Was giving former Hollywood wunderkind Shane Black the keys to Iron Man’s ignition something of a crazy bet? Because the writer-director hasn’t been a sure thing in years. The only bona fide hit he’s ever had was Lethal Weapon, and that came out in 1987. Granted, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang showed the haters that Black could still make magic from the printed word, but audiences didn’t seem to notice, and while that film proved he could still adapt a script, it didn’t erase the memory of his more notorious flops like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
But if Marvel/Paramount execs were biting their nails over Black sticking Iron Man’s landing, they’ve probably forgotten their misgivings in buckets of champagne. Not only is Iron Man 3 a huge hit, it’s a pretty good finish to the series and one of the better superhero flicks in Marvel’s stable.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, the man in the iron (or whatever metal it’s made of) mask, who, after saving the world from aliens and Norse gods in The Avengers, has been suffering bouts of crippling anxiety, confiding in his buddy Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony is forced to come to grips with his stress when a terrorist calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) takes credit for a series of massively destructive and untraceable bombings, leaving Tony’s best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) in a coma and destroying the billionaire defense contractor’s Malibu mansion, leaving him without power for his suit.
Black’s ideas are heavy on action, but when Tony’s armor is temporarily sidelined and he’s forced to rely on his unaided wits and limbs, the fisticuffs and firefights bear all the hallmarks of the director’s Lethal Weapon-era heyday: An unarmored Stark infiltrates a mansion lousy with black-suited henchmen, a precocious child aids him, cherished Hollywood icons are assaulted with explosives, and the story takes place around Christmas. Take away the CGI, and you can practically imagine Tony and Rhodey (another human weapon, filling the armor of the star-spangled, focus group-named Iron Patriot) as a couple of L.A. detectives settling the score down at the docks. As it turns out, the pair ends up settling the score at a shipyard.
As such, the movie plays a little differently from the two previous, Jon Favreau-helmed installations. Iron Man 3 may be a tent-pole flick crucial to propping up Marvel Studios’ upcoming Avengers sequel, but these decidedly Black-ian touches help it stand alone, even more so given that the film is bookended by voiceover narration from Tony Stark.
Giving Iron Man and Iron Patriot the Riggs and Murtaugh treatment mostly works, though some of snappy banter between Stark and Rhodey feels a little worn. Black may have set the bar for zippy action-comedy dialogue in the ’80s, but there are plenty of successors who can write it at least as well, as any Tarantino cultist or Joss Whedon-ophile will tell you (over and over and over). Still, you have to appreciate Tony’s zingers — vanquishing a bald bad guy and calling him “Westworld” is still vintage Stark, and Black’s pen deftly draws him as the arrogant prick that everyone loves regardless.
If the first film’s armor gave Tony a new lease on life and the second film gave him purpose, Iron Man 3 helps him re-establish his humanity — love, for Pepper and the comatose Happy, is pretty much his driving force. When he’s momentarily given the devil’s choice of saving his gal or the president, the indecision that flickers across Downey Jr.’s face is wholly believable. In a flash, though, Tony’s inventor’s brain cuts the Gordian knot, leading to a rescue sequence that, while giving off a whiff of totally ’90s-esque extreme stinkitude, is still pretty exciting to watch.
Even though the point of Iron Man 3 may be to make audiences more invested in Avengers 2, the film succeeds, chiefly by turning Tony Stark into a person you look forward to seeing every couple of summers.
Iron Man 3
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Shane Black. Written by Shane Black and Drew Pearce. Rated PG-13.