Directed by Shane Black
Third time’s the charm, isn’t that how it goes? Except it usually is not, at least as far as film franchises go. Third time is usually where the gasp of creativity that breathed life into the series to begin with finally starts to run out, leaving the filmmakers with one of two possible options: either keep repeating what has worked already on larger and larger scales ad nauseum, or break the series apart and come at it from a brand new angle.
Very few series opt for option two, since it is a very risky proposition at the best of times. At best, you’ll generally get some sort of middle ground in between options 1 and 2 which pretty well sums up writer-director Shane Black’s (“Lethal Weapon,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) stab at “Iron Man 3.”
He has, like many before him, decided to focus on what has worked in Iron Man before and provide more of it. Fortunately for him, what worked before has been less big effects or ideas and more along the lines of star Robert Downey Jr. doing what he does. Like no other actor in a superhero film (except perhaps Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker), Downey has made both the character of Tony Stark and the role of Iron Man his, and most of the joy of these films is watching him swagger and strut and attempt to hide Tony’s many faults through snark and arrogance. Of course, Downey has done this three times already now so he can do Iron Man in his sleep if he has to.
Fortunately, Black is not going to let anyone rest on their laurels. He’s given a real think at how to advance an Iron Man story beyond what has come before and the result is not only the cleverest action beats in the series to date, but the most work Downey has had to put into them. In fact, for all the many dozens of suits of armor flying around through the film and all the people wearing them (at one point it seems as if the entire cast is put into a suit at one point), “Iron Man 3” actually boasts the least Iron Man of the series to date.
After brazenly calling out The Mandarin on live TV, Tony’s home soon comes under attack and is destroyed, leaving him on his own with only his mind and his wits to help him figure out what the Mandarin is up to and what it has to do with an old girlfriend (Maya Hansen) and a shady think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics who have been cooking a up a means to make the human body stronger and better called Extremis.
It’s a bit of a gamble but it works as Downey is actually more relatable and more fun to watch out of his armor than in it, and he’s helped with a tight script from Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce who have applied a liberal dose of comedy relief that has the benefit of actually being funny.
On the downside, along with the armor, a lot of Tony’s supporting cast tends to come and go for long periods, particularly once he disappears into rural Tennessee to follow up a lead. Sure, they get stuff to do Happy follows some suspicious characters and sets the plot in motion, Rhodey once again backs Tony up during the action finish after doing little else the rest of the time, and Pepper actually gets into the action movie game for the first time, particularly during the middle segment when she briefly gets a suit of her own.
But then they disappear so that Downey can go off and trade quips with a 10 year old for 30 minutes. Which is, it must be said, far better than it sounds due to Stark’s inability to actually be sappy, but it’s still hard to feel like you’re being gipped somehow. After two films setting these characters up and making you care about them, they are shipped off because now no one knows what to do with them.
Those are generally small quibbles, though, as “Iron Man” continues to set the bar for Marvel’s solo superhero films through a combination of wit, charm and out and out entertainment. It’s not quite as good as “Iron Man 2”–but then I’m one of the few who thinks “Iron Man 2” is the best of the series–but it’s not far off and certainly does no shame to the series. I don’t know how many more of these they can make, but so far it doesn’t look like they’ve run out of steam quite yet.