Film Film Reviews

Review: Iron Man 3 Is Flawed But Remarkably Entertaining

Immediately after the last line of dialogue in Iron Man 3 we cut to an incredibly entertaining closing credits sequence which through a combination of rapid-fire editing and comic book-style animation represents scenes from the film as well as quick shots from the prior two Iron Man films all in service of simply showcasing the names of the main actors in the movie. The style mimics that of a 70s buddy cop film or tv show, and is scored to an energetic instrumental from the film’s composer, Brian Taylor.  The name of the song?  “Can You Dig It?”

That director Shane Black chose to have a bit of a laugh and end his film with a wholly unexpected half comic book/half blaxsploitation-esque credits sequence with the hilariously named “Can You Dig It?” playing in the background tells you all you need to know about Iron Man 3: the main goal for all involved was to have fun.  Make no doubt about it, this is an incredibly fun and often times ridiculously hilarious movie (e.g., Tony’s has one line which will instantly make him a personal hero to lovers of black comedy and/or haters of film’s usually sacred treatment of annoying mawkish kid characters).  Those who prefer their Iron Man light and breezy, heavy on the Downey Jr. face time, and not at all like the dour, Christopher Nolan-esque movie the trailers misleadingly promised will not be disappointed.  However, there is a downside to the joviality: similar to The Avengers, the more you think about the plot the less sense it makes.


After a flashback to a seemingly innocuous but incredibly important night in Tony’s life from 1999, we open the main plot, for some reason, at Christmastime. An undisclosed amount of time has passed since the near-death and world view-altering experience that was The Avengers for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., delivering his best performance as Stark to date), the events of which have left Stark displaying post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms.  The mere mention of the wormhole he went through in The Avengers is enough to set off a panic attack.

Tony took the wormhole thing from The Avengers far harder than we would have predicted.

His relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, reliably solid if a bit too absent) has progressed to co-habitation, but he mostly distracts himself creating new Iron Man suits while she runs Stark Industries.

While Tony prepares himself for the next big galactic throwdown, trouble is brewing at home.  On one end, there is a dapper businessman, Dr. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, who is clearly having a lot of fun with the role), making the moves on Pepper and talking about awesome but scary-sounding new technology; on the other end, there is The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kinglsey, whose hamminess serves a purpose), a terrorist who “talks like a Southern Baptist preacher” and has a nasty habit of threatening the life of the President of the United States.  Also showing up is Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, lovely in a mostly thankless role), an ex-lover of Stark’s who has created a bio-electronics package she calls “extremis.”  When applied to plants, extremis can foster new growth and regeneration of broken branches and can do the same when applied to humans but has one rather explosive flaw.  She has come to Stark for help in perfecting the formula.

Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen. Jessica Chastain was originally cast in the role, but dropped out…possibly because she realized how little Hansen gets to do in the movie.

All of these plot lines eventually converge, often predictably with one wickedly (and delightfully) surprising exception.  Even those who are familiar with the film’s source material, the 2005/2006 comic book story arc “Extremis,” won’t be able to see everything coming as the film wildly departs from the book in multiple areas.

However, in the film’s effort to connect all the dots it ultimately fails to present a completely cohesive narrative. For example, the bad guy’s ultimate plan, once revealed, does not make nearly as much sense as the film pretends it does, and the through-line of Tony’s over-dependence upon the Iron Man suits fails to completely connect thus making that story’s resolution in the film’s final minutes feel somewhat unearned.  Moreover, the film’s consistently light tone (even Tony’s panic attacks are played for comedy) and Joss Whedon-esque plays upon genre convention (spoiler: Iron Man really should look twice before flying across a busy highway) prevent any of the proceedings from carrying any real weight.  This is a case where an action movie may be a bit too funny for its own good.

All of this is probably to be expected given the stated intent of both Shane Black, the director, and Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ President of Production, to make a movie which is “very interested in Tony Stark” but “only tangentially interested in everybody else” (interview with Film School Rejects).  The plot merely functions to ultimately remove Tony from his support structure, both human and technological, and watch him rely on his cunning and wit to MacGyer his way through the story.  This results in an incredibly charming middle section in which Tony, sans a properly functioning Iron Man suit, befriends a small child in Tennessee who he uses as an assistant in his research of a hunch concerning a bad guy.  Tony’s banter with the kid is so acerbic that those who remember Due Date would be forgiven for thinking Downey Jr. was about to slap the kid at any given moment.  The same goes for a brief encounter with a fun character played by Adam Pally of Happy Endings.

For a second there, it seems like Tony Stark has dropped into his own version of Real Steel with this kid, but it gets better.

The emphasis on Tony Stark means there is surprisingly little Iron Man in this Iron Man movie.  Often times when we do see Iron Man it is just the armor being piloted by someone else or remotely by Stark, with his risk level on such occasions being non-existent.  The result is an ostensibly superhero movie which usually bears more resemblance to the noir comedy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (particularly the very similarly used book-ending voice over narration) or the buddy cop trappings of Lethal Weapon, both of which also came from the mind of Shane Black who wrote the screenplays for both and directed the former.  Luckily, the film is delightfully aware of this, e.g., giving us a new Riggs and Murtaugh in Tony and Cl. James Rhodes  (Don Cheadle, whose weary stoicism is every bit the match for Downey’s manic energy) only to undercut the pairing by pointing out what a horrible shot Tony is with an actual gun not connected to Iron Man armor.

However, do you come to an Iron Man movie for Iron Man or for Tony Stark?  The film’s argument is they are one in the same, and Black and co-screenwriter Drew Pearce’s solution to the franchise’s creative rut of consistently presenting Tony in armored suit fighting bad guys in armored suits is to remove most, if not all, of the suit from the occasion.  Why put anything between the audience and the immense charm of Robert Downey Jr., or so the thinking goes.

Similar complaints were made about The Dark Knight Rises, in which Batman is but an incredibly minor on-screen presence in comparison to Bruce Wayne.

The action, whether it features Iron Man or not, is generally entertaining, and the major action set pieces are mostly just as impressive as one would guess based upon the trailers.  Considering that at one point Stark, in full Iron Man armor, essentially throws a piano at a helicopter you know the approach was to add a little camp around the edges, which works quite nicely.  There are multiple applause-ready moments.  However, none of the major action scenes thrill on the level of the final battle in The Avengers.

Ah, the 1.5 billion pound elephant in the room rears its Hulk-sized head.  Iron Man 3 is not The Avengers.  Nothing was going to match the 5-film (Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America) build-up and pay-off that was The Avengers.  To be fair, The Avengers is far from perfect.  Joss Whedon, the film’s own director and screenwriter, told Vulture, “I don’t think it’s a great movie.”  It has many of the same weaknesses as those present in Iron Man 3, and, in fact, those weaknesses might be more pronounced.  However, The Avengers was a cultural event, and it had the Hulk picking up Loki mid-evil-villain speech and bashing him in the ground as if he were Bam Bam and Loki Barney from The Flintstones.

Adjust your expectations accordingly.  Nothing quite as cool as this happens in Iron Man 3.
Adjust your expectations accordingly. Nothing quite as cool as this happens in Iron Man 3.

However, this all started with Robert Downey Jr. making us believe a man can have a shiny battery for a heart in the first Iron Man, and it is only fitting he be the one to kick off the second phase of the Marvel cinematic universe in a mostly self-contained story which either succeeds or fails on its own merits.  Granted, with a plot which threatens the life of the President it’s hard not to wonder why someone from S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America or otherwise, didn’t at least check in to see if help was needed.  Regardless, the film mostly succeeds on it own, admittedly flawed terms.

The director, writers, producer, and star recognized the absolute strength of the franchise, Robert Downey Jr., and built a story around him which also happens to de-emphasizes the supporting characters and could have used a couple more coats of polish on the final act and the villain’s master plan. This is unfortunate, but Downey Jr. shines in the spotlight.  He is nastier, funnier, and generally more brilliant than ever before.  When the light finds its way to the other performers none of them fail to give it their best.  In fact, Paltrow gets a moment so astoundingly awesome it’s easy to forget she’s wearing a sports bra and bearing her sculpted abs (actually, you probably still notice those because, well, the world is obsessed with abs now) the whole time.

Do not mess with this woman.

So, is this it?  The smoke signals so far are mixed, with Gwyneth Paltrow admitting she does not envision there being an Iron Man 4 and Downey Jr. deploying his characteristic sarcasm to deflect any serious public discussion of  his continued involvement with the franchise.  He will be back in The Avengers 2.  After that, nobody knows.  Considering the tone of finality to Tony’s closing narration, which is cut to a montage featuring a literally last minute plot development which offers a kind-of conclusion to the three films out of nowhere, it appears as if Marvel is taking “just in case” precautions.  If this is to be end, thankfully the franchise goes out having largely erased the stink of Iron Man 2 and equaling if not surpassing the heights of Iron Man.  It is undoubtedly flawed but remarkably entertaining.  On a see it, rent/stream it, skip it scale, this is a definite “see it.”

Remember to stick around for the post-credits scene.   Just don’t expect it to hint at any kind of future film.

That’s Good: Solid performances from all involved, particularly Downey Jr. and Kingsley; unfailingly hilarious dialogue; often ingenious plays upon genre conventions; showcase of Tony Stark; the rather hummable and inventive musical score; closing credits sequence

That’s Bad: The inevitable “why aren’t the Avengers showing up to help?” feeling does creep in; villain’s master plan does not make nearly as much sense as the film pretends it does; underdeveloped secondary characters; not enough Iron Man.

Can I Go Now?: Shane Black must just really love setting actions movie at Christmas.  He did so in Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and now again in Iron Man 3.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let us know in the comments.

The Trailer:


  1. this is great! i love reading different opinions, i thought maybe I was the only one who didnt think Iron Man 3 wasn’t that great because most of the reviews were positive and praised the movie.

  2. Thanks! According to Rotten Tomatoes, with a 78% freshness rating Iron Man 3 has only received slightly more positive reviews than Iron Man 2 (73% rating) but nowhere near as positive as the reviews for the first Iron Man (93% rating). Of course, a film like Iron Man 3 is critic proof, and Rotten Tomatoes only serves to either validate or invalidate your own views of the movie. Our respective reviews of the film, each of which argue the film is enjoyable but not without its problems, seem to be validated by the numbers.

    But enough of stats. I really enjoyed Iron Man 3. A lot of the standout moments you point out in your review are the same ones I liked, i.e., Pepper in the Iron Man armor, the barrel of monkeys scene, Stark and the little kid, etc. I also had a somewhat conflicted reaction to what happens with the Mandarin in the film, which I think is a bit ingenious (and sacrilegious to comic book devotees) until the film tries to tie it all together during the climactic fight scene at which point it kind of falls apart for me.

    The film is a lot of fun and an incredibly enjoyable popcorn blockbuster, but, as you argued in your review, it is fair to wonder how much of the movie we would actually remember if not for the action scenes. It’s perfectly fresh in my memory now, but this might be the best time I have at the movies all summer without being able to tell you much about he film if you ask me a month later. I thought it was funny that when Gwyneth Paltrow was interviewed on the Mark Kermode + Simon Mayo UK film review radio show she admitted to not really understanding the film’s plot, or at least the concept of extremis.

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