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Tony Stark of Iron Man 3 blasts into theaters with quite a reputation preceding him. Having last appeared in the 2012 spring blockbuster, The Avengers, a film that earned $1.5 billion worldwide, Robert Downey Jr. here resumes his place on the big screen as Iron Man/Tony Stark—and arrives once again in the wake of jaw-dropping overseas sales numbers, topping even The Avengers’ early returns.
But the question remains: Is this a sequel to The Avengers—with nearly flawless character development, precise comedic timing, and mind-bending action scenes? Or is it a ho-hum follow-up to the not-so-impressive Iron Man 2, released in 2010?
Before answering, let’s review the plot: Iron Man’s last big battle has left him scarred (remember the aliens and the wormhole in New York City?), so he’s trying to tinker himself back to mental health—which means he tries to stay busy by building an entire fleet of Iron Man suits/drones. In fact, quite early, the question of whether those suits are a legitimate extension of him or an artificial distraction is teased out. But as Stark wrestles with self-doubt and plays with his toys, his lady love—Pepper Potts—is busy running Stark Industries.
His interest is piqued, though, when his buddy Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle) begins working with the president to track down public enemy No. 1, a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). After his friend gets hurt in one of the Mandarin’s attacks, Stark is finally willing to get involved. From that point on, Stark’s goal of destroying the Mandarin becomes the driving force of the movie.
The producers of Iron Man 3 undoubtedly hoped that by bringing in Shane Black as the new director, Downey might live up to some of his Avengers’ glory. Black was Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter during his Lethal Weapon days, and his ability to combine his own off-beat humor with Downey’s verbal acuity proved moderately successful in the 2005 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
But a talented actor plus a quirky screenplay isn’t enough for a winning movie. To cut it in today’s superhero world (as opposed to the action films of the ’80s and ’90s), a director needs CGI-proficiency, clever plot twists, and at least one villain who can prey on viewers’ deepest fears. And then, if he really wants to make his mark, some bigger theme needs to emerge from it all—for instance, the political and moral debates of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
So, does Black’s Iron Man earn its mettle? On the positive side, each scene is plotted and written skillfully, and through exceptional acting and some very good action sequences, the movie manages to hold one’s attention. Add to that some pretty dramatic plot twists along the way, and it’s unlikely to put anyone to sleep.
Yet overall, this Iron Man still rings a little hollow. Occasionally the film, with repeat action scenes involving water and falling characters, feels visually repetitive. The primary relationship of the series is between Tony and Pepper, but they actually share very little screen time in Iron Man 3, which means there is very little room for growth or depth. And in terms of family viewing, the movie is rated PG-13 for very mild language, sci-fi violence, and suggestive content (i.e. women in bikinis), and won’t be attractive to every family.
Probably the most dissatisfying aspect, however, is Iron Man’s own passiveness in critical moments of the story and the movie’s seeming affirmation of his passivity. While a superhero who needs saving may feel hip and edgy at times, here crucial dramatic turns are given to less fully developed characters—and that just makes for a less compelling story. Add to that a heaping helping of both girl-power feminism and terrorist-related political correctness, and those hoping for an worthy sequel to The Avengers will just have to wait.