'Iron Man 3' Review: Risks Pay Off As Marvel Studios Moves Beyond 'The Avengers'

Iron Man 3 is a bundle of contradictions. It is light and genuinely funny, yet a vein of deep cynicism acts as the movie's spine. At times it is gleefully silly, but it indulges ideas that are merely goofy. It wants to reconcile real-world violence into larger-than-life escapism. Yet the contradictions don't quite break the movie. Director/writer Shane Black and co-screenwriter Drew Pearce understand the mode in which they have to work, and manage to make both impulses live side by side.

Those contradictions give Iron Man 3 a weird sense of pace, and a personality that isn't quite like any other superhero movie. This isn't the gleeful candy-colored romp of The Avengers, and I sympathize with any audience thrown by the film's shuffling rhythm. Shane Black writes and directs movies that walk a fine line between idiosyncratic and mainstream, and many of the director's impulses (winking narration, in-jokes, the subversion of cliches) are on display here.

Black and Pearce struggle at times to keep all their ideas in the frame, but that struggle alone makes Iron Man 3 interesting to watch. The film's giddy highs are quite wonderful, and its personal quirks are testament to the power Marvel Studios has accumulated. The film plays loose with characters and ideas from the comics, but in doing so presents a story that is more unique than we have any right to expect from a threequel. In fact, crossover between real and heightened worlds has defined Marvel Comics since day one, and Iron Man 3 may be more true to Marvel's spirit than any other film.

(Note: Iron Man 3 features a couple big plot elements that shouldn't be spoiled, and so the following review avoids discussing those elements. I'm not going to say this is 100% spoiler-free, but I've avoided the big points. )

Tony Stark is haunted by his expanded understanding of the universe in the wake of events depicted in The Avengers. He is withdrawn from Pepper Potts, his partner in life and business, and plagued by insomnia and panic attacks. Instead of sleeping he tinkers with armor designs, crafting dozens of alternate options. More than ever before, he's a one-man military industrial complex.

A new enemy emerges in the form of the Mandarin, a terrorist who has been striking around the globe and is focusing his attention on the US. At the same time, an industrialist from Stark's past, the inventor Aldrich Killian, is looking for assistance from Stark Industries, and his forceful personality suggests he won't take no for an answer.

Iron Man 3 is a tricky balancing act in which Stark's greatest enemy is his own weakness, even as comic-book villainy threatens, and which tries to incorporate real-life elements in a way that doesn't break the bond between audiences and the escapist entertainment they expect. There's an explosion at a movie theater (hinting at Aurora), a comic book-worthy yet sobering role for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and an excoriation of elected officials that goes almost to the top of American politics.

How is that entertaining? Robert Downey Jr.'s energy helps. Despite the set of gestures and vocal tics that form much of his Tony Stark persona, the actor clearly has a rapport with his director. (That rapport was established in their first collaboration, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is frequently evoked here.) Don Cheadle is the film's rock-solid drummer, and gets in blows as an impressive action hero. Guy Pearce, as Aldrich Killian, is creepily magnetic and engaging to watch, and Gwenyth Paltrow's role is expanded into dynamic new territory.

Given that Downey doesn't seem to want to wear uncomfortable armor if he doesn't have to, Shane Black still comes up with some stunning action setpieces that put Iron Man through his paces. There's an ecstatic sequence featuring Air Force One, for starters. Beyond that the film manages to keep Downey dressed in civilian duds while pushing the boundaries of exactly what the character Iron Man can be. The outcome is likely a direct pointer to how Downey will be involved (or not) with future Marvel films.

How can Iron Man 3 truly engage with the more important ideas that inform it? It doesn't always get there. When Tony talks about the thing that happened in New York, he's talking about his battle with aliens and a trip to and from space. For the rest of us, "what happened in New York" is still 9/11. The Mandarin, obviously inspired by Osama Bin Laden, is the bridge between a movie reality and our own, and Black and Pearce handle the character with audacity. The Mandarin is Marvel Studios' most unusual villain yet, and through him the film edges into full-on satire.

Other ideas don't work as well. The climactic use of Stark's many armors, for example, and a particular sequence with Don Cheadle's re-branded Iron Patriot armor, have weight as thematic ideas but can be seen as weaknesses in plotting. On a more prosaic level, if there's an action movie trope that Black can bat around, he will. A wide-eyed kid plays a surprisingly important role, as does a Commando-like raid on a bad guy's hideout. (Some of the action is surprisingly violent, if generally bloodless.)

The script skirts around any deep explanation of the villain's real intent. That he wants power, and lots of it, will have to suffice. That's almost enough, especially as any external threat is less important than Stark's own coming to terms with the post-Avengers realities of his existence. But a more cohesive point to the bad guy's plan might help bridge our world with that of the film.

I like the ambition of Iron Man 3, and the fact that Marvel Studios is willing to fly its signature character outside the typical parameters of a tentpole sequel. Shane Black stamps the film with his own particular style but doesn't run away with the character. Real-world practicalities do define the ending, as Downey's contract with Marvel is now fulfilled, and Iron Man 3 concludes with only a whiff of a suggestion for the character's future. It's a necessary risk, but one balanced by other experiments that pay off well.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10