Welcome back, late '80s excess. Welcome back, precocious kid sidekicks and explosions and squibs and uzi battles against faceless henchmen in luxurious mansions and torture in secret lairs. Welcome back, rich dude-bros who call women “sweetheart” and bikini-clad drunken bimbos and speedboat chases in Miami and shootouts in strangely empty shipyards. Welcome back, cool, calm, collected black dude and your slightly unhinged loose cannon white-guy partner. But mostly, welcome back, Shane Black and welcome back, Iron Man.
If you’re a die-hard fan of the Iron Man comic books, be warned, Marvel Studios lets director Black off the leash for this third installment, and while the result is edgier, sexier, and more dangerous than what has come before, you may not recognize Tony Stark as the man from the long-running comic. Stark is now fully Robert Downey Jr.; breathlessly glib and charismatic and prone to news-making outbursts and quivering episodes of panic. Be warned, but don’t worry. It’s an evolution that’s been slowly taking place over the course of three films. You’ll recognize it as different, but at this point, it’s far too late to care.
After all, this is the movie version of Iron Man, not the comic version, and if there was ever any concern that Marvel would play it safe with its properties or settle into a comfortable house style, this movie answers that concern with a no and a no. Iron Man 3 feels wildly unrestrained, heaping conflict upon conflict on the armored hero, some physical, some psychological, and some from the most left field villains Marvel has put in any of its films. The shiny, candy-colored house style that permeated the Phase One films (from Iron Man to Avengers) is replaced with blood and grit and the heavy influence of early Tony Scott, a man who defined what action films looked like from the late '80s into the '90s. Iron Man 3 even gets downright ugly and mean-spirited at times.
We’re catching up with our hero immediately after the events in Avengers, as he’s left himself no time to mend from his near-death experience at the edge of that film’s collapsing wormhole. While Pepper Potts is running the show, fielding requests for Stark Enterprises to get into bed with Aldrich Killian’s new biotech called Extremis, Tony Stark himself does nothing but experiment with new armors and poke around the patterns found in the terrorist acts of a dangerous blowhard known only as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). All of these threads eventually tie together, leaving Stark’s world in a complete and utter shambles, while he claws for recovery, more alone and more vulnerable than he’s ever been before.
I’d never go so far as to call Iron Man 3 character-driven, really, but everyone has settled into their roles pretty nicely by this go-round. Downey is himself cranked up to 11, Paltrow has her big hero moments, and Don Cheadle has finally found his character’s center as Stark’s best friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Everyone is a joy to watch, completely comfortable against all of the CG madness that surrounds them, even the gloriously hammy turns by Guy Pearce (as Killian) and Ben Kingsley.
Every time Black brings in an element that seems a little iffy, he defies expectations. An adoring little kid shows up as Tony’s only form of support? Tony is mercilessly sarcastic to him. When the climax gets a little damsel in distress-y? That’s almost completely subverted. When Iron Man finally confronts the Mandarin, one-on-one? Fans are going to flip out. There’s a surprise around every corner of Iron Man 3, and the incredible thing is that I haven’t even ruined a single one of those moments -- not even the ones I just mentioned.
As such, Iron Man 3’s plot is a wild zigzag from point A to point B, filled with strange tangents and unexpected moments of humor and emotion. Typically, we see the big set pieces in the trailer, and our minds, trained from a decade’s worth of glossy superhero films, can fill in the gaps. We almost know the whole movie before we even sit down in the theater (sometimes that’s part of their appeal). The biggest compliment I can pay Iron Man 3 is that they’ve made that second-guessing almost totally impossible.
I could Monday Morning Quarterback this thing and say that they should’ve had Stark be a little more breakable outside of his armor or pick nits over the timing of his “House Party Protocol” -- the moment with all of his armors gathering at once, as seen a thousand times over in the advertising. There a few choppy moments in the story where details fall through the cracks while Black’s misdirection (Explosions. Always explosions.) draws your eye to the next set piece. But if a movie is more than the sum of its parts, then I have to count Iron Man 3 as a massive success. This is a summer blockbuster throwback with energy, wit and an unexpected sense of finality to it that moves the Iron Man films from entertaining Phase One building blocks into a unified, vital, instant classic film trilogy. Great job.