In every conceivable way, Tony Stark’s foe in Iron Man 3 is himself. It starts with an enemy born of Stark’s chronic dickishness, a spurned fan-turned-supervillain not unlike Buddy Pine-cum-Syndrome in The Incredibles. It continues with a superhero whose egotistical compulsion to unmask his true identity continues to put an ever present bullseye on him and his scant loved ones. But Stark’s biggest adversary is his own psyche, an id now fractured by insecurity—indeed, it’s wry genesis that the film is essentially a 130-minute psychiatrist’s couch confession.
Beneath his renowned wisecracks and cocksuredness, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) faces a new reality spawned from the Big Apple battle royale finale to The Avengers. It bears mentioning that Iron Man was the first installment of the now-interwoven Marvel Cinematic Universe. The years since have seen gods and genetic behemoths as heroes, and mutants and aliens from other dimensions as villains.
Against this backdrop, Stark is a self-described “man in a can,” seized by fits of anxiety when a child fan merely asks about “what happened in New York.” (More 9/11 allegory? Never mind, let’s just move on.) While the 42 iterations of armor Stark has fashioned in the basement his cliffside laboratory appear the embodiment of an obsessive mind, they are actually the ongoing realization of Stark’s fateful “I am Iron Man” declaration at the end of the first film. The man and the machine are becoming inseparable, an evolution propelled by equal parts ego and envy.
Comic book enthusiasts familiar with the Extremis plotline at the heart of Iron Man 3 know the physical road this journey will eventually take. But in the meantime, scour the DSM-IV to decipher a scene in which Stark, clad in his Iron Man armor, greets and gropes gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) at the outset of a romantic evening, only to further reveal that it’s actually an unmanned suit being remotely controlled by Stark from elsewhere in the house. Or moments later, what would Freud make of Stark protecting Potts during a chopper attack launched by a terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) by neuropathically summoning the diffuse pieces of a modular armor to tessellate around her, encasing Pepper inside a protective phallus?
The theme of identity is central in Iron Man 3, including the complexities of celebrity, frontmen for terror and the duality of actor and character. North Carolinians will further identify with shooting locales throughout the state, from Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach, from the SAS campus in Cary to downtown Rose Hill (inexplicably set in Tennessee for the film).
In Downey, Shane Black finds the perfect vehicle for the keen action screenwriting once forged in his Lethal Weapon scripts. For example, take the terrific byplay between Stark and Harley (Ty Simpkins), a 10-year-old Tennessean who comes to Stark’s aid after he’s stranded in Rose Hill. Backed by Black’s staging, Simpkins more than holds his own opposite Downey, who in turn wisely refuses to pull any rhetorical punches.
But for all the intriguing (pop) psychological, where Iron Man 3 falters is, ironically, its mechanics. Directing only his second feature (after 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey), Black’s pace and plotting fizzle as often as Stark’s constantly malfunctioning suits. While that affords Downey an inordinate amount of screentime sans armor, you eventually want to see Iron Man in an Iron Man movie.
When Black tries to make up the deficit all at once during the final act, the result is garish, confusing and head-scratching—why didn’t Stark summon his Iron Legion the half-dozen times he could have used their help earlier in the movie? Indeed, there are repeated logistical lapses, and several supporting parts are not fully realized, including the underutilized red, white and blue Iron Patriot, nee War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a botanist from Stark’s past whose work helped create Extremis along with scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).
But filmmakers understand who the real hero is, thematically and financially. It’s no accident that the end of Iron Man 3’s closing credits declares that “Tony Stark Will Return.” Yes, it’s an indication of that melding of men and machine. But back in the theater, it’s also reassurance that no matter the storyline, Robert Downey Jr. will remain star of this show.