Can you name a third film in a franchise that was better than the previous two films? You’d probably have to go deep — A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, perhaps? — but Iron Man 3, despite my misgivings as someone who yawned through Tony Stark’s first two adventures, turns out to be deft summer entertainment, cheerfully amoral (I’ll get to that) and lightly coated with terrific little bits of comedic business. The difference here, it’s clear, is director/cowriter Shane Black, whose scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout still hold up as winking macho fantasies. Black doesn’t take much seriously unless it involves a hero trying to rescue or avenge his loved one. Everything else is fair game, all in fun, the clatter and concussion of action tropes as syncopated as the dialogue.
Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is up against some heavy hitters this time: exploding, supercharged assassins — juiced up with some form of nanotech called Extremis — who do the bidding of a shadowy, preening terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). The Mandarin, probably the most durable of the rather forgettable rogues’ gallery in Marvel’s Iron Man comics, is sort of tossed aside in this movie, in a wittily cynical fashion that almost reads as subversion. Black doesn’t take mustache-twirling supervillains seriously either. Mostly, the movie is a matter of Stark up against amputee war vets whose exposure to the putatively healing Extremis has made them aggressive and vicious. Someone in a bad mood might find Iron Man 3 unforgivably callous and thoughtless, especially after the events in Boston, where we saw real terrorism, real explosions, real amputees.
But the combination of Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr., which worked a treat in 2005’s little-seen but well-loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, wants only to put you in a good mood — especially if you were there for the ’80s and ’90s action bonanzas from which Black emerged. Right down to its holiday setting — every scene is sprinkled with festive (and patriotic) Christmas lights — Iron Man 3 is a slick late-’80s throwback, with a bad guy (Guy Pearce) whose mullet and glib smile recall Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight in Real Genius, except this real genius is bent on domination via manipulating the terrorist market. (Kilmer, of course, was also Downey’s co-star in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Black expands his boys’ club a bit, though — one of the more fearsome Extremis brutes is a woman (Stephanie Szostak), and even the unfortunately named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s loved one, gets to administer some beatdowns. Iron Woman!
If the thought of William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer — two character-actor favorites of the action era this movie fondly references — as President and Vice-President puts a spring in your step, welcome to Iron Man 3. (I wish Black had time to throw in Michael Ironside or Tom Atkins, just for me.) The rapport between Stark and fellow armor-wearer James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) likewise calls back to Riggs and Murtaugh. The action, framed by legendary cinematographer John Toll, is clear and crisp and satisfying, harking back to the days when directors felt it was important for us to see what was happening to whom, and where. (I’d advise skipping the 3D on this one — it works just fine in plain old 2D, and the colors most likely pop better.)
Downey is as blithely smug as he usually is in these hefty franchise events, but with Stark suffering Post-Avengers Stress Disorder, Downey has something new and likable to play: the current reality of gods and monsters has tweaked Stark’s head a little — he’s no longer the biggest kid on the block, and he’s a bit more humble. Technology, too, smacks him down to size, and at the end, after a symbolic fireworks show casting off tech support he no longer needs, we feel that Stark has grown up, left his toys behind. While we wait for the loud climax we have diversions in the form of witty banter between Stark and various admirers (including a fatherless kid who’s around just long enough not to wear out his welcome), and Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley making meals of their sinister dialogue, and Rebecca Hall, looking like an odd amalgam of Liv Tyler and Scarlett Johansson (Betty Ross! Black Widow!), as a botanist and former Stark one-night stand. The theme of the movie seems to be that the past — whether a woman scorned or a nerd snubbed at a New Year’s Eve party — will come back to bite you, and that extends to ghastly experiments on war veterans and destructive technology that can be used against its maker. For all its snark and lighter-than-air pyrotechnics and aesthetic, the movie has a bit more going on under the hood — or helmet — than it’ll get credit for.