There’s a reason Marvel kicked things off with “Iron Man,” and that’s Tony Stark.
When this franchise started, Marvel made the best decision they could have: they gave Robert Downey Jr. another shot at the big leagues (not to mention inspired directing choices in Kenneth Branagh for “Thor,” Shane Black here, and James Gunn for the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Downey Jr. is brimming with personality. Tony Stark has a personality. Steve Rogers is a bland poster boy for patriotism. Thor is always saying things like, “I will return,” and if we laugh, we normally laugh at him, not with him. Bruce Banner has some personality every once in a while, but he spends a good deal of his time as a broccoli-colored rage-monster. Full disclosure: I don’t think I’m Marvel’s target audience, but I still like to be entertained. Superhero movies normally aren’t my thing, but “Iron Man Three” (yes, that’s “Three” the word, not the number, as seen in the credits of the film) isn’t just a superhero movie. It’s a Shane Black action comedy.
Shane Black was a golden boy screenwriter in the 1990s when he was commanding huge sums of money for things like “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” Unfortunately, the last time we really saw something from him was in 2005 when he wrote and directed “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” (also starring Robert Downey Jr.). It’s a great flick, and much of the writing is tailor-made for Downey Jr.’s style of delivery. Black has a tendency to inject a self-awareness into his films that fits perfectly with the character of Tony Stark. He really perfected the technique of characters commenting on the action and ridiculous situations they would find themselves in during the plot of a movie. There are rumors this will be Downey Jr.’s last Iron Man film, and his next to last appearance in the Marvel universe altogether (theoretically closing out with “The Avengers 2”), but it could be a resurgence for Black, just like the first “Iron Man” was for Downey Jr. back in 2008.
The basic plot of “Iron Man Three” is that Tony Stark bailed on Advanced Idea Mechanics head-honcho Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) back at a Y2K party in 1999 when he tried to get him to join the company. That same night he had a brief fling with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who had been developing an experimental technology called ‘Extremis’ that is supposed to regenerate and strengthen those who use it (we later find out that it’s easily weaponized; go figure). Cut to the present, and Stark is still recovering from the events of “The Avengers” while trying to maintain a “normal” lifestyle. Also, there’s a terrorist who calls himself “The Mandarin,” played by Sir Ben Kingsley himself, who keeps taking over American television to deliver threats in some sort of southern drawl-Middle Eastern hybrid accent. Coincidentally, this is about the time Hansen and Killian both pop back into Stark’s life. Hmm.
Robert Downey Jr. has always been the primary reason to show up for these movies (and the special effects, I suppose), and I usually feel like he’s better than the movies themselves. The reason Iron Man Three stands out is because he’s got Shane Black guiding him, and the payoff is pretty spectacular at times. This entry easily has the most quotable lines in the series (“You like that, Westworld!?”) and the banter between Stark and pretty much every character he encounters is witty: “Please don’t tell me there’s a 12 or 13 year old kid sitting in the car” he says when Hansen, his old fling, shows up. “He’s 13,” she deadpans.
Shane Black proves he’s adept at handling action scenes on this scale, especially in a fairly inventive multi-person, mid-air rescue sequence. Besides the dialogue, there are a couple of other classic Black touches on display, one being the fact that the movie is set at Christmas, as is the case with a number of his screenplays. Several shots even have a Christmas tree in the background, and in keeping with the clichés of holiday spirit, Stark even befriends a whip smart little kid when he crash lands in a small Tennessee town. I was worried when this happened, but their relationship totally avoids melodrama, yet again receiving an assist from Black and Drew Pearce’s above-average script.
Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Stark’s girl, Pepper Potts. She essentially does the same things she always does, but gets to be a bit more badass this time around (and, my god, look at those abs). Jon Favreau as Stark’s head of security, Happy Hogan, is out of commission with an injury for most of the movie and Don Cheadle handles sidekick duties as deftly as always in his Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes / Iron Patriot role. There’s talk that the franchise reins will be handed over to Cheadle when Downey Jr. departs the series (how will Terrence Howard feel?), and I think it’s probably the best way to move forward (if it really must), but they’ll have to develop the character’s personality a bit more before it can prove the same sort of success. Cheadle’s clearly a gifted actor, the character’s just been a little underdeveloped thus far, but if anyone can pull it off, he can.
However, the movie does have its share of flaws. The themes of how personal choices make you who you are, maturity, etc. are underdeveloped and the opening segment felt disjointed and awkward to me. The film also runs a bit long. In order to feel epic, these movies have the tendency to run longer than they probably should. I’m guessing Black would have crushed this thing if it clocked in at a tighter 105 minutes or so, instead of over 2 hours. It’s still a fairly familiar superhero exercise, narrative-wise (minus a twist I found humorous), and it’s not reinventing the wheel or anything, just putting a little WD-40 on it.
One of the smartest things Shane Black does here is keep Tony Stark out of the suit for a good portion of the movie. He feels like a human (at least, for this kind of movie) and it also opens up the floor for more dialogue. Here’s hoping the next movie Black does won’t require the character to wear iron body armor. Then he’ll really get to flex his muscles behind the camera.
Grade: B (for Best Marvel Movie)