Iron Man 3 is one of the best superhero movies ever.
It succeeds in places The Avengers failed.
It has stuff for the casual explosion-hungry moviegoer. It has stuff for the passionate comic book fan. It has stuff for the cynical film aficionado. It satisfies all three without sacrificing much, and while still reserving the ability to surprise.
The Avengers was a great film because it codified the “Superhero franchise” as a thing. And it was action-packed, doubtless.
But ultimately, The Avengers was two giant fight scenes strung together via mostly-assumed background information.
Iron Man 3 isn’t that. It has the heart of the first Iron Man film (more, even) as well as the stylized comic book tropes - your evil scheming corporate masterminds, your superhuman abilities - necessary for a superhero film to be successful.
But above all, Iron Man 3 has a cohesive plot with very few plot holes, something that is supremely appreciated these days. It reserves the fight scenes for when they matter.
Most blockbuster action movies recklessly jump from set piece to set piece, from explosion to plotless explosion, with no regard for tying any of it to the emotional investment the audience makes just by walking into the theater.
Iron Man 3 doesn’t.
Robert Downey, Jr. turns in the fun, inoffensively sardonic performance we’ve all come to expect from him, with some welcome sincerity thrown into the mix.
When Tony Stark is targeted by a new terrorist mastermind, he decides to provoke him into battle. The plan backfires, however, when his personal world, including Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, with increased screen time), is viciously attacked.
Expectation is shirked at this point, however, when Stark’s “go-and-get-‘em” moment takes a detour into pensive road movie territory.
This is where Iron Man 3 really stands out. It plays with the idea of Stark as a technological genius, as an exhausted but stubbornly determined stalwart, as a reluctant role model.
Ty Simpkins gives one of the best child-actor performances in years as Harley, a kid Stark meets along the way. By the end of the film, you’ll desperately want some kind of Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the end of The Dark Knight Rises moment with Harley.
And when Stark finally reaches his target, he learns a thing or two about identity in the context of his superhero world.
Where the film falters most is its feeble attempt at addressing the craziness of The Avengers in the context of a very “realistic” (in superhero terms) movie. Stark, clearly shaken by the events of that film, does little more to address it than confessing to Pepper something along the lines of, “How crazy was that?”
That’s because Iron Man 3 feels real. All of its comic-bookish elements are rooted in the terrestrial: technology, innovation, science. Even Guy Pearce, who gives the most cartoonishly comic-booky performance of the film as a pathetic nerd-turned-confident millionaire, has some foundation in reality.
The film takes place in a post-9/11 world where terror is a real thing, with real political implications.
It investigates the iconography of good and evil, and the sometimes-confusing nature of the symbolic fight between them, with a very memorable performance from Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin.
And besides all that, Iron Man 3 is hilarious--it’s by far the funniest Superhero movie in recent memory. It’s fun as hell. It keeps your eyes glued to the screen, and has you leaving the theater in awe. It’s in the running right up there with The Dark Knight for Best Superhero Movie Ever.
If this is what the rest of Marvel Phase 2 will be like, then we’re in for a treat.