- Iron Man 3 (2013) movie review: Featuring a still-playful Robert Downey Jr., Shane Black’s accomplished superhero superproduction is somewhat marred by its unsubtle pandering to the powers-that-be in the increasingly crucial Chinese market.
- Iron Man 3 was nominated for one Academy Award, in the Best Visual Effects category.
Iron Man 3 movie review: Worthwhile Marvel entry impacted by Disney’s eagerness to please the overseers of the all-important Chinese market
Much has happened since the events of 2010’s Iron Man 2, and we’re not talking about Tony Stark’s side adventure in last year’s surprisingly satisfying The Avengers. Nor are we talking about anything related to the intricate motion picture universe of Marvel’s superhero characters.
What’s happened since 2010 is that American movie studios have gotten ever closer to the tipping point in their fealty to China in order to ensure production funding and/or theatrical distribution of their films in the exploding Chinese market. While many films have taken advantage of Chinese money lately, the most troubling is Iron Man 3, even more so than the recent remake of Red Dawn, in which the Chinese villains were digitally replaced with North Koreans to avoid potential distribution problems in the world’s fastest-growing major movie market.
Normally, such mundane, inside-baseball concerns should take a back seat to hoping Robert Downey Jr. hasn’t lost a charming, insouciant step in his portrayal of the industrialist turned “man in a can,” or whether this third outing will right the ship that foundered slightly the last time out. But Iron Man 3 has been too obviously massaged to earn the Chinese payday granted to American films that satisfy that country’s stringent, yet capricious, Film Censorship Committee.
Tony Stark’s latest escapade, on which Disney and Marvel partnered with the Shanghai-based media company DMG, feels compromised by the clever, stealth ways in which it protects China’s image, promotes Chinese companies, and even makes America look bad – always a plus to a government that only allows 34 foreign movies per year to screen within its borders. (The actors playing two greedy War on Terror baddies even traded their native accents for American accents.)
And that’s to say nothing of the special cut of Iron Man 3 that will play only in Chinese theaters and features popular local actress Fan Bingbing.
If all this sounds like a conspiracy theory, it’s not entirely. The Chinese market is now the second largest moviegoing market in the world and American tentpole films are extremely expensive propositions. Marvel has every right to minimize its risk. However, when these deals impact or limit a filmmaker’s creative options, that’s where it becomes an issue.
Little franchise fatigue
Now, it might seem ridiculous to admit this after such a rant, but Shane Black’s return to directing is still a worthy addition to Marvel’s movie library. There’s little franchise fatigue noted here, probably because Robert Downey Jr. talks too fast for the thought to take hold.
Refreshingly, while there are a few exciting superhero set pieces, including a gangbuster sequence featuring a dozen civilians getting blown out of Air Force One and falling through the sky, co-writers Black and Drew Pearce find enough for Tony to do without resorting to the metal suit.
Capitulations and compromises aside, Iron Man 3 is yet another state-of-the-art Marvel creation that strikes an entertaining balance between heart, swagger, and volume in a way that seemed impossible during the years when DC characters were the only ones given blockbuster treatment. We just would have been better off not knowing that Chinese fortune cookies are an American invention that, like Americans, are “hollow and full of lies.”
Resourceful Robert Downey Jr.
Four movies into the character, one can still marvel (sorry about that) at Robert Downey Jr.’s resourcefulness, playfulness, and seriousness-of-purpose in being Tony Stark. It’s hard to imagine caring about the Iron Man series if Downey Jr. weren’t in it. He even shines when trying to sell Tony’s less worked-out new character traits, like the post-traumatic stress he’s been suffering since the events depicted in The Avengers.
Tony copes by throwing himself into his work, meaning more Iron Man suits and less time with girlfriend and Stark Industries head honcho, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Stark’s hiatus ends when forced to track down a terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden look-alike who was born in China in the original comic book (don’t worry, China, we’ll change that) and now issues dire threats with an Americanized accent.
Part of Tony Stark’s appeal (and Robert Downey Jr.’s appeal) is his thoroughly modern mix of cockiness and charm. That hip arrogance helps to create Iron Man 3’s second villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a smooth-talking brain researcher who has developed a something or other that’ll “hack” into a person’s DNA to heal their injuries and cure their diseases.
Later, Stark’s brashness hits closer to home. After The Mandarin takes credit for an attack on Hollywood’s iconic Chinese Theatre (whose naming rights were recently purchased by Chinese tech company TCL), an overconfident Stark throws down the gauntlet, leading to the destruction of his Malibu mountainside mansion. It’s a spectacular collision of ones and zeros that Shane Black handles like a genre veteran, an impressive feat considering his only other directing credit is 2005’s CGI-less Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starring Downey Jr.
More is more
At its noisiest, Iron Man 3 proves that Black successfully studied the masters of “more is more” sequel-making. A climactic showdown at a shipping port is busily crammed with a dozen flying, diving, crashing iterations of self-propelled Iron Man suits. Tony leaps from platform to superhero armor and back again like a man whose battle skills were honed playing Doodle Jump.
Such mayhem only reminds us that the true test of a superhero film is how well it holds your interest when the hero isn’t in costume. Iron Man 3, on that count, holds us pretty tight.
After his mansion is destroyed, Tony winds up in snowy Tennessee dragging behind him a busted Iron Man suit, courtesy of the Department of Cheap Symbolism. While there, he meets a little boy, Harley (Ty Simpkins, just terrific), who helps him solve the mystery of the Chinese Theatre bombing. Harley is also on-hand when Tony first encounters the results of Killian’s ominously titled Project Extremis: An evil, glowing, unstoppable member of Homeland Security.
Also worth noting, Robert Downey Jr.’s quicksilver delivery style never diminishes or alienates the other performers. It welcomes all comers, and it’s hard to watch Tony bantering with Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and not think of Mel Gibson/Danny Glover’s Lethal Weapon (1987), the first script Shane Black ever sold.
Marvel’s cinematic emergence
It was only about 35 years ago that the Richard Donner-launched Superman series signaled DC’s decades-long stay at the top of Comic Book Adaptation Mountain. Marvel characters felt small and not ready for primetime, and were thus relegated to low-budget embarrassments like Albert Pyun’s Captain America.
Today, even conceding the triumph of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Marvel is making some exciting, ambitious moves with its properties. It did an outstanding job creating individual films based on its characters and then gathering them up for a big-tent epic that will subsequently create its own diaspora of future storylines.
Marvel deserves the hand-over-fist cash it has been making these last few years, though looping in foreign governments, however indirectly, and giving them the power to influence a filmmaker’s creative intentions in exchange for money is “mission creep” at its most disappointing. Even if the results, in the case of Iron Man 3, aren’t disappointing at all.
Iron Man 3 (2013) cast & crew
Director: Shane Black.
Screenplay: Shane Black & Drew Pearce.
From the Marvel comic book characters created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; and the comic book miniseries “Extremis,” written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley, Jon Favreau, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, William Sadler, Dale Dickey, Ty Simpkins, Miguel Ferrer, Wang Xueqi, Shaun Toub.
Cameos: Fan Bingbing, Mark Ruffalo, Joan Rivers.
Voice: Paul Bettany.
Cinematography: John Toll.
Film Editing: Jeffrey Ford & Peter S. Elliot.
Music: Brian Tyler.
Production Design: Bill Brzeski.
Producer: Kevin Feige.
Production Companies: Marvel Studios | Paramount Pictures | DMG Entertainment.
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Running Time: 130 min.
Country: United States.
“Iron Man 3 (2013) Movie Review: Shane Black” notes
 Besides featuring the notoriously communist practice of product placement, Iron Man 3‘s four-minute Chinese market-geared footage includes doctor Wang Xueqi and nurse Fan Bingbing discussing how their first-rate medical knowledge is essential for Tony Stark’s survival.
Where is The Mandarin from?
 Regarding the changes to the Mandarin character, Iron Man 3 director and co-screenwriter Shane Black told Yahoo! Movies:
“His nationality is not even clear because he is shrouded in secrecy. He has crafted himself in the manner of the Mandarin, of a warlord. And I think that’s great because you get to do the comic book but you don’t … have to deal with the specifics of Fu Manchu stereotyping.
“We’re not saying he’s Chinese, we’re saying he, in fact, draws a cloak around him of Chinese symbols and dragons because it represents his obsessions with Sun Tzu in various ancient arts of warfare that he studied.”
When it comes to the Mandarin’s manner of speech, Ben Kingsley explained to The Huffington Post’s Mike Ryan:
“I wanted a voice that would disconcert a Western audience. I wanted a voice that would sound far more homegrown and familiar – a familiarity like a teacher’s voice or a preacher’s voice. The rhythms and tones of an earnest, almost benign, teacher – trying to educate people for their own good. Therefore, that’s the timbre that I used for him. I think it would be more disconcerting and threatening to hear almost a patriarchal voice rather than a screaming, ‘villainous’ voice.”
Now, there are quite a few twists and turns to the Mandarin character in Iron Man 3. And that’s why Hong Kong-born Tony Leung Chiu-wai is “officially” the first actor to play The Mandarin in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – as the Mandarin/Fu Manchu combo Xu Wenwu in Destin Daniel Cretton’s 2021 release Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
“Iron Man 3 (2013) Movie Review” endnotes
Awards & nominations
Besides its Academy Award nod, among Iron Man 3’s awards season (and whereabouts) recognition was a nomination for the Best Visual Effects BAFTA and a Favorite Movie win at the People’s Choice Awards.
Iron Man 3 box office information via boxofficemojo.com.
Shane Black’s input on Iron Man 3’s concept of The Mandarin is discussed in an interview at Screen Rant.
Iron Man 3 movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) website.
Ben Kingsley, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man 3 movie images: Marvel | Disney Enterprises.
“Iron Man 3 (2013) Movie Review: Shane Black Provides Robert Downey Jr. with Worthy Sequel” last updated in September 2022.