What does the world look like after “The Avengers?”

In our world and Marvel’s, that is the question facing the characters in “Iron Man 3.” Following the huge success of Marvel’s “The Avengers,” how can these films return to their original, stand alone nature? Is that even possible? And, for Tony Stark, as the trailer suggests, even he isn’t sure how to continue after fighting an alien invasion alongside a god, a beast, and a legend. How do you deal with the world changing forever, but no one can explain what happened?

The film opens in 1999 (with probably the only successful use of Eiffel  65’s “Blue” as a music cue in a movie). For the story at hand, it is the perfect place to start. Tony Stark’s opening narration borrows the quote “We create our own demons” and then goes on to show Tony creating a few of his own. He meets Maya Hanson (Rebecca Hall), a gifted bio-engineer with a new project called “Extremis,” and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce), a crippled, over-enthusiastic scientist and investor whom Stark blows off by sending him to a hotel roof. It sets the stage for the film, but also gives the audience a peak back to who Tony Stark was long before he ended up in that cave in Afghanistan. This allows the audience to compare the two figures: Tony the arrogant, selfish genius versus Tony the arrogant, selfless superhero. It’s always important to remember where you came from before you head off to where you are supposed to be.

We then jump to the present. Tony hasn’t slept in three days, in the middle of a manic episode, and is launching Iron Man Mark 42, a new, self-assembling suit that Tony spends the most time in over the course of the movie. The launch is classic Stark in that it is half-successful, with Stark’s A.I. butler, JARVIS (voiced again by Paul Bettany) commenting on Tony’s well-being with concern. But if Tony’s world was cracked before, it starts to crumble with the emergence of The Mandarin (the wonderfully over the top Sir Ben Kingsley) on the world’s stage and Aldrich Killian re-emerging in his life, now suave and attempting to woo Stark’s long time love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Couple that with Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) having the War Machine armor re-branded as The Iron Patriot, friend and former bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) ending up at death’s door and anxiety threatening to cripple him, Tony Stark has an uphill battle ahead of him.

Iron Man saves Tony

In some ways, this movie is a sequel to three movies. The first two are “Iron Man 2” and “The Avengers,” with the film picking up the story strands of both films. The third film is 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Robert Downey Jr.’s first outing with Shane Black, the director and co-writer of “Iron Man 3.” If you’re seen “Kiss Kiss…,” you’ll see shades of the films dark, slap-dash sensibility. Downey Jr. plays Stark with a darker edge this time around. But instead of Stark’s pity party darkness in “Iron Man 2,” it’s now more of a gallows humor darkness. Stark has his back against the wall for most of the movie and responds with humor in the face of adversity.

In one scene in particular, Black seems to make a statement about “Iron Man 2’s” focus on daddy issues. When Stark meets a 10 year old boy named Harley after breaking into Harley’s garage, the boy tells him about his family, saying he has a mom who is working and a dad who went out for lottery tickets. Harley tells Tony “[my dad] must have won because that was 6 years ago.” Having already dealt his own father issues extensively in the previous movie, Stark (and Black by extension) retorts with “Dads leave sometimes, you don’t have to be a pussy about it.” Downey Jr.’s delivery of the line is excellent, but the it also represents a recurring theme of Black’s work in this movie.

Iron Man Air Force OneBlack knows that he is part of the bigger Marvel universe, but he also wants to make his own movie. He uses the tropes to his advantage and makes the audience’s expectation of a Marvel movie work in his favor, delivering huge twists (SPOILER: There is one particular big twist in this movie), but also little tweaks to the form. Marvel is a well-oiled machine at this point. “Iron Man 3” marks the 7th movie from the studio and the start of what they continually refer to as “Phase 2.” If they want this money train to continue, then the movies need to evolve and bringing in someone like Black, who has made a career as a creator of tropes (his first claim to fame is as the screenwriter for “Lethal Weapon”) and a destroyer of one (the aforementioned “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”). It also helps to have such a wonderful cast, led once again by Downey Jr.

There is a line in “The Avengers.” In the middle of a heated argument with Stark, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) says “And you’re all about style, aren’t you?” That perfectly captures how Downey Jr. has embodied the character over the past 5 years. Even in his lowest moments, Stark still exudes charisma. Robert Downey Jr. has become not only the backbone of this franchise, but of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. This is further driven home by the fact that Tony Stark spends most of him time out of the Iron Man suit during the course of the movie and when he is in the suit, more often than not, it is only half on (like a great shoot-out sequence between Stark and The Mandarin’s guards where our hero wields a gun, one Iron Man glove and a boot). With or with out the armor, Tony Stark is still Iron Man, but now with more focus on the Man.

Following the attack on his home that’s depicted in the trailer, Tony finds himself in the middle of Nowhere, Tenn. The harrowing attack has taken a toll on both him and his suit, which is on the verge of shutting down. But as JARVIS begins to shut down, Downey Jr. plays Tony’s response in an intriguing way. He calls out to the A.I. like a friend. “Don’t leave me, buddy,” Tony says with longing in his voice. This is a man at the end of his rope, who not only lost his strength, but his last ally. This also shows the evolution of Tony Stark over the course of four movies. He may not have many people in his life (by my count, he has six friends in the movie including his suit), but as time has gone on, he has become much warmer and loving of these people.

Iron Man & Pepper

For not being a superhero or a member of S.H.I.E.L.D., Pepper Potts has had the third most movie appearances in the Marvel movies (topped only be Tony Stark, the dearly departed Agent Coulson (the sadly absent Clark Gregg) and tied with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury). With that in her corner, Gwenyth Paltrow is finally able to take Pepper to some surprising heights and, at times, is able to stand toe to toe with Stark and his villains. The ease at which Paltrow and Downey Jr. bounce off each other in scenes is really magical. They have a “His Girl, Friday” quality to them that is on display here and has only gotten better with time. And now that Don Cheadle is free from the shadow of being the re-cast actor in “Iron Man 2,” he is able to really become comfortable with his role, both as Rhodes and as Iron Patriot. And given Black’s writing background, it should come as no surprise that the Stark-Rhodes dynamic closely resembles Murtaugh-Riggs from the “Lethal Weapon” series. In the world and series of “Iron Man,” Paltrow and Cheadle have turned Pepper and Rhodes into the foundation on which Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark can build.

But as our hero builds, there are those who wish to destroy and “Iron Man 3” delivers in spades. Simultaneously bucking and giving into the tradition of too many villains in the third part of a series, the film features two men hellbent on snuffing out Tony Stark: The Mandarin and Aldrich Killian. The surprise is that Black is able to pull off is the two villain system for this film, when so often it falls flat and bloats a film. He has some tricks up his sleeve concerning how he does this, but mainly, it is by focusing the villains on one goal. Usually in these situations, the two (or three or four) villains will have differing goals that lead to a team-up against the hero, but in “Iron Man 3,” Black keeps the motivation tight and simple and that makes all the difference.

The Mandarin hates Iron Man

Sir Ben Kingsley takes The Mandarin to some daring heights in this film. Every scene Kingsley is in, he commands the room. It’s hard to talk about what Kingsley is able to do with the character without revealing what becomes of him, but needless to say, The Mandarin has never been depicted this way and Kingsley is game for anything, creating a truly dynamic villain for the film, even if he is only half of the problem.

Aldrich Killian is surprisingly unsympathetic. That’s not to excuse Stark’s actions against him that ultimately send him down his villainous path, but with Pierce behind the wheel, the character’s weak, hippie appearance at the beginning only hides the darkness laying dormant within him. Pierce plays this character not as someone pure who has been corrupted, but as a villain who spent his whole life without the strength the act on his evil desires.

By contrast, Maya Hanson leaves a little to be desired. Because of Tony’s flippant nature towards her at the beginning and her eventual role in the bigger scheme, it’s confusing to know how to feel about Maya. When she shows remorse for allowing her project to be corrupted, it’s unclear what to make of her words when placed in the context of her actions. But that is more a problem with the writing than the acting. Even though she looks like the thinking man’s Katherine Heigl, Hall is able to breathe suitable life into Maya Hanson and the character even has a short and sweet scene with Pepper, allowing for one of the true rarity in comic book movies: a conversation between two women.

Iron Man & Tony Stark

In this post-“Avengers” landscape that Marvel is heading into, “Iron Man 3” is the best thing they could hope to release. Strong on it’s own and made even stronger when folded into the story of the other six movies, “Iron Man 3” is setting the bar for not only this summer, but the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Thor is up to the plate next, once again faced with with proving the sustainability of Marvel outside of Tony Stark and his “real world.”

But for now, it’s Tony Stark’s world and we’re just living in it.

 Iron Man 3 – 3.5 Colors out of 4