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**THIS REVIEW IS 100% SPOILER-FREE**
It's been barely more than a year since the world was completely dominated by The Avengers. Marvel's film studio (with ample help from the Disney Corporation, of course) had done what only six years ago would have been declared impossible: they created an interconnected film universe akin to their own comic book universe and made a ridiculous amount of money doing so. Despite losing two of Marvel's most popular franchises to film deals made before the creation of the studio (Spider-Man's rights belong to Sony, the X-Men belong to Fox), the folks at Marvel made do with what they had, using a combination of brilliant casting (Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark), careful planning, and expert marketing to fill seats in record numbers (despite nowhere near all of them being actual comic book fans).
Pictured: Nerds? I can't tell anymore.
After the excitement of The Avengers wore off, however, it was easy to start wondering where these films could go next. The film was not even out of theaters yet before Marvel began to outline the next series of films, dubbed "Phase Two:" Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and (my most anticipated, oddly enough) Guardians of the Galaxy. These next four films would, of course, culminate in The Avengers 2, which would be written and directed by the great Joss Whedon once more (Whedon is also the overseer of Marvel's entire film universe for the known future, a supremely comforting thought).
Despite such newly-spawned anticipation, one nagging thought was undeniably present: Would Phase Two be able to match the sheer excitement and enjoyment of Phase One?
Only a bunch of masochists would set their own bar this high.
If Iron Man 3 is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
Where to begin here? First of all, this film is, in a way, dark. Some serious issues have been going on in Tony Stark's life since the events of The Avengers (in the film, characters simply refer to these events as "New York," as in the trailer for the film, where Stark is heard saying, "Everything's changed since New York."). This film picks up where that one left off, not exactly where it left off but close enough. Tony can't sleep; he spends his days tinkering away on new suit designs and modifications. As the film opens, he is working on a new suit that can be summoned to his body from great distances away, assembling itself as it attaches to him. Pepper Potts has settled into her new role as head of Stark Enterprises quite nicely and Tony's former bodyguard, Happy Hogan (still played by ousted director Jon Favreau, in a show of good faith on his part), is the head of security at the company's headquarters. Mounting tensions in the lives of the main characters come to a head with the introduction of a new global terrorist, The Mandarin (played by the great Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-esque militant with a flair for the dramatic and more than a few secrets.
As far as set-ups go, the film seems to be fairly standard at first blush. You may think that the standard plot beats will play out in regular order: the Hero confronts the enemy, the Hero finds some early success, the Hero is taken to his lowest point, the Hero eventually overcomes evil. While much of those elements are definitely in the film (to a degree) the way the story unfolds is rather excellent. The audience is always kept on its toes and there's even a surprise or two thrown in there for good measure.
Thankfully, Iron Man 3's surprise isn't that the film is actually a crime against humanity.
Much of the story's success comes from new writer/director Shane Black. For those who do not yet know who Mr. Black is (trust me, though, after seeing this movie you will), Shane Black is responsible for two of the best action-comedies ever made: Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The former film is, of course, the certified classic buddy cop film in which Mel Gibson is a suicidal, slightly unhinged cop and Danny Glover is his partner, nearing retirement and definitely too old for this s***. The latter film was made in 2005 and stars Val Kilmer alongside Robert Downey, Jr. himself as he began to mount his comeback to the film world; anyone who has not seen Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang needs to see it ASAP, it is a truly funny film with a great plot and some killer performances from Kilmer and Downey as a private detective and a thief (pretending to be an actor) who must work together to solve a murder.
What I'm essentially getting at is that Shane Black does two things very, very well: action and comedy. When he blends the two together, the results are even better. Iron Man 3 has no shortage of action, either. Several scenes in the film are staged and executed so well that they even rival some of what happens in The Avengers; some are more intimate in scale (as in a solo infiltration of a secret compound) and others are more bombastic (the climactic battle near the end), but all of the action feels appropriate and meaningful.
As opposed to, "CRASH! BOOM! 'SPLOSIONS AND ROBOTS! DERP!"
The film's dialogue is, in one word, hilarious. Anyone who thought the comedy in The Avengers was great has nothing to worry about in terms of this film being less funny; no offense to Joss Whedon's script (which was near-perfect, by the way) but Shane Black has him beaten in terms of laugh-out-loud moments. I have little doubt that Iron Man 3 will turn out to be one of the year's funniest films in general. The script is witty in some places, broad in others, and incorporates references to pop culture icons as diverse as Sir Laurence Olivier, Scott Baio, Meryl Streep, and even A Christmas Story. Get ready to laugh a great deal.
The performances are spot-on as well. Robert Downey, Jr. excels in the role of Tony Stark once more; as in The Avengers, Downey steals every scene he's in (not as much of a challenge in his own standalone film, admittedly). The dialogue written for Downey is so great, though, which is definitely one benefit of being reunited with Shane Black. Black knew how to use Downey perfectly in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, so the script he wrote for Iron Man 3 takes full advantage of Downey's uncanny knack for comedic timing and mastery of the sarcastic quip. I honestly can't praise him enough for this performance.
Gwyneth Paltrow is back once more as Stark's love interest Pepper Potts; some surprising developments in the story give Miss Potts a good deal to do here and Paltrow definitely has the ability to make her feel like a woman who is rather strong-willed but also still has a soft spot that springs up a good deal. Don Cheadle once again dons the mantle of Colonel James Rhodes, aka War Machine (although he undergoes an identity shift in this new film). Prior to seeing Iron Man 2 I was skeptical about replacing Terence Howard with Cheadle in the role of Rhodey but in that film, as in this one, I feel the change was for the better. Cheadle is much better at playing the exasperated partner (the Murtaugh to Downey's Riggs, to use a Lethal Weapon comparison); Shane Black has given Cheadle some great lines and exchanges in this film to play with. The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, is (to use the explanation of the actor and the director) an amalgam of many different cultures rather than the Chinese villain depicted in the comic books. In short, this change is ultimately for the better; not only does it make the film more topical (as did changing Iron Man's origins to being caused by terrorists in Afghanistan), it also allows a great actor like Kingsley to play the role and make it his own. Another actor that gets some great work in this film is Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, founder of a think-tank who has invested in some revolutionary new technology (and who formerly vied for the attention of Miss Pepper Potts).
It even looks like he managed to work out that memory problem from a few years back.
The film definitely did have its share of problems, however most (if not all) of them were simply nit-picky plot holes or simple lapses in internal logic. Nothing in this film is enough to bring down the experience as a whole, situating Iron Man 3 firmly at 3rd Place in terms of quality in this franchise (behind The Avengers and Iron Man). Not much here ties the film into the overall Phase Two plot (at least not yet) but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Captain America: The First Avenger felt like little more than an extended trailer for The Avengers in certain parts, which can be a not-so-good thing. That said, any minor detail in this film could wind up figuring importantly into the larger narrative in the lead-up to The Avengers 2, so I am genuinely excited to see what comes next.
Should everyone see this film? Yes. If you've been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the beginning, double yes. If you're a fan of great action-comedies with actors who nail their roles and a plot that tells a meaningful story (complete with an actual character arc for Tony Stark! Remember those?) amidst the explosions and humor, triple yes.
Having seen Iron Man 3 and gotten my thoughts down, I'm free to start eagerly anticipating Thor: The Dark World's release in November. Everyone else needs to get to the theater and see Iron Man 3. I'd be shocked to see anyone leave disappointed.
Let Phase Two Begin.
Take all of our money! Please, Marvel, take it all!