‘Iron Man 3’ a welcome return to form for Robert Downey, Jr. and Tony Stark

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iron man 3 posterIron Man 3

Directed by Shane Black

Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black

USA, 2013

Fun has become a slightly forgotten commodity in the summer blockbuster, with many studios and filmmakers now inspired by the efforts of directors like Christopher Nolan to be as grim as possible. The modern superhero often has to be angst-ridden or otherwise mentally scarred to make an impact on audiences, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see Iron Man 3 buck the trend while embracing many of those influential ideals. Tony Stark, post-Avengers, is suffering, but he doesn’t wallow too long; with a lively ensemble surrounding Robert Downey, Jr. and a sharp, witty script, Iron Man 3 represents, if nothing more, a welcome return to form.

In terms of plot, what do you need to know aside from the fact that Tony Stark once again dons the iron armor to face off against a slew of bad guys? One of Iron Man 3’s many pleasures is in the slowly twisting plot, but the basic concept is the same. This time, Tony deals with an Osama bin Laden-esque terrorist known as The Mandarin, while grappling with personal fallout from the time he spent with a few other famous friends that dovetails nicely with all the explosions and fighting. And once again, Tony spars with his friend Col. James Rhodes and his girlfriend Pepper Potts; here, as in the rest of the film, the familiar is given new life not only by the performers, who look a little less frazzled and desperate as they did in Iron Man 2, but by the script, from Drew Pearce and director Shane Black.

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Much has been made of Black’s involvement, reuniting with one of his leads from the cult crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Anyone who knows Black’s other works, like his scripts for Lethal Weapon or The Long Kiss Goodnight, may be skeptical that a PG-13 Marvel movie, potentially in service to building up to another Avengers sequel, would still bare his recognizable stamp. Yet, from a Christmastime setting to playful voiceover narration, Iron Man 3 is unmistakably a Shane Black movie, in the way that The Avengers was a Joss Whedon movie through and through. And as with that tentpole release, Iron Man 3 is an impressive achievement not for its action setpieces or effects, but because it has a clear authorial voice, extending to the plot. It’s hard to call Iron Man 3 stripped down, seeing as the stakes extend all the way to the presidency of the United States, but even though we are introduced to a handful of new and pivotal characters, this film never feels bloated or ungainly.

More than anything else, Iron Man 3 is funny. Certainly, anyone who’s seen the other Marvel movies will be keyed into the kind of sly, charming douchebaggery Robert Downey, Jr. brings to the titular hero. But Black’s presence is keenly felt when other characters get to crack wise, or in the pacing of some of Tony’s off-kilter one-liners. In a movie bursting with humor, it says something that the funniest line—partially because of its abruptness—isn’t uttered by Tony at all. And the film’s best scene, one in which Tony is provided some important information from an unlikely source in his quest to fight evil, is all the funnier because it is surprising and throws the audience off guard. Iron Man 3 may fit within the predictable superhero structure, but Shane Black’s able to fiddle enough with the vagaries of the comic-book world to make this thing feel fresh.

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Downey, Jr. is…well, you’ve likely seen him as Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy inventor with a charmingly jerky streak. Though the script respects the Avengers continuity and allows Tony to feel the mental aftereffects of his part in the worldwide battle against aliens, he’s still a class clown. Downey, Jr. nor the script overdo it, allowing Tony a bit of humanism in between all the wisecracks, many of which land solidly. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle make the requisite appearances; even though they’re billed second and third, both bow out for pretty much the entire second act, making it so they’re not as memorable here as in the past. Among the new additions are Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, Guy Pearce as a very rich scientist with some questionable ideas up his sleeves, and Rebecca Hall as an old flame of Tony’s. Of these, there’s no question that Kingsley is the scene-stealer, a villain who’s scariest because his terrorism is matched, seemingly, by his erudition. To say more would spoil some of the film’s greatest surprises, but for a number of reasons, the Mandarin is easily the most memorable baddie in the Iron Man franchise.

Reviews for big-budget blockbusters like Iron Man 3 are something of an afterthought. Anyone reading this probably made up his or her mind about seeing the film before reading; some may go into the film with a high set of expectations, and won’t let the experience of the movie screw with those preconceived notions. Some will find any negative review of the film, sight unseen, and bash the reviewer for daring to not embrace the film with the widest of arms.  How joyful, then, that Iron Man 3 actually deserves more than a shred of the deafening hype we assign it. The biggest victor is Shane Black, a writer and director who long ago proved his worth in Hollywood. But after such a long time away—this and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are the only films he’s made in this century—it would be nice if someone outside of the Marvel universe realized he’s as talented now as when he broke onto the scene in the 1980s. Like The Avengers, Iron Man 3 is a near-perfect marriage of auteurism and commerce, a vibrant, exciting action movie with a few beats everyone will expect but tons of panache that breathes new life into the man in the iron suit.

— Josh Spiegel

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