Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Shane Black
Just when superhero movies faced the danger of feeling too formulaic and conventional, along comes "Iron Man 3" to give the genre a much-needed kick in the spandex.
Despite raising the bar over the years with the likes of "X2: X-Men United," "Spider-Man 2," "The Dark Knight" and the first "Iron Man," more recent offerings from the first phase of the new Marvel Studios regime - which consisted of "The Incredible Hulk," "Captain America," "Thor" and especially "Iron Man 2" - felt like more of the same. Yes, even the mighty "Avengers" appeared to be going through the motions, despite being the third-highest grossing movie of all time with $1.5 billion worldwide.
But "Iron Man 3" celebrates the character's 50th anniversary and kicks off Marvel's highly-touted second phase in the best possible way by stripping Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) of his iron-clad alter-ego and exposing his vulnerabilities. Like Bruce Wayne in last year's "The Dark Knight Rises," Stark not only spends most of his time out of costume, but the state-of-the-art Iron Man prototype suit that he does wear is an unreliable rust-bucket that's far from being invincible.
As directed and co-written by "Lethal Weapon" screenwriter Shane Black - who also directed Downey in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - "Iron Man 3" is one of the most character-driven comic book-based movies to hit the big screen since "Spider-Man 2." That gives Downey ample time to embrace the razor-sharp dialogue and command the screen with the type of charm, swagger and confidence that turned the first "Iron Man" into the rock star of superhero movies.
But now that his star has since faded, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce don't just bring Tony Stark back down to earth; they practically deconstruct the entire superhero model by defying everyone's expectations, making "Iron Man 3" the most daring and rewarding installment yet. So while it may not be as action-packed as its predecessors, it pays off in other ways, thanks to some surprise plot twists, dynamic performances, lots of humor and a finale that will knock your socks off.
After nearly losing his life while fighting alongside The Avengers to save the world from an alien invasion, Tony Stark finds himself prone to anxiety attacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His longtime confidant (and lover) Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is now running Stark Industries, leaving him plenty of time to toil away in his lab.
But his past comes back to haunt him when an embittered scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) teams up with a menacing terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to bring the United States to its knees. With Tony Stark already facing an existential crisis that shakes his confidence to the core, could this be the end of Iron Man?
To say anything more about the plot would spoil the many surprises, but after teaming up with the world's greatest superheroes to save the planet, shouldn't Tony Stark have, say, Captain America, Hawkeye or Nick Fury on his speed-dial, just in case he needs them (like he does here)?
It's also worth mentioning that a terrorist attack on a famous Hollywood landmark hits a little close to home after the recent bombings in Boston.
Otherwise, "Iron Man 3" tones down the spectacle, and the movie is all the better for it. Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley and Don Cheadle (as the Iron Patriot) are all in top form here, and where 2010's disappointing "Iron Man 2" featured pointless action scenes that did little to advance the plot, the exciting money shots featured here are bound to impress even the most jaded of moviegoers.
Just like the first "Iron Man" raised the bar for superhero movies, "Iron Man 3" raises the bar even further by taking chances, being more ambitious, bringing the character full-circle and forcing him to re-evaluate his priorities. So it's more than just a kick in the spandex: it's the best of the bunch, but as for whether or not this is truly the end of Iron Man, you'll just have to stick around after the closing credits to find out for sure.