More a follow-up to The Avengers than a sequel to Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 picks up some time after the events of Joss Whedon’s 2012 blockbuster. Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is having trouble dealing with the emotional aftermath of the events in The Avengers while mysterious terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsly) is taking credit for a series of bombings. Meanwhile, handsome scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) — who has a history with both Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) — seeks a partnership with Stark Industries.
While the film may seem crowded with characters and plot points (I didn’t even mention Don Cheadle or Rebecca Hall), Iron Man 3 never feels overstuffed and sluggish (like, say, Iron Man 2). Credit that to director and co-writer Shane Black. These plot elements unfold and converge in witty and surprising ways that wink at the conventions of the genre and offer a fresh take on this kind of material; where the viewer thinks the film will zig, it zags. Black’s screenplay makes use of the characters to full effect, cleverly giving everyone something to do — particularly Paltrow’s Potts — that moves the story forward without being contrived.
One of my biggest complaints about Marvel’s slate of films is the seemingly inability for directors to express any authorial voice. Only Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and now Black’s Iron Man 3 are films that are distinctly products of those behind the camera. Yet there’s a caveat to this: Whedon and Black also wrote their respective films and have very distinct authorial voices on the page; Iron Man 3 is most certainly a Shane Black film.
Despite the fact that this is the third film in the franchise, and fourth to feature the character, Iron Man 3 has more in common with Black’s other works like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Indeed, in the film’s later half, Black seems more interested in paying homage to action comedies of the 1980s (like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop) than exploring the superhero genre. Yet, Black has always been a master at hybrid genres — his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a smart satire of Hollywood and a film noir. Black manages to make these 80s action film beats work within the context of the film, mostly because he keeps the focus squarely on Tony Stark. Unlike other superhero films, the Iron Man series is mostly star-driven. Audiences are drawn to Spider-Man and Batman films because they’re transcendent cultural icons; the pure star power of Robert Downey Jr. is what has made the Iron Man films so successful.
The film is more at home when Tony Stark is out of his armour. I suppose this isn’t necessarily a flaw, per se; Iron Man 3’s best moments are when it strays from conventions of the superhero genre. There’s still plenty of superhero action in Iron Man 3 — and Black is a more confident director than Jon Faverau — but it’s just not as lively as when it deviates from convention (but that Air Force One sequence is incredibly exciting).
Shane Black and Marvel are smart for taking Iron Man out of the armour and away from convention. If the studio’s plan to churn out several films with its characters in a shared universe, it’s necessary to push genre in new directions for fear of becoming stale (look at all pre-00s superhero film sequels and tell me they aren’t all the same movie). Although because the film spends so much time outside the the genre — despite how successful it is — I’m not sure it really succeeds as an Iron Man or superhero film. But as a purely entertaining action/adventure film, Iron Man 3 is gangbusters.
Iron Man Three (2013, USA, 130 mins). Directed by Shane Black. Written by Shane Black and Drew Pearce. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley.