By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
The summer movie season has begun and so has “Phase 2” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For those unfamiliar with this description or terminology, the imaginative people at Marvel Studios dubbed their franchise of films leading to The Avengers, Phase 1 and the next series of films leading to Avengers 2, Phase 2. Kicking off the next phase is Iron Man 3, the possible final chapter of character Tony Stark’s own movie series. After the financial and critical success achieved by Stark’s first outing, Marvel producers pretty much rushed Iron Man 2 and thus produced an inferior product.
Even though I actually liked the second installment, I do agree with its detractors that it did leave much to be desired. Not that it was entirely Jon Favreau’s fault as Justin Theroux wrote the screenplay, but it did come as a relief to hear that acclaimed writer/director Shane Black would be handling the third film. The result is a solid, strong, darker and more serious take than its predecessors. Yet, at the same time, this is a film about the snarky and arrogant Tony Stark we know and love. So while the material does get heavier, Black doesn’t forget that his audience wants to have fun as well.
Following the intense battle with Chitauri army in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has not been the same. This experience, and probably all of his past brushes with death have taken their toll on him. He cannot sleep; he suffers panic attacks and overworks himself as a coping mechanism. When a new terrorist threat in the form of a megalomaniac leader known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) plagues the U.S. and nearly kills someone very close to Tony, Stark vows revenge. But before he even tries to do this, The Mandarin’s army seriously puts the hurt on him, leading Stark to start nearly from scratch.
That’s what Shane Black almost does with this film. He nearly starts from scratch. Learning from the missteps of Iron Man 2 and with a desire to make a solid follow up to The Avengers, Black’s fresh take reinvigorates the franchise with his more straight faced approach and superb character development. Working with co-writer Drew Pearce, Black succeeds admirably with a movie that is just as good as the first film, but doesn’t overshadow the grandiosity of The Avengers. In fact the story feels like a realistic and natural progression for the Stark character following the events in New York. Even a cool, usually unflappable genius like Stark can suffer from mental wounds. Seriously, the man has shrapnel in his heart, nearly poisoned himself in the last film, several villains have wanted him dead, and that includes space aliens. The man has barely survived each adventure. It has to eventually take a toll.
Black and Pearce have broken down Stark, but not completely, and in doing so they take away some of that insufferable swaggering and narcissism that have demonized him in his past and present. Stark gets knocked on his ass big time and it’s time for him to pick himself up and set things even more right this time.
The trouble I had with Iron Man 2 was that everything comes so easily to Stark in that story. Nothing feels challenging. The conflict is rather weak. It felt exciting to see him nearly crushed and really pull himself by his iron bootstraps and get back in the game. I realize that I am making this film sound way too serious for its own good, but that isn’t the case. Stark may have been bruised and beaten, but he never completely loses his sense of humor. Black and Pearce realize that Stark in all of his arrogance still has a sharp and charming wit about him and thus provide him with the expected one-liners and quips.
As Tony never loses himself completely, Black and his team never lose sight of the fact that this film is a summer comic book based blockbuster. So they definitely deliver the goods when it comes to stunning visual effects and thrilling action sequences. The returning cast members, in addition to the new ones, all deliver stellar performances.
In fact I absolutely enjoyed what Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley bring to the film. Pearce, who portrays Stark’s bitter rival Aldrich Killian, brings an intensity to his role that past Iron Man baddies have lacked. Kingsley, as usual, does incredible work here. I’d love to elaborate on the Mandarin character, but doing so would completely spoil his story. I will go on record to say that I think this version of the Mandarin will have a polarizing effect on audiences. In fact, I still have mixed feelings regarding the direction Black and Drew Pearce take with this character. Perhaps, this is my only gripe regarding the film. I’m sure die hard fans of the comic will have similar or stronger feelings regarding this aspect of the movie
Still, I honestly think that fans should expect some liberties to be taken with their comic book characters when it comes to movies. I feel that Shane Black takes the Iron Man character into a bold and refreshing new territory with his installment. He makes Tony feel even more dimensional and real than the previous films, but with some respect to the canon established by those movies. The summer movie season is here and thankfully it has gotten off to a great start.