The Avengers is a great movie, but no repeat viewing will ever top the first time I saw it. That feeling of awe and near elation at the audacity of what Joss Whedon & Co. pulled off seemed near untouchable. Even the climax of closure at the end of The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t as much of a rush as Whedon’s blockbuster. The Avengers is the highest grossing movie of all time for a reason; Whedon manufactured the perfect storm of pop-culture ecstasy with one mind-blowing set piece after another. The plot and dialogue break down after multiple viewings, but the joy does not. The Avengers remains one of the best comic-book movies ever.
Iron Man 3 can’t really compare to the heights of The Avengers. But that’s okay- it’s still a thrilling ride that improves upon Iron Man 2 in nearly every way. Where Iron Man 2 was muddled, boring, and long, Iron Man 3 is focused, rousing, and…well, it’s still long. But Iron Man 3 is far more creative with its length than the second one was; there are several twists and crowd-pleasing moments that make the spectacle worth the time.
One of the ways Iron Man 3 trumps 2 is in its villains. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a scientist who was snubbed early in his career by Tony Stark (the still inimitable Robert Downey, Jr.) and now has plans for regenerating lost limbs that may or may not be linked to terrorist attacks orchestrated by the intimidating Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). All of this would be pretty unexciting, but director Shane Black adds a personal touch with domestic turmoil between Tony and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony has been distracted with a personal project that has to do with his Iron Man suit, and it’s putting a strain on their relationship. This is exacerbated when Tony dares the Mandarin to try to attack him at his home, giving out his home address on the national news, something Pepper isn’t too excited about, especially when helicopters come and drag their home into the ocean, separating the lovers indefinitely.
The rest of the movie involves Tony’s effort to find the Mandarin and rejoin Pepper. The mystery surrounding the Mandarin isn’t too compelling on the surface, but the chillingly realistic videos they broadcast on TV to all America, which show torture and other scenes of war, echo real terrorism videos, making the threat of the Mandarin feel more imminent. Kingsley is a formidable villain, and Pearce adds an appropriate amount of sleaze as Tony’s rival in the scientific world and for Pepper’s affections. The two of them make for far more interesting villains than Mickey Rourke’s dud of a baddie, Whiplash, from Iron Man 2. Downey, Jr. is as hilariously deadpan as ever, and Don Cheadle is enjoyable as Downey, Jr.’s straight man, Tony’s best friend, Jim Rhodes. Paltrow has never stood out in the Iron Man movies, but in this one her Pepper finally gets to kick some butt.
I don’t think anyone expected an Avengers-level movie here. I was sufficiently pleased with what I saw. It’s clever, action-packed, and a lot of fun, much like the first Iron Man. That’s a little worrisome, though; maybe it’s too much like the first Iron Man. A lot has changed since the first movie came out in 2008; several great comic book movies have come out that continued Iron Man’s precedent of comic-book-as-social-commentary, as well as other science-fiction/action movies that went beyond spectacle and action. But they took what Iron Man helped establish and made it their own, putting unique spins on their genres and saying new things about our world. Iron Man 3 does neither; if Iron Man 4 doesn’t aim higher, audiences will stop caring.