Following in the footsteps of The Avengers, the most comic booky of comic book movies, writer/director Shane Black has helped redefine the Marvel hero Iron Man for his third outing by giving the cold shoulder to the source material. It’s hard to call Iron Man 3 a “comic book movie,” even while Robert Downey, Jr. flies around in a destructive exoskeleton, aiming to put a stop to a baddie named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and his fire-breathing minions. The movie plays more like a sequel to Black’s 2005 neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Downey, Jr.). Detective-esque voiceover, razor sharp banter, and an obstacle that has Tony Stark piecing together clues and rarely appearing in his iconic armor, Iron Man 3 avoids fantasy in favor of a hefty helping of pulp fiction. The setup makes way for Downey, Jr.’s best work in the franchise.
Iron Man 3 suggests that the whole flying-into-space-to-blow-up-a-worm-hole-and-almost-dying thing from The Avengers‘ Battle of New York took a toll on Tony. To cope with PTSD, he remains cooped up in his lab, endlessly building new Iron Man suits for whatever otherworldly adversary may hit him next. All the while, his girlfriend/replacement CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) attempts to manage Tony’s money machine, Stark Industries. The latest proposition for the tech conglomerate comes from nerd-turned-playboy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a man with clear resentment for Tony, who still pitches Pepper his latest creation (if only to woo her with genius). It’s called Extremis, a genetic treatment that allows for unprecedented human regeneration. It also causes people to gain superhuman powers… with the potential of internal combustion — but hey, it’s still in development.
There’s an abidance of plot in Iron Man 3: along with Killian’s sneaky schemes, The Mandarin, a bin Laden-like terrorist, is growing in power and detonating bombs in random places across the U.S.. Hoping to put a stop to him is Tony’s BFF James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). He’s painted his Iron Man armor Red, White and Blue to become Iron Patriot, crusader of the War on Terror. In a surprise to no one, intelligence gathered on The Mandarin continually leads him in the wrong directions. When one Mandarin attack hits too close to home, Tony is shaken out of his comfort zone. He goes on the offense, but his cocky attitude is his downfall. After an attack on his cliffside mansion (a tremendous sequence of architectural dismemberment), Tony is left on his butt in the middle of nowhere, with no one to help him.
Black’s clear goal is to keep Tony out of the armor. The Marvel regime forces its movies to stylistically conform, keeping Iron Man 3 as flat and generic across the technical board. So Black innovates on the page as he did during his screenwriting days (he’s the man behind Lethal Weapon and The Last Boyscout). Downey, Jr. is firing on all cylinders here, shooting off wisecracks faster than Iron Man’s repulser rays and giving Tony something to grapple with. Black connects the character with one of the scariest companion tropes in all of filmmaking: “random helpful kid.” It ends up working because Tony never loses his sardonic tone — when his 11-year-old helper reveals that his dad walked out a few years prior, Tony tells him to get over it (using very colorful language). They’ve got bad guys to fight. Completely rude, completely genuine. Downey, Jr. is one of the few performers who can drop that comedy gold then match it with a stunt-filled set piece.
Downey, Jr. isn’t alone. Black has a dream cast for Iron Man 3, helping keep the convoluted plot in check with personality. Pearce has a ball with his diabolical Killian while Kingsley subverts every villain trope in the book. His performance as The Mandarin pulls the rug from under the audiences’ feet with cackling glee. It might be Black’s way of flipping the bird to die hard comic fans, but depending on your investment, Kingsley dominates the movie.
While Black injects his wry sensibilities into the superhero format, he also plays ball with the necessary evils. There’s big action in Iron Man 3 and, unlike the previous two installments, it delivers. A scene in which Iron Man swoops through the sky to catch fallen airplane passengers will make your heart race. Whether it’s incredible CG or practical stunts, the airborne wrangling feels all too real. Black has his classic ’90s action moments too: if Iron Man 3 didn’t have a swing-away-from-an-explosion moment, it wouldn’t be a Shane Black movie.
Aside from a few raised eyebrows provoked by the film’s logic, Downey, Jr. and Black once again found magic together — and on a scale worthy of summer blockbusters. Iron Man 3 easily tops the first two movies and starts the summer off with a bang and a sly wink to camera.
(And don’t forget to stay after the credits — Marvel once again drops a scene that completes the film!)