'Iron Man 3' looks at identity question

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Ben Kingsley stars as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3

Besides the big action sequences, Iron Man 3 has an idea that is summed up on a name tag.

It’s 1999, and industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is still a playboy, often indifferent to the people around him, and using a big conference as an excuse to party. As he does so, he wears a name tag that says simply: You know who I am.

That phrase will recur in the movie, but it also raises a question of identity that Tony and other characters have to ponder. What are they? What is their role in the world? As the movie jumps to the present day — which, in this case, is after the events of Marvel’s The Avengers — Stark has taken on several identities. There is, of course, the 1999-model Tony, whose actions will affect Tony and the world in the present. Then there’s Tony after the events that led to the creation of Iron Man, and the epiphanies that made Tony more committed to serving good. Then there’s Iron Man itself, Tony in a suit but also a brand name to the public; when War Machine (Don Cheadle) is renamed for a government effort, he is called Iron Patriot. And there’s the post-Avengers Tony, still feeling the emotional effects of that film’s climactic battle in New York, but knowing as well that the conflict is not over.

But it’s not just Tony who has questions of identity. Indeed, the movie pivots on the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious bin Laden-esque figure spreading terror between communiques delivered in intonations reminiscent of Walter Cronkite; he and Tony are bound to tangle. Then there’s Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), dramatically transformed from the seeming loser Tony brushed off back in 1999 into something more glamorous and sinister. And people who are not quite human, wreaking havoc — but for whom and why?

The question of identity at times makes Iron Man 3 more interesting than the big action scenes. While some are impressive (and there’s a 3D version, if you want to pay the premium), they are coming on the heels of a lot of other big comic-book movie action; this film reminded me far too often of some of the major moments in Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man movies,

The film also wants its audience to think about consequences, as Tony so often has — not only the consequences of saying yes to something, but also what happens when you say no. Still, Iron Man 3 never tries to be as deep or as thoughtful as, say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies (where identity is also an issue). It is content to give the characters a thin top layer of soulfulness before turning again to a fight or jokey dialogue that suggests this is all just a summer romp.

Downey gives Stark more depth than the lines he must read, and Pearce and Kingsley impress. Cheadle does all right by the buddy role, but it’s hardly heavy lifting. Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Tony’s love and business associate Pepper Potts, and Jon Favreau returns as Happy Hogan, though neither stands out much. Ty Simpkins plays a kid who connects with Tony; Simpkins does fine with a role that nonetheless had me asking if we really needed the kid at all — and if a lovable dog was around the corner.

Iron Man 3 is reasonably entertaining, fast-paced and energetic, and a lot of the jokes work. The body count is high, but until the final moments the killing also has dramatic weight. The film also offers all the customary Marvel flourishes, including an additional scene following the closing credits. But the standard for comic-book movies has become very high, and this is not up to the standard of the Nolan films, or the first Iron Man, or The Avengers.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and the Ohio.com. including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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