Don Cheadle as James Rhodes in a scene from "Iron Man 3."
In 1978, each member of the band Kiss released a solo album. The project was creative and financially ambitious, but the results suggested the band was greater than the sum of its parts. “Iron Man 3” may not feel as incomplete as a Gene Simmons solo record, but it does leave you wishing the rest of the band had come along for the ride.
“Iron Man 3” is the first follow-up to last year’s “Avengers” ensemble piece, focusing on the aftermath for Tony “Iron Man” Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.). Two trips through a wormhole have left Stark rattled, suffering from frequent anxiety attacks, insomnia and a severely damaged mojo. If there is a theme for “Iron Man 3,” it is, “What does Tony Stark do when everything around him falls apart?”
Stark’s nemesis is more earthbound than last year’s alien invaders. The Mandarin (played brilliantly by Sir Ben Kingsley) is a terrorist who has been wreaking havoc on American soil, and may be connected to a team of super soldiers led by a Stark-spurned scientist named Killian (Guy Pearce). When an encounter with a super soldier leaves his head of security (Jon Favreau) in a coma, Stark impulsively declares war on the Mandarin, and gets his house blown up for his trouble.
From here, “Iron Man 3” works the “Rocky” angle, pitting Stark as the underdog who has to use his wits instead of his toys to fight the bad guys. This grounded approach builds to a finale that provides an impressive payoff, figuratively for fans and literally for whoever is manufacturing Iron Man toys these days. (As a side note, the 3-D effect is unnecessary. Save the extra money and go 2-D on this one.)
Throughout the film, Downey places Stark’s trademark wit front and center; the third installment in the franchise tries hard to be the funniest of the bunch, maybe to offset its darker tone. Supporting characters played by Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts) and Don Cheadle (Col. Rhodes) add to the mix, largely to show how much Stark has matured from his carefree, womanizing days.
But the best actor prize clearly goes to Kingsley, whose Mandarin offers genuine creepiness and a few surprises.
Yet in spite of the supporting cast, their characters fail to provide the fireworks of a Tony Stark vs. Captain America catfight, or the humor of a Stark/Bruce Banner bromance. Killian points out that once the demigod with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety doesn’t cut it anymore, and you wonder if he’s referring to the standalone franchises, as well.
Still, “Iron Man 3” delivers on the effects and the gadgets and the explosions, and it adds depth to Stark’s character arc. It’s not “The Avengers,” but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a fun film that faces a tough task and delivers (including a traditional post-credits scene that may address some of that "Avengers" longing). It was the most successful franchise of the “Avengers” lead-ups, and should hold onto that title while fans wait for Joss Whedon’s 2015 sequel.
“Iron Man 3” is a predictable PG-13, mainly for action violence and scattered mild profanity. Sexual content only finds its way to the screen through some suggestive dialogue and a few women in bikinis. In that sense, maybe a Gene Simmons solo album is an appropriate comparison after all.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.