Marvel meets Shane Black in Iron Man 3, which eschews some of the more comic book elements of Marvel’s previous films (The Avengers, and the alien menace from that film, are mentioned but never seen) in the creation of something both darker and more darkly comedic. The result? Something on par with the first two Iron Man flicks and The Avengers, another ho-hum home run for Marvel that will take in a billion or two worldwide.
But this may be the first Marvel outing on which its director leaves a distinct mark (save for, maybe, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian stuff on Asgard in Thor). Director Black (who also co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce) was once the name in 80s buddy cop action following his scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout.
The director disappeared after Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight flopped, made a comeback with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, and then went into hibernation again. This is his first project in eight years, tapped by Kiss Kiss star Robert Downey Jr. to replace Jon Favreau, director of the first two films, who dropped out to work on other projects.
And Iron Man 3 has all (or most, at least) of Black’s trademark machismo, testosterone-fueled pacing, harsh violence, and dark humor, which is a pleasant surprise for this universe; even though Marvel has yet to produce a dud, their product is in danger of becoming stale.
Black has even fashioned IM3 into something of a buddy picture; and no, the buddies aren’t Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), but rather Stark and JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany), the HAL-like artificial intelligence that controls Stark’s Iron Man suit (or suits, in this film).
Black’s also got a thing for Christmas – both Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang were set during the holiday – and Iron Man 3 is no exception. For no discernible reason, other than to brighten things up with Christmas trees and strands of lights that inevitably litter the screen after the big action scenes. It feels a little weird to see all the Christmas cheer in a big summer blockbuster, but at least it’s something different…
The plot involves Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a crippled scientist who Stark snubs at a Bern convention back in 1999 to share some time with ‘botanist’ Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). Killian shows up years later to recruit Stark Industries head (and Stark’s girlfriend) Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) into cooperating on the regenerative Extremis virus…but we just know he holds a grudge.
Meanwhile, terrorist bombings conducted by the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) are under investigation by the US government and Col. Rhodes, whose suit of armor is now dubbed The Iron Patriot. When a bombing leaves Stark’s best friend and head of security Happy Hogan (Favreau) in a coma, Iron Man vows revenge.
Kingsley steals the show as the Mandarin, who is taken in some unexpected directions by the script; it’s a shame he doesn’t get more screen time. Pearce makes for a more traditional (read: less interesting) megalomaniac a la Jeff Bridges’ character from the first film. But it’s Downey who, again, keeps things fun; he’s perfect as Stark, rattling off some of his best dialogue yet courtesy Black and Pearce’s script.
With the comic book origins, Black’s stripped-down treatment, diverse locales, and plot mechanics that leave Stark suitless for a good portion of the movie, Iron Man 3 feels more like something from the James Bond franchise than the Marvel universe.
It helps, I think, that the events of The Avengers and the existence of other superheroes and S.H.I.E.L.D. (where are they, by the way, during the terrorist attacks?) are largely ignored; this is a more grounded film than we might naturally expect.
Not that it’s exactly realistic. These films always culminate in a big action set piece, and IM3 is no exception; the action-packed climax sees countless explosions and robotics and CGI effects, and is inevitably less involving than what has come before it (particularly, a daring mid-air rescue that is fresh in our minds). Still, it’s handled better than similar sequences in the first two films, even if it doesn’t come close to the New York sequence from The Avengers.
But thanks to Black and Downey, Iron Man 3 feels fast and loose and still fresh after all these outings, which is no small feat. Perfectly fusing action and comedy, with a darker edge than we might normally expect, this is the perfect blockbuster to kick off the summer. It’ll play just fine around Christmas, too.
Note: be sure to stick around after the credits for an additional scene.