Jon Favreau's departure from behind the camera of the Iron Man franchise was a surprise blow: despite a lackluster yet profitable outing from his bombastic sequel, he's responsible for establishing the tone, polished action, and Robert Downey Jr.'s phoenix-like presence in this crucial fixture of Marvel's cinematic universe. Fortunately, his replacement, Lethal Weapon writer and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Shane Black, not only gets this intended attitude and how to direct the titular hero, he also served as a pro-bono "lifeline" for the Favreau-Downey Jr. team during the first film, so there's less of a transition than one might expect. While Black's signature sharp wit and eye for outlandish action invigorate Iron Man 3, a significant improvement over the series' sophomore slump, he also brings a stimulating decision to the table by forcing Tony Stark to spend most of the film out of the suit. This leads into a flawed, uneven, but compelling portrayal of a man's identity and post-trauma stress without the safety of his gadgets, with frequent references to the spirit of what made Favreau's original special.
As the start of "Phase Two" of Marvel's ever-expanding film lore, Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers, where Tony Stark (RDJ) played a crucial role in stopping an other-worldly invasion in New York City. Shaken by the experience to a point of acute panic attacks, Stark finds himself obsessed with his mechanical tinkering, creating and modifying suits in the hours where he can't sleep or spend time with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), now CEO of Stark Industries. During that time, a bearded fanatic known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) claims responsibility for curiously evidence-free terrorist activities through hacked television broadcasts, backed up by cryptic "lessons" about American indulgence, artifice, and claim to territory. In a fragile state of mind and dealing with the reemergence of a momentary colleague from his past, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whose radical plans for human advancement (and his attractiveness) draw Pepper's attention, Tony flexes his Iron Man muscle -- and, y'know, owns up to his duty as a sentinel -- by publicly provoking The Mandarin.
Before that, Iron Man 3 offers a glimpse nearly fifteen years into the past as a quasi-preamble, before Stark made his reputation as a public hero. Outside of Black and co-writer Drew Pearce's evident character reasons for doing so -- namely introducing Killian at a younger age, as well as the beautiful, brilliant scientist Maya Hansen (played by a woefully under-utilized Rebecca Hall) and her invaluable yet unstable work in organic regeneration -- this also serves as a reminder of a Tony Stark before he stumbled into the duties of a narcissistic hero in a near-impervious suit of his design. Thus begins a personal journey for Stark: complete with voiceover directed at an unspecified listener (you find out who in the post-credit sequence) that transitions to the present era, the strain on his persona created by a near-death sacrificial decision in New York flirts with the comic-book's famous "Demon in a Bottle" story arc ... without ever mentioning alcohol, which wasn't really Black's decision. Instead, the cornerstone -- the demon he struggles with -- is that anxiety itself, and it's a nice bit of character development in the film's first act.
The script from Black and Pearce expands on that internal crisis by finding a way to leave Stark without his gear, his girl, and his support structure at a pivotal point, where he's abandoned in the middle of nowhere with only his wits and scientific knowledge (and a boy essentially embodying a young engineering-savvy version of Tony Stark) to guide him. Some will find this change of pace refreshing, a return to those moments in the Afghanistan cave where he constructed the first rudimentary suit; once again, he's using only his inventiveness to weave in and out of tricky situations and get Iron Man in fighting shape. Others will find the lack of higher-octane action and similarities to other recent "fallen, morale-damaged hero" storylines frustrating, and that's partially due to circumstances that are wobbly even for comic-book logic. The pressure rests on Downey Jr. to convince those watching of his fraught situation, and his charisma -- now with the added touch of Shane Black's humorous edge -- keeps the attitude upbeat, hectic, and faintly mythic, bolstered by scenes such as Tony literally dragging the weight of his armor over his shoulder across a snowy field.
Director Black's eye for unique, amusing action adapts well to the moments where Stark does and doesn't have use of his suit, or even where he only has part of his suit, but they're of a different variety than one might expect of a follow-up to the powerhouse grandeur of The Avengers or, hell, even Iron Man 2. Sure, there are moments of traditional heavy-metal bombast that'll ignite a crowd, such as the destruction of Stark's seaside mansion featured in the advertising campaigns and another where Iron Man zips through the air to rescue a dozen or so free-falling citizens, a personal favorite action beat from the series. They're fewer and further between than the previous two films, though, instead replaced by Stark's resourcefulness -- his reflexes and cunning, his awareness of explosive materials, his ability to construct weapons out of rudimentary materials -- as he scrambles to investigate and thwart The Mandarin's acts of terror. His ability to overcome certain situations with his ingenuity stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but it's counterbalanced by how it enhances one's outlook on the character.
Black's style of humor and fascination with duality and facades compliments Iron Man 3's blockbuster predisposition, where one can easily see shades of The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in its blend of low-rumble suspense and sardonic dialogue. While The Mandarin eventually puts a deadline on his lethal master plan, orchestrated around Shane Black's fascination with Christmastime as his backdrop, the story's urgency relies more on the expedited discovery of the terrorist's identity and location. The answer behind the curtain is about as polarizing as the choice to leave Stark out of his armor for the majority of the film, where the script offers some facetious commentary on extremist group figureheads and the "economy" of provoking fear in the public eye. After seeing it three different times, it's still hard to determine whether I actually liked the twist or not; it delivers a surprising blow with a few unexpected layers, yet it's also handled very broadly, to a point where the impact -- despite a crackerjack performance from Ben Kingsley -- almost can't be taken seriously.
Iron Man 3's follow-through mostly justifies its antics upon reaching an explosive conclusion, though not without a dose of reckless, overzealous writing -- namely how it avoids a lingering issue over Tony's reserve suits -- that Black's endings haven't been immune to in the past. Superhuman soldiers with burning grips and breaths of fire create a high-stakes scenario for our hero and buddy-cop Rhodes, played reliably by Don Cheadle, as the film approaches a climax full of Iron Men, fireworks, and plenty of Hail Mary leaps within a dangerous shipyard, backed by a reliably fierce performance from Guy Pearce as his role in the Extremis program comes to fruition. What surprised me the most about the ending, once the smoke clears, is how final and cathartic it ends up feeling, as if it very well could be the bookend to Iron Man himself if they decided not to move the series forward. Giving closure to Stark's tribulations as a self-focused hero and his rocky relationship with Pepper Potts, it'll make the eminent day when the Avengers come knocking on his door again all the more intriguing.
Video and Audio:
There's only so much levelheaded critiquing and description a reviewer can really offer about something that's by and large flawless, which is what this 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment of Iron Man 3 ultimately amounts to. John Toll's digital cinematography has all the polish and punch of the other installments in the series: the sheen on Stark's armor, aggressive explosions accompanied by mass debris flying everywhere, and digital lighting effects like the red glow of Extremis patients to the bloom of light from Iron Man's suit(s). Taking place in both radiant daytime and the contrast complexity of night, everything here is stable and endlessly engaging, sporting nimble and reactive black levels, countless instances of exceptional depth awareness and fine detail in close-ups, and pitch-perfect palette replication in skin tones and Christmas lights. Both brisk and subtle camera movement never leave a pixel out of place, and I couldn't spot a single instance of digital distortion. In short, perfect.
The same goes for the 7.1 Master Audio treatment, delivering everywhere you'd want a high-budget superhero blockbuster to deliver. Disney's choice to retain those extra rear channels really pays off, since frequent in-flight activity makes broad use of the expanded back design, as well as some aggressive blasts and ambience in close-quartered locations. The rest of the track earns all the other accolades that can be thrown at it: explosions, crumbling metal, and collapsing architecture deliver deft, controlled bass; the energy blasts from Tony's hands and cracking glass offer well-pitched highs; and dialogue fluctuates between higher and lower-pitched quadrants with a fine balance between the two. Audiophiles are bound to discover one or two new reference scenes, such as the collapse of Stark's mansion and the soaring-air sequence later in the film, but the entire thing is evenhanded, free of any distortion, and very, very potent. English, French, and Spanish subtitles accompany the film, while options for a 2-channel English Descriptive track, a 7-channel French DTS-HD track, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish track can be chosen.
Audio Commentary with Shane Black and Drew Pearce:
Recorded shortly before the US release of Iron Man 3, Black and Pearce sit down for a somewhat casual, frequently enlightening discussion about the film, where they switch between discussing specific scenes taking place during their showing to tangential anecdotes about the production and cast. . A lot of really intriguing information about the Iron Man 3 that could've been emerges, with Black serving as more of a controlled, grounded voice to counterbalance Pearce's enthusiasm: they reveal how Maya Hansen / Rebecca Hall had a much more significant mastermind role in earlier drafts, how they conceptualized several different openings, and how the guys injected with Extremis would've had much more distinguishing physical traits and habits. Moreover, they also discuss some of the critics' and fans' issues with the film somewhat dead-on, such as the response to the Mandarin and how they intentionally guided Ben Kingsley's demeanor in a specific way during "that" scene Moments in the track drag along and digital effects get pointed out as "fake" a bit too frequently; aside from that, it's certainly an interesting track from the decision-making perspective of the writers that reveals their passion and grasp on the material.
Two dedicated Featurettes also accompany this release, starting with Marvel's Iron Man: Unmasked (10:59, HD), a somewhat brief but interesting glimpse at the start of filming and the construction of several scenes from the film: the initial Mark 42 suit assembly intro, the Stark mansion destruction, the entirety of the Rose Hill, Tennessee sequence, and the grand finale at the shipyard. Plenty of slick and crisply-photographed pre-CG shots -- both on stages and out in the wild -- can be found between interviews with Shane Black, producer Kevin Feige, and cast members, while their discussion reveals bits about where practical effects were used and what certain buildings in Rose Hill (North Carolina) were prior to filming. It's capped off by footage from the film's premiere in April, 2013. The other featurette finds us Deconstructing the Scene: Air Force One Attack (8:43, HD), the one sequence not covered in the other featurette, which covers the practical and digital effects employed in piecing together a very tricky airborn sequence.
The Blu-ray also arrives with a series of Deleted and Extended Scenes (16:20, HD), including a great extended version of Bill Maher's segment, lengthy added takes from The Mandarin, a lengthy string of excised material involving the young boy Harley's bullies -- and a near-death moment for Tony Stark that would've felt somewhat out of place -- and a few other tidbits discussed in the commentary. A lengthy Gag Reel (5:07, HD) has also been made available, as well as two other extras that tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter (15:29, HD), a surprisingly polished, retro, Hayley Atwell-led addition to the Marvel lore that begins a year after the events of Captain America; and a very brief look Behind the Scenes of Thor: The Dark World (1:53, HD).
Put simply, Iron Man 3 is a noticeable step-up from Jon Favreau's sophomore sequel, where writer/director Shane Black's presence has a clear impact on the momentum, relevance, and humor present in this exceptionally character-focused blockbuster. To shake things up, he's made a few ambitious creative decisions while sticking to the formula and tone of the series, namely taking Tony Stark out of the suit for a lengthy period of time and incorporating a few ... unique twists on the comic-book's lore. This walks and talks like a true hybrid of Black's quirky action-comedy tone and the arsenal-packin' superhero, who undergoes a clash with his ability and past experiences as he battles against a global terrorist, The Mandarin, and his plan to "educate" his audience through message-driven violence. It's not without rough spots, leaps in logic, and questionable directions, but it's an exhilarating third chapter in the hero's story that comes much closer to reaching the quality of the film that got everything started. While I'd probably only give the film a moderate recommendation, there's too much to love about this Blu-ray not to endorse it further, namely exceptional visual and audio prowess, a solid commentary, and a thin but satisfying arrangement of deleted material and featurettes. Highly Recommended.