Once again, Robert Downey, Jr. triumphs in the role of the armored Marvel superhero Iron Man and his alter-ego Tony Stark.
In Iron Man 3, as always, he has the light touch of a comedian and the soulfulness and charisma and glamour of a movie star. His jumpy, fast-talking insolence doesn’t come across as narcissism, because it’s mixed with an uncommon sense of empathy—he seems connected to the other people onscreen, even the villains with whom he’s grappling.
Thus, even when he’s playing a self-absorbed egomaniac like Tony Stark, he, Downey, doesn’t come across as a self-absorbed egomaniac. Or rather, he does come across as a self-absorbed egomaniac, but a lovable one.
Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as the credits spell it) begins with a sequence set in Bern, Switzerland on the last day of 1999, in which a younger, more obnoxious Tony, by way of snubbing a stranger, unwittingly sets in motion the troubles which will follow. Thirteen years later, a sinister figure calling himself The Mandarin, played with spooky panache by Ben Kingsley, claims responsibility for a series of mysterious explosions.
Eventually Iron Man, now suffering from PTSD after his experiences in The Avengers, runs afoul of a circle of fanatics claiming allegiance to The Mandarin. They’ve been treated with an agent called “Extremis,” allowing them to regenerate when injured, and to turn red-hot from within. This gang kidnaps Tony’s sweetie Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as The President of the United States (William Sadler).
The boots-on-the-ground leader of these hotties is played, rather well, by Guy Pearce. Tony and his pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle), aka Iron Patriot, must ride to the rescue. There are twists and turns—Tony befriends a little kid, for instance—and absurdly magical sequences, like Iron Man’s rescue of multiple people falling out of a ripped-open jet plane. The director here is Shane Black, replacing Jon Favreau of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (though Favreau plays a sizable acting role here), and while the movie is probably about a half-hour too long—like almost all action blockbusters seem to be any more—it’s polished and mostly engrossing.
But there’s no way around it, or at least there wasn’t for me—recent events intrude into one’s enjoyment of Iron Man 3 as a simple action entertainment. The explosions, the amputees turned into “Extremis” henchpersons, even the Iron Man suits themselves—here often used empty, by remote control, like drone aircraft—all give the movie an ugly, unsavory real-world resonance it wouldn’t have had a few months ago, rightly or wrongly, and a tragic atmosphere it doesn’t really deserve. This doesn’t ruin the picture, but it does leave you more poignantly aware than usual of the genre’s limitations.
No doubt superhero stories have their legitimate place in the human tradition, just as the stories of Hercules or Beowulf did in their time. The fantasies they service, both of being protected and of being a protector, are perfectly human, even noble.
They’re also vain, taken literally. Even if Tony Stark’s technology existed, and even if —far less likely—it was in the hands of somebody as well-intentioned as Tony, it couldn’t protect us from evil. Superhero stories have become far more complex in last half-century, yet in the end, they tend to return reflexively to the touching idea that evil can be vanquished in a fistfight. But evil is the part of human badness that can’t be socked in the jaw. Iron Man 3 reminds us, probably without meaning too, that the superhero archetype is, in the end, an empty suit.