Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder)
Gwyneth Paltrow (A Perfect Murder)
Don Cheadle (Traffic)
Guy Pearce (Prometheus)
Rebecca Hall (Town)
Jon Favreau (Daredevil)
Ben Kingsley (Lucky Number Sleven)
James Badge Dale (World War Z)
Stephanie Szostak (R.I.P.D.)
Paul Bettany (Legion)
William Sadler (Roswell)
Dale Dickey (My Name Is Earl)
Miguel Ferrer (Robocop)
Ty Simpkins (Jurassic World)
Shaun Toub (Lois & Clark)
Mark Ruffalo (Just Like Heaven)
Joan Rivers (Spaceballs)
Stan Lee (Avengers Assemble)
Rebecca Mader (Lost)
As the start of “Phase Two” of Marvel’s ever-expanding film lore, Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers, where Tony Stark (RDJ) played a crucial role in stopping an other-worldly invasion in New York City. Shaken by the experience to a point of acute panic attacks, Stark finds himself obsessed with his mechanical tinkering, creating and modifying suits in the hours where he can’t sleep or spend time with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), now CEO of Stark Industries. During that time, a bearded fanatic known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) claims responsibility for curiously evidence-free terrorist activities through hacked television broadcasts, backed up by cryptic “lessons” about American indulgence, artifice, and claim to territory. In a fragile state of mind and dealing with the reemergence of a momentary colleague from his past, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whose radical plans for human advancement (and his attractiveness) draw Pepper’s attention, Tony flexes his Iron Man muscle by publicly provoking The Mandarin.
Before that, Iron Man 3 offers a glimpse nearly fifteen years into the past as a quasi-preamble, before Stark made his reputation as a public hero. Outside of Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s evident character reasons for doing so — namely introducing Killian at a younger age, as well as the beautiful, brilliant scientist Maya Hansen (played by Rebecca Hall) and her invaluable yet unstable work in organic regeneration — this also serves as a reminder of a Tony Stark before he stumbled into the duties of a narcissistic hero in a near-impervious suit of his design. Thus begins a personal journey for Stark: complete with voiceover directed at an unspecified listener (you find out who in the post-credit sequence) that transitions to the present era, the strain on his persona created by a near-death sacrificial decision in New York flirts with the comic-book’s famous “Demon in a Bottle” story arc … without ever mentioning alcohol.
The script from Black and Pearce expands on that internal crisis by finding a way to leave Stark without his gear, his girl, and his support structure at a pivotal point, where he’s abandoned in the middle of nowhere with only his wits and scientific knowledge (and a boy essentially embodying a young engineering-savvy version of Tony Stark) to guide him. Some will find this change of pace refreshing, a return to those moments in the Afghanistan cave where he constructed the first rudimentary suit; once again, he’s using only his inventiveness to weave in and out of tricky situations and get Iron Man in fighting shape. Others will find the lack of higher-octane action and similarities to other recent “fallen, morale-damaged hero” storylines frustrating, and that’s partially due to circumstances that are wobbly even for comic-book logic. The pressure rests on Downey Jr. to convince those watching of his fraught situation, and his charisma — now with the added touch of Shane Black’s humorous edge — keeps the attitude upbeat, hectic, and faintly mythic, bolstered by scenes such as Tony literally dragging the weight of his armor over his shoulder across a snowy field.
As the film approaches a climax full of Iron Men, fireworks, and plenty of Hail Mary leaps within a dangerous shipyard, backed by a reliably fierce performance from Guy Pearce as his role in the Extremis program comes to fruition. What surprised me the most about the ending, once the smoke clears, is how final and cathartic it ends up feeling, as if it very well could be the bookend to Iron Man himself if they decided not to move the series forward. Giving closure to Stark’s tribulations as a self-focused hero and his rocky relationship with Pepper Potts, it’ll make the eminent day when the Avengers come knocking on his door again all the more intriguing.