Iron Man 3 starts with our hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), reciting a dramatic, ominous quote and then going out of his way to undercut it five seconds later. This turns out a recurring pattern as the narrative keeps subverting our expectations, toying with both tone and structure to engross us in a tale of revenge, hubris, and redemption that could well serve as a closing chapter to our hero’s life. Astute viewers will see a couple of twists coming, for sure, but they’ll never predict the whole dozen and a half or, for that matter, where the plot is headed at any given moment.
For all the charm and energy he brought to the super-hero genre, Jon Favreau, who returns here only as producer (and Stark’s bodyguard Happy), never quite managed to strike the balance between bright irreverence and high-stakes drama. The same cannot be said of Shane Black, who, a long time ago, penned the original Lethal Weapon (1987) and, more recently, the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), also starring Robert Downey Jr. I cannot think of a better writer-director to whom to pass the torch.
In keeping with the character’s central theme as presented in Iron Man (2008) and then promptly forgotten in Iron Man 2 (2010), Black’s movie has our hero making up for past mistakes, letting personal realisation fuel his altruism rather than a vague sense of legacy. His long forgotten sin: failing to nurture two of the most promising minds of his time, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), opting instead to treat them with the same callousness a frat boy would inflict on a naïve freshman girl and a geeky science major. Fourteen years later, when the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) uses their research to destroy everything he holds dear, Tony finds himself alone and without resources, save, of course, for his intellect.
Ah, yes, the Mandarin: it was only a matter of time before someone brought Iron Man’s arch nemesis to the big screen, but I must confess a fair bit of apprehension given the villain’s dated and hilariously racist depiction in the comic book series. Black’s solution consists of transforming the character into a deliberately inconsistent hodgepodge of xenophobic stereotypes that reveal less about the man than about the culture that fears him. Granted, his true nature and motivations depart drastically from the source material, but they comprise one of my favourite surprises in Iron Man 3, allowing Ben Kingsley to stretch his celebrated thespian skills into bold new territory.
Come to think of it, Iron Man 3 doesn’t much concern itself with the minutia of the Marvel universe. We get a few perfunctory references to The Avengers (2012) as Tony struggles with his newfound place in the universe, but the man somehow never thinks to ask his fellow super-heroes for help. For that matter, seeing as the President’s (William Sadler) life hangs in the balance, why isn’t SHIELD getting involved? Mind you, I’m all too happy to look the other way if it means a fully self-contained story at last. Even the hilarious post-credit Easter Egg resists the temptation of advertising Thor: The Dark World (2013) or whatever’s next on the studio’s plate.
Besides, the insular nature of the plot allows War Machine (now called the Iron Patriot) to play a bigger role in Iron Man 3, capitalizing on Black’s penchant for buddy cop dynamics. Like our titular hero, Rhodey (Don Cheadle) doesn’t get to wear his armor an awful lot, but he does remind us why he and Tony make such a good team in the climactic battle, wherein the two leap in and out of flying cybernetic suits to thwart an army of genetically altered human explosives. It’s a fantastic set piece that solves the problem of keeping the stars visible and vulnerable all the while bringing the expected CGI spectacle to a whole new level.
Iron Man 3 exceeds its predecessors in every respect, including humour, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. Whether Tony is negotiating with his girlfriend and CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), taunting a nameless henchman who finds his colleagues “just so weird”, or verbally abusing a kid sidekick from Tennessee (Ty Simpkins), the dialogue brims with playful exuberance, showcasing not just Downey Jr’s magnetic personality but also Black’s craftsmanship in constructing a universe that breeds the same level of spontaneity in all of its characters.
Simply put, Tony Stark and his entourage defy expectations at every turn, even in regard to blockbuster trilogies. Most super-hero franchises follow the same pattern: the first entry entertains but feels bogged down by the origin story; the second instalment gets right to business and blows everyone’s mind; and then the whole thing falls apart in the third chapter as new creators try to put their stamp on a product already drowned in ink. This series, however, dips around part two, and I can’t decide whether I prefer the original Iron Man or Iron Man 3. On the one hand, Jon Favreau introduced us to the larger-than-life industrialist we all know and love. On the other, Shane Black has finally told a story worthy of him.