(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. Long time readers may remember that I used to be a bartender a year and a half ago before I went on my sojourn to New York City to be a music critic. For whatever reason, I didn’t decide to do that again when I came back from NYC, but I’m back at it again. And if I do alright enough on tips this summer, I will probably make it a habit of going to be the big summer blockbusters that I’m interested in while they’re still in theaters. If I don’t get good tips, that won’t happen, but hopefully that’s not the case)
In superhero movies fandom, there is no more nerve-wracking moment than when new blood is infused into your favorite superhero franchise. This anxiety can be traced back to Joel Schumacher’s stewardship of the Batman franchise who utterly obliterated all of the good work Tim Burton had done to transition comic book films to the big screen or when Brett Ratner unleashed the horrific X-Men 3: The Last Stand after Bryan Singer’s excellent first two entries in the series. But, sometimes, new blood can bring a series back to life, and after the emotionally stunted and dull Iron Man 2, Shane Black brought his wit and smarts to the series to make Iron Man 3 everything you could want from a summer blockbuster.
Shane Black is famous as being one of the most highly-paid screenwriters in Hollywood history, particularly when he set the record for highest payday for a spec script ever for The Long Kiss Goodnight. However, to most Americans, he most famous for penning the first Lethal Weapon movie (the best one) as well as The Last Boy Scout and for writing and directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (his best film). And in so many different ways that it begins to border on insanity, Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black film through and through. Witty dialogue, a crackling sense of humor, a “buddy cop” dynamic, Christmas, and a love of bad guys carrying sub-machine guns, Iron Man 3 has all of the Shane Black staples and I loved the film for it.
After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He can’t sleep, he has panic attacks, and he spends all of his spare time tinkering in his lab to the point that he’s made at least 42 versions of his Iron Man suit. And the stress and anxiety is tearing his relationship with Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) apart. To make matters worse, a psychotic terrorist of unknown origins known only as the Mandarin (Hugo‘s Ben Kingsley) is causing destruction around the world. As Tony’s emotional state is disintegrating around him, a disgruntled biotech scientist (Guy Pearce) teams up with the Mandarin and brings the destruction literally to Tony’s doorstep.
Iron Man 3 is nearly a point-by-point response to everything I hated in Iron Man 2. Whereas the latter was emotionally uncommitted, Iron Man 3 explores the frailer and more vulnerable side of Tony’s life and the price of his arrogance and general bastardry earlier in life. Whereas the latter’s action felt stale and unoriginal, Iron Man 3‘s set pieces are overflowing with excitement, originality, and a genuine sense of “stakes” towards the outcome. And where the first sequel felt dull and lifeless from beginning to end, Iron Man 3 is unequivocally hilarious from beginning to end, and it was rare when a scene in the film didn’t have my sister and I rolling in our seats with laughter from some great Tony Stark quip (or from a certain precocious kid but no spoilers from me).
Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his best performances since Zodiac as Tony Stark in this entry in the series. Perhaps because Shane Black helped coax Downey Jr. back into respectability with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but Shane Black helps Robert Downey Jr. tone down the mugging and incessant smirking that made Tony seem too one note in Iron Man 2, and we see this as a man who has confronted gods, aliens, and powers beyond his ken and the full front of his tiny place in the universe is bearing down on him, and through Downey’s performance, we see the full weight of this pressure. He still brings the laugh, but he also taps into something much deeper as well.
Some have complained that while virtually everything else was great about Iron Man 3 (the action set pieces, the characterization, the dialogue, the performances), the actual story itself was kind of dumb. That may be true, but only in so far as Iron Man 3‘s ambitions are far different than say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. With the exception of a general lambast of greed and hubris, Iron Man 3 has no political overtones (unlike the libertarian bent of Iron Man 2). In the best Shane Black tradition, it is simply an exercise in smart popcorn cinematic storytelling, and there wasn’t a minute of this film where I didn’t enjoy the action unfolding on screen.
If we can have a post-Nolan superhero world where people like Joss Whedon and (now) Shane Black can tap into some of the most treasured figures in American mythology (for what are superheroes except the ultimate American mythology) without finding themselves mired in overt political subtext and remember that superheroes can just be “fun” if they want to, then count me in. Because unless you’re Alan Moore, odds are that making your superheroes too serious will ruin what made us love them in the first place. Iron Man 3 may not have something grand to say, but you’ll have a hell of a time watching it unfold regardless.
Final Score: A-