A battered but not fully humbled Tony Stark battles terrorists and mutants in ‘Iron Man 3’

May 22, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 22, 2013

The conundrum of the superhero story is simple: A superhero by definition is powerful, but easily resolved conflicts are boring. Therefore, in order to make an interesting superhero tale, his or her or their victory must be difficult to obtain.

Often superhero movie, television and comic book writers make victory hard to secure by pitting the protagonist against a supervillain, an antagonist so strong that the hero’s extraordinary strength is at least partially neutralized. Sometimes the hero is shorn of his abilities. And quite often — see Superman II, a classic of the superhero genre — the writers use a combination of these solutions.

That’s the case in Iron Man 3, where the eponymous hero arrogantly invites an enemy attack upon his home and pays a steep price. Consequently, billionaire genius and ex-playboy Tony Stark (the scintillating Robert Downey Jr.) spends most of this movie — even most of the climactic battle! — outside of the exoskeleton that is the source of his superpowers.

There are two advantages to this approach. One is that it allows us to see more of Downey’s expressive and entertaining face. Another is that it makes this cocky hero incredibly vulnerable.

Will Stark be able to save the president from the Mandarin, his terrorist superfoe? Will he be able to save the love of his life (and the CEO of Stark Industries), Pepper Potts, from a sinister genetic engineer? Heck, will Stark even be able to save himself from low-level goons tied to these shadowy figures?

Isolated and exposed as Stark is, the movie induces real doubt as to what the diminished hero can accomplish.

The drawback to this approach, however, is that franchise fans have a reduced chance to see the superhero exercise the full extent of his powers.

I can’t speak for the fanboy crowd. But as a viewer with little affinity for comic books, I can say that Iron Man 3 worked for me. I had some trepidation about a mid-picture segment of the film, which exiles Stark to a small Southern town and pairs him with a cute child (Ty Simpkins). But even this is handled well, provoking a minimum of cringing.

Technically, the film is superb. So is the acting: The second-billed cast members include Gwyneth Paltrow as Potts, Don Cheadle as Rhodes, Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, and Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall as scientists with mysterious agendas.

The script, which features all the snappy dialogue I would expect of an Iron Man movie, also does a fine job weaving in Col. James Rhodes, Stark’s buddy. Credit here is due to co-writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black; Black, known for scripting the first two Lethal Weapon films, also directed this outing.

My biggest complaint about Iron Man 3 is that it suffers from something I like to call UAS, or underlit action syndrome. Too much of both the second-act climax and the grand finale are murky, due either to the speed of the on-screen action, the extreme brevity of the shots or the dimness of the lighting.

Even so, Iron Man 3 remains a fine choice for light summer entertainment. It even has a humorous reward for viewers who stick around until the credits finish scrolling.

Before I go, one note about that holiest of fanboy concepts — continuity. I saw and enjoyed Iron Man but have skipped (I believe) every other Marvel Comics–based movie since. That includes both the second Iron Man and the 2012 superhero teamup, Avengers. Here’s what you need to know if you missed the latter film: It takes place in New York and involves a wormhole, aliens and a hammer-wielding Norse god named Thor; also, it’s left Stark with a small case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Non-fanboy moviegoers, you may now confidently go forth and enjoy!


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