumbled a bit here and there the end result was even more glorious than even the most naive Comic Book Guy could have imagined: The Avengers sits as the third highest grossing film of all time, drawing critical and commercial success that is simply unprecedented. Marvel never took their eye off the ball during Phase One, and now, with Iron Man 3, Phase Two begins.
It would be easy for the studio to rest on their laurels and phone in a movie that maintains the status quo for their most popular hero, Tony Stark. Just insert another megalomaniacal businessman into the Action Movie Formula and watch the money roll in. Instead, Marvel has improved here, crafting the best Iron Man outing to date, although admittedly that isn’t a difficult task. Director Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man had all the style and depth of a car commercial, and while it was a great car commercial with an impeccable structure, the director proved he couldn’t do much else when Iron Man 2 failed spectacularly to get inside the man who drives that beautiful car. Iron Man 3 is helmed by Shane Black, the writer of Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the 2005 thriller that helped bring Robert Downey Jr back from the brink of career oblivion. Black excels at getting under the hood and figuring out what makes characters tick, and Tony Stark is no exception.
During the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers taunts Stark’s status as a man in a can, asking him what he’d be without his armor and money. Iron Man 3 answers that taunt, and the answer is simple: Tony Stark is the man that built the Mark One Iron Man in a cave out of a bunch of scrap. He’s a Genius with a capital G. The events of Iron Man 3 strip Tony of his home, his suits, and all his wealth, breaking him down and abandoning him in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a goal. Of course, that goal is all Tony needs.
The goal is to find and destroy The Mandarin, a mysterious terrorist that claims responsibility for nine devastating attacks on American soil. When one of these attacks dispatches Stark’s friend/driver/head of security Happy Hogan, Stark issues a personal threat of retaliation to the Mandarin: kill or be killed. Stark will hunt him down and annihilate him unless the Mandarin can get to him first. In an arrogant move, Tony even supplies the Mandarin with his home address to give the terrorist a head start.
Of course, it isn’t just his home this time around. Pepper Potts has moved in with Stark, and when the Mandarin’s helicopters come knocking with missiles galore Tony spends the action scene not trying to survive but rather saving Pepper, in one of the films most touching moments. The man who loved nothing more than himself has finally come around to putting someone else before him, and while he saves Pepper the price is his home, workshop, and resources that come with it. Disastrous circumstances land Tony in Tennessee with nothing but that aforementioned goal, and the resulting two thirds of Iron Man 3 are glorious.
Part of that glory is Ben Kingsley’s delicious performance. Marvel made a big deal of snagging an actor of Kingsley’s caliber as the Mandarin, the Joker to Iron Man’s Batman, and geeks all over have been pumped to see an Academy Award Winner tackle the role. Lo and behold, Marvel had us all fooled, and the reveal of Kingsley’s true character is absolutely stunning. While Paramount has moved heaven and earth trying to hide the fact that Khan is the villain of next week’s Star Trek, Marvel hid their surprise in plain sight, and the surprise is a true delight. Die hard fanboys may be disappointed, but this tactic only proves that Marvel is willing to bend and reshape their icons to fit their movies however they see fit as long as it services the story and the characters.
Late in the film the Mandarin intones “Since the big guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s had its day.” And he’s right. Now is the time for big colorful characters and cosmic threats. Now is the time for The Winter Soldier and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel plans for Thanos to be the big bad in Avengers 2, and rumors of a Planet Hulk and World War Hulk adaptation continue to persist. It’s an exciting time to be a Marvel fan, and it’s an exciting time to be a film fan. This is an amazing universe Marvel has created for lovers of smart pop cinema to count on for a dozen summers to come. As long as Marvel continues to keep their eye on the ball and hit solid triples and home runs, we’re in for a Golden Age of pop entertainment.