“Iron Man 3” Very Good, But Not Super

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LOGOAfter a triumphant debut overseas (more than $300 million so far) “Iron Man 3” rocketed into theaters nationwide last Friday and appears poised to smash box office records on this side of the pond as well. Although I still like the original “Iron Man” better than any of its followers, the third installment surpasses the second one, and it should not disappoint fans of the series.

In “Iron Man 3” we find Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) still shaken after falling through a wormhole and snatched from the jaws of death by the Hulk at the end of “The Avengers.” Stark was so unnerved by this experience he’s plagued by insomnia and nightmares, and he also has dedicated himself to constructing a number of different Iron Man suits, and in one of the film’s best comic scenes we watch him experiment with a special model that will fly onto his body piece by piece.

The story really gets rolling when Stark learns that a dastardly villain named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who bears considerably more than a passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden, is responsible for a series of devastating bombings. When Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), the chief of security for Stark, is caught in one of the explosions, Stark issues a challenge to The Mandarin, who has proclaimed, “Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. Lesson number one, heroes, there is no such thing.”

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Unfortunately The Mandarin accepts the invitation to come after him by attacking and destroying Stark’s spacious cliff-side home. Although Stark and his girlfriend, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), escape death, they are separated by the attack, and Stark ends up (never mind how) in Tennessee, where he meets a 10-year-old genius named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who helps him repair his damaged suit and teams up with him in trying to locate The Mandarin.

Now at this point the plot becomes quite complex because in his pursuit of the villain, Stark encounters another problem known as Extremis. This experimental program is the brainchild of Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), another of Stark’s lady friends, and it offers those suffering from various physical disabilities a complete cure. However, the treatment carries with it potentially lethal side effects.

Thus in addition to finding and confronting The Mandarin, our hero must also cope with the Extremis factor and another villain named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) before he can hang up his suit and rest easily until his next adventure. Is Iron Man up to the task? The only way to find out is to watch this exciting, albeit at times a bit convoluted, movie, and I’m not so sure that in trying to do too much with the film its makers may have prevented it from being better than it is.

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Now don’t misunderstand me. “Iron Man 3” has plenty of action and humor to offer viewers. Downey Jr. is simply superb in portraying the most human side we have seen of Stark so far. In fact, he wears the suit less in this film than he did its two predecessors, and in the film’s production notes producer Louis D’Esposito explained why this was intentional.

“Early on in the development, we talked about this notion of taking Tony Stark back to basics because we wanted to see him just use his brain. You want to see what he can do when the odds are against him and it makes you wonder, ‘How is he going to get out of this one?’”

I really liked this approach because it gave Downey Jr. more of an opportunity to exhibit his incredible acting talent instead of just rocketing around in that metal suit. On the other hand, I question the filmmakers’ wisdom in attempting to pack so much into one two-hour film. In the production notes, producers Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard offered some interesting insight into their reasons for making the film the way they did.

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“The exciting thing about ‘Iron Man 3’ is that it’s not only the culmination of the first two films, but it’s also a follow-up to ‘Marvel’s The Avengers,'” Feige said. “It’s one of the first situations where you have a movie that is the sequel to two different films and in a way that liberates it to be more unique than anything that has come before it, which is what we’re most excited about. Tony Stark is a man who is all about the journey and character arc. When we first met him in ‘Iron Man,’ he was a pompous fellow, building weapons, and almost immediately he suffers a life-changing accident when he is blown up by one of his own missiles in Afghanistan. It galvanizes him into building the Iron Man suit and to get out of the weapons game. ‘Iron Man 2’ tests that resolve as he has some health problems and then in ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’ he faces a world-changing event that not only includes seeing the powers of other superheroes, but also having a portal to another world opened above his head.”

“There are two classic stories that have appeared in the ‘Iron Man’ comics — one is older and the other is more modern,” Broussard said. “The older is the character called The Mandarin, and he is one of the most famous villains in the franchise. The character dates back to the 1960s, and we wanted Shane [Black] and Drew [Pearce] to take that idea and make it contemporary for present-day audiences. We also wanted to combine that with another storyline in the comic called Extremis, which came out not too long before the first ‘Iron Man’ film in 2008. It deals with the biological enhancement of humans, and Tony must face super-powered humans in that. So we just thought, wouldn’t that be interesting if we tried to combine these two stories into one for ‘Iron Man 3’?”

Although I can understand their rationale for doing what they did with the film, I think developing both plots more fully in two separate movies might have been a better way to go because there are times when on plot gets in the way of the other and vice versa.

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The acting in the film is consistently excellent. In addition to Downey Jr.’s fine performance, Paltrow, who recently was named by People magazine as the most beautiful woman in the world, is wonderful as Potts, and Hall is equally good as Hansen. The always outstanding Don Cheadle returns to reprise his role as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who is Stark’s best friend, and while both Pearce and Kingsley make terrific villains, Kingsley is particularly chilling as The Mandarin. In the production notes, Kingsley provided some insight into his character.

“The Mandarin’s motivation is to turn the pyramid of civilization as we know it on its head by referring quite accurately to iconography, history and ironies that are contained in any civilized state. He picks at them quite viciously and remorselessly to justify the correctness of his desire to destroy this particular civilization, which he considers absurd. It’s a sense of rightness, not of evil, that motivates him and he wishes to basically turn all our landmarks and the things we cling to as emblems on their heads.”

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In addition to the fine acting, the film is a showcase for spectacular special effects. The scene in which lethal helicopters destroy Stark’s house is remarkable, and the final battle also offers a real visual treat.

As I said earlier, fans of this series should not be disappointed, and I give the film a solidly respectable eight. Of course the next question is whether or not there will be an “Iron Man 4,” and when you see what Stark does at the end of this film you may have your doubts. But I don’t.

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