The Reel: ‘Iron Man 3’ an underwhelming blockbuster

Ben Conniff

Marvel Studios is looking to kick off another high-flying summer and stay atop their high horse after the unprecedented success of last year’s super-friends saga, “The Avengers.” 

With “Iron Man 3,” fans have hoped for another hit despite a new director and an apparent shift in tone, as seen in most of last year’s early teasers.

“Iron Man 3” continues the adventures of Tony Stark, a billionaire genius who combats evil with a high-tech suit of armor. This third film gives us insight into Tony’s life after the events of last year’s “The Avengers.”

“Iron Man 3” features the witty comedy we’ve come to expect from the franchise, as well as some of the trilogy’s most thrilling action sequences. It’s a step above 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” but Stark’s third rodeo is not the post-“Avengers” high-note we all hoped it would be and isn’t the same story that we’ve come to expect from trailers.

The biggest letdown was Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. In the trailers, he looked like the first formidable villain to come along in the “Iron Man” cinematic canon, and Kingsley has always been a solid actor. I don’t want to spoil anything because this is one of the movie’s biggest plot twists; so I’ll just say that he could’ve been the strongest comic-book villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Sadly, Kingsley comes nowhere close.

Next on the laundry list of complaints focuses on one of the film’s biggest plot holes:

Who the hell was the kid?

I guess every hero comes across a “Short Round” at some point in their travels. But even Indiana Jones took the time to explain where his boy came from. In “Iron Man 3,” Tony finds himself stranded in Rose Hill, Tenn., and joins forces with a youngster named Harley (Ty Simpkins) to uncover the mystery behind a Mandarin-linked attack that occurred in the town. I never understood who the boy was, where he came from or how he fit into Tony’s life. It could just be that the two are “connected,” as Harley proposes, but somehow I don’t buy into that. 

In addition to seeing more of Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead roles, “Iron Man 3” introduces many fresh faces to the franchise, including those of Guy Pearce (“Memento”), Rebecca Hall (“The Prestige”) and James Badge Dale (“The Grey”). While Pearce and Dale ultimately fare well, I didn’t really understand Rebecca Hall’s character. She plays Maya Hansen, one of the lead scientists on the “Extremis” regeneration project that Aldrich Killian (Pearce) is spearheading. The only purpose Hansen really serves, other than as a “Y2K” fling on New Year’s Eve, is to warn Tony about the potential threat that the Extremis causes. In the end, she blends into relative obscurity within the narrative, and I could’ve cared less about her as a character.

“Iron Man 3” still has moments of sidesplitting humor and still thrives on Downey’s trademark charisma. He’s once again in top comedic form, even as his character’s mental state appears to shift. Downey succeeds at making Stark’s post-“Avengers” anxiety believable while still maintaining the pompous personality that audiences have come to know and love.

I really enjoyed the scenes featuring series newcomers Pearce and Dale. Pearce is at his conniving best, and Dale is convincing as the hard-to-kill henchman. The men are dastardly players in The Mandarin’s scheme, and between the two of them, they really give Iron Man a run for his money, which is something his solo adventures have sorely lacked.

Along with the talented cast, “Iron Man 3” features some of the most intense set pieces in the series. There’s the hectic destruction of Stark’s bayside home, a mid-air game of “Barrel of Monkeys,” Stark’s ballsy, sans-suit infiltration of The Mandarin’s compound, and the climactic showdown at a shipyard conveniently riddled with highly combustible oil drums. Gotta use up that budget somehow.

Overall, “Iron Man 3” trumps its 2010 predecessor thanks to fine performances and more rousing action sequences. But director Shane Black really drops the ball with the characterizations of Tony’s Tennessee sidekick Harley, Extremis scientist Maya Hansen, and The Mandarin. 

Fans of “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” will flock to see this movie. But if you consider yourself among them, lower your expectations because this doesn’t quite meet the lofty standards set by last year’s blockbuster or even those of Tony Stark’s first jaunt in 2008.