by Tony Dayoub
"You know who I am." It's a statement made several different times in Iron Man 3 by both Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his nemesis the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) that turns out to be more of a question than a declaration: "Do you know who I am?" We find out who the Mandarin is fairly early. Whether you'll be satisfied with the answer largely depends on if you're a comic book fan who holds filmmakers accountable for screwing around with your precious text. The answer to who Stark is takes a good deal longer to arrive at a resolution, relentlessly driving Iron Man 3 to its conclusion rather skillfully thanks to director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) who consistently subverts the expectations one brings to the otherwise increasingly predictable and generic superhero movie.
Iron Man 3 is actually more of a not-a-superhero movie. Don't get me wrong. I don't want to raise the hopes of any prospective significant others being dragged to opening night screenings by their geeky dates. There's a sufficient number of fantasy action set-pieces you're more likely to find in the typical summer blockbuster than not. But Black cleverly undercuts just about every one of them to keep the viewer tantalized enough to keep asking when are we really going to see Iron Man? Just about every time Stark tries to don his tin-plated outfit (okay, more like ablative armor), the weaponized plating either doesn't work, is out of juice, or is just out of reach. The delayed gratification not only creates suspense. It serves to remind us that there is a very human person underneath a suit that essentially turns out to be as useful as scrap metal at the most necessary moments.
No doubt Iron Man 3's star was looking for more of a chance to stretch in what isn't too hard to imagine might be the swan song for at least the Downey version of the Armored Avenger. We see less of the CGI Shellhead we've come to love and more of Downey himself than we have in perhaps all of the series' previous films combined. And that is not only not a bad thing. It's sensational. From the movie's first act, when we learn that severe anxiety attacks have been plaguing Stark since he battled aliens in last year's The Avengers, to the spectacularly frenzied finale, where even a slew of Iron Men aren't enough to distract us from focusing on the actor who so charmingly overcame considerable real-life baggage to become the superstar at the apex of Marvel's box-office domination, Iron Man 3 is Downey's tour-de-force. And it's a testament to Downey's business instincts that he very likely had considerable say in selecting Black to direct him, generously repaying a director who cast him in one of the first and most well-received films he made as he struggled to make a comeback from his period of substance abuse troubles.
Iron Man 3 strips its protagonist of his armor, his advanced laboratory facilities, and his tools, stranding him in Tennessee while an enemy even more insidious than we first give him credit for tears down the rest of his world around him. And it's all done in service of the question that forms the spine of the movie. Do you know who Tony Stark is? I can't blame anyone if they guess the film's rather foregone answer to the query. But underneath the red and gold casing, underneath the hi-tech safety goggles and lab coat, underneath the arrogant ingenuity and wisecracking Hawksian persona, the answer to who is Tony Stark is staring, or rather, winking at us rather slyly. Tony Stark is Robert Downey, Jr., and for that, we can be grateful.