After a disappointing second outing, the Iron Man superhero mythology returns with a highly satisfying third film that remembers what made the first one so good in the first place. After losing some steam with Iron Man 2 and the dreadfully mediocre Cowboys & Aliens, Jon Favreau cleverly decided not to direct this sequel and gave the reins over to Shane Black, creator of the Lethal Weapon series.
Just like Favreau had to do with the first Iron Man, Shane Black is in a position to prove himself as an A-list Hollywood director capable of handling a blockbuster franchise. In fact, he has even more to prove than Favreau, who at least had hits like Zathura and Elf under his belt. Black’s only film as a director up to this point was an underrated mid-budget thriller called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which tanked at the box-office, eight years ago.
Maybe that’s why Iron Man 3 boasts the same kind of wicked energy and creativity, attention to story and character development that we liked so much the first time around. By adhering to an impeccable balance between groundbreaking special effect set pieces and wrapping them around characters with real issues the audience can relate to the way that a lot of successful superhero movies do, Iron Man 3 starts off Marvel’s so-called "Second phase" after The Avengers with a bang, literally and figuratively.
After a quick flashback to 1999 that sets up one of our new bad guys, the greedy genius Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), as well as a welcome nod to a beloved character from the first film, Tony Stark’s narcissistic persona overfed by Iron Man 2 and The Avengers is taken down a peg as we find out he suffers from debilitating anxiety attacks as a form of PTSD after the events in The Avengers.
Witnessing a horde of aliens descending upon New York through a wormhole is bound to ruin anyone’s day. The rest of the Avengers might benefit more from group therapy instead of munching on yummy shawarmas. From minute one, Black makes sure Stark’s ego is rather bruised and frail.
After all, wasn’t watching this billionaire who was so full of himself being humbled after getting kidnapped and having to use his intellect and meager provisions to beat the bad guys and come out triumphant what we liked most about the first film?
After the first act, Black and co-screenwriter Drew Pearce cleverly strip Stark from his billions and his precious man cave full of nifty gadgets in order to have him save his country and his beloved Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) with meager means that resemble his adventure in the cave. When he doesn’t have a bevy of armored suits at his command, we are reminded that the reason we love the character goes beyond simple charisma and charming narcissism.
After all, Stark has a lot of reasons to be anxious about this time around. The multi-cultural insane terrorist Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is about to have the good-ole USA wrapped around his finger along with one of those expensive rings he seems to love so much, through the use of super soldiers ready to literally blow up at any minute. The Mandarin’s source of power is a super virus named Extremis, courtesy of Killian.
On the other hand, Stark only has his superior intellect and a nerdy kid named Harley (Ty Simkins) on his side. Usually, inserting a snot-nosed brat into a franchise like this reeks of the greedy producers’ desperation to attract the child demographic more than they already have, but the clever writing and the organic chemistry between Downey Jr and this talented kid more than makes up for any complaint that could be had.
To be honest, as much as a lot of the plot points were not hard to predict and mostly belong within the confines of the genre, a certain plot twist regarding the Mandarin took me by surprise. It was very refreshing to see Ben Kingsley having so much fun with his role while reminding us that only a seasoned actor of his caliber could have pulled off the sudden 180 expected from his role. I know that it would have been superfluous, but I would have loved to see more of Kingsley during the third act.
Shane Black’s unique, playful sense of humor envelops Iron Man 3 in the best way possible. The self-aware voice-over style carried over from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sets up the movie’s tone right off the bat. To find out the real source of this voice-over, the audience is well advised to stay seated through the entire end credits. Black’s own effortless charisma and style juxtaposes Stark’s similar traits as a character. He’s a great fit for the franchise.
The film has some problems of course, most of which are expected plot holes found in many superhero fare. Some of these issues stem from Iron Man 3 having to hit certain notes at certain times in order to bring the expectations of such a product. For example, a last minute revelation about Stark’s dwindling resources could have been used way earlier to get him out of a bind, but of course they have to be reserved for the finale set piece full of grand special effects and explosions.
Also, connecting these single characters to The Avengers franchise is starting to show its tears in credibility. At a moment when Potts’ life is in danger and Stark is destitute, a call to Nick Fury might have been a big help. Thor is back in Asgard but where are The Hulk, Cap and the rest? I know, this is not their movie but that’s really the only explanation that can be given for why they don’t show up.
The film also suffers from a very important visual as well as character choice made around Stark that feels like a last minute decision. It feels rushed and unearned. It also doesn’t fit the "You’re okay just the way you are" moral set up by the script. But it’s obviously a major step up from the terrible second film.