Shane Black, writer of the screenplays for Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero, made one of my favorite directorial debuts with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I thought it marked the arrival of a true directorial force.
Then he basically disappeared.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang featured the best Robert Downey Jr. performance ever put to screen. Maybe Downey agrees with that statement, because he pushed for Black as his director on Iron Man 3. Thankfully, he got his wish.
Iron Man 3 is as good as the first film, and markedly better than the OK second installment; it’s just slightly inferior to last year’s The Avengers. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it features dark humor, and gives us a protagonist that is slightly unreliable.
The film opens with a few mistakes Tony Stark made a long time ago, and sets us up for the perils Stark is facing today. Chief among his enemies is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a tripped-out version of Osama bin Laden who executes Americans on TV and openly taunts the president (William Sadler).
Another big enemy would be Tony Stark himself, because he’s battling panic attacks and insomnia after the events of The Avengers. These blows to his mental and physical capacity lead to mishaps in his laboratory, and a pretty scary moment when one of his suits pounces on Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in their bedroom.
Chief among Stark’s flaws has always been his vanity, which leads to him calling out The Mandarin, resulting in all kinds of hell fire coming down on his West Coast compound. Stark winds up going deep undercover, and at one point has a kid sidekick (Ty Simpkins). The kid-sidekick stuff sounds like it would be lame, doesn’t it? However, Black and Downey Jr. have a way of taking conventional crap and having a lot of fun, so the kid is cool.
Iron Man 3 piles on the villains and potential villains. In the intro flashback, we meet nerdy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who is working on some really big genetics project. Stark blows him off so he can sleep with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), another scientist.
James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak are on hand as Mandarin assassins who have the power to heat up their bodies and regenerate limbs when they are lopped off. They reminded me a bit of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 with their unstoppable evil, although their performances contain a little more depth.
Paltrow is allowed to play with her character a little more in this installment, as Pepper goes through all kinds of tribulations. As with Tom Cruise, Paltrow’s public-image garbage tends to distract from the fact that she can act up a storm, and she’s typically great in this one. Don Cheadle gets limited screen time as Col. James Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot, but he makes the most of it.
As for the Mandarin, Kingsley has a lot of fun—in ways you won’t expect. The Mandarin is one of the more unique villains to arise from the Marvel movie franchises, and he takes some major detours from his comic-book incarnation.
Black and Downey faced a rather daunting task: How do you bring the Iron Man back to Earth after The Avengers, which involved aliens, a Hulk, a Thor and Scarlett Johansson in tights? The answer: You allow Downey to riff; you surround him with a cast that matches his brilliance; and you allow the Stark character to remain human and vulnerable.
The action scenes are stellar. One scene, involving a high-altitude rescue after a bunch of people are sucked out of a plane, is the best of the franchise thus far, and the finale is a rouser. Let it be said that Black manages an excellent balance of action and character development, with every major character getting satisfactory screen time. Black and Downey are a great screen team, and that’s apparent in Iron Man 3.
Next up for Tony Stark will be Avengers 2, and then who knows after that? This one is going to be a bitch to reboot when Downey Jr. decides to hang it up.
One last thing: Stay for the credits, will you? Despite many Marvel movies offering after-the-credits surprises, I still see a parade of people getting up and walking out as the credits start. You paid for the seat and perhaps the funny 3-D glasses, so stay put until everything fades to black.