“Iron Man 3” a solid return

iron man 3

Iron Man 3

dir. Shane Black

Release Date: May 03, 13

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Iron Man 2 was not a particularly good movie. Though ambitious, it suffered from a) a lame-duck villain in the form of Mickey Rourke’s barely-fleshed-out Whiplash and b) what I’ll call Spiderman 3 Syndrome, a malady that affects many big-budget movie sequels. When a film comes down with S3S, it becomes overwhelmed with bloat, and attempts to add so many new characters and storylines that none of them end up leaving any kind of lasting footprint. The cure usually comes in the forms of either a cessation of franchise production until the bad taste of the last installment leaves audience mouths (the eight years between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins) or a turnover in production staff. Iron Man 3 chose the latter, moving Jon Favreau from the director’s seat to an extended cameo onscreen and replacing him with onetime Hollywood wunderkind Shane Black. The result is a dynamic installment, the kind of full evening’s entertainment that ably covers its flaws with a quick pace and a quicker sense of humor.

After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., fantastic once again) is having trouble returning to the real world. One can hardly blame him; discovering that both gods and aliens exist as you barely survive a free-fall through a wormhole to another universe would probably do some lasting damage. Beset with PTSD, he risks sacrificing both his own well-being and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when he foolishly challenges a terrorist to come to his house and start a fight. The sinister Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) happily obliges him, leading Tony to a Midwestern sojourn where he tries to solve the mystery of a series of trace-free suicide bombings perpetrated by former American soldiers. Meanwhile, Pepper is left to deal with the smooth-talking Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a super-scientist carrying a torch for her and a vendetta with Tony.

One of the third installment’s biggest strengths is its ability to negotiate multiple villains without attempting to shoehorn an anvil drop of obstacles into the third act. Much of this balance can be attributed to Black and Drew Pearce’s tight script, which mixes the banter for which Black has long been known with a mostly logical through-line between action setpieces. “Mostly” is a key phrase here; in order to follow Tony’s too-quick evolution from scarred intergalactic war veteran to self-actualized hero, the middle of the film follows a wholly different story and forgets that many of the primary characters exist for too long. (It also makes the film feel more like a coda to The Avengers than a new installment.) That story is pretty entertaining, allowing Downey Jr. to spar with the young Ty Simpkins in what might be the least sentimental adoring child subplot in any superhero movie, but still distracts from the larger Mandarin tale.

There’s also the matter of the film’s big turn, which will elicit responses of either joy or genuine disappointment. Some will see it as a castration of one of the film’s major players, but to do so negates the unexpectedly sharp political commentary the film works in. After the first film, which acknowledged Stark’s role as a munitions distributor and even implied that his abduction may have been deserved, his next few appearances glossed over this. Here, Stark’s obsession with perfecting the Iron Man suit leads to the possible destruction of the U.S. government. And when the film pulls off its big reveal, it’s both perfectly expected based on what’s been established and a sharp jab at the media’s compulsive need to find a collective enemy to fear and hate. In the wake of the year’s past tragedies, it’s a compellingly ballsy point, even if Iron Man 3 isn’t quite able to reconcile it with the glory of explosion porn.

As explosion porn goes, though, Iron Man 3 has a lot of it, and most of it plays well. It’s no spoiler after the trailers to note that Tony spends a good portion of the film bereft of his suit, and it can’t be mentioned enough how much better this storyline works because of Downey Jr.’s textured approach to the role. His usual squirrely persona gets an undercurrent of panicked fear, which becomes affecting whenever he has to rise to the occasion and truly cannot. This means that when he inevitably returns to full power, and dons the metal once again, the showstopping finale on an oil tanker doesn’t just feel like the necessary “things go boom” setpiece that it realistically is. It feels like an earned moment of chaotic catharsis. Not bad for a sequel that exists solely to build to another, larger sequel.