Iron Man 3 is the fourth time—fifth if you count this—that we’ve seen Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. At this point, there is no avoiding the touch of franchise fatigue that haunts the latest in Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe”, Iron Man 3. But, amazingly, for all that Tony and his world feel well-worn and lived in, Iron Man 3 manages to surprise and delight in turns, bringing an unexpected freshness to the official start of Marvel’s Phase Two. It’s a bit like a pair of old jeans you’d forgotten fit, only to put them on one day and realize—hey, these jeans make my ass look great! Iron Man 3 makes Tony Stark’s ass look great.
Directed by franchise newcomer Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), Iron Man 3 is both a return to roots and a breath of fresh air for Marvel. On the one hand, Black, who co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce (a TV veteran who also penned the upcoming Pacific Rim), undoes much of the damage of Iron Man 2 by putting a lid on Tony’s more obnoxious tendencies, like his “I’m so rich, look at me be so rich” routine, and focusing instead on the fallout from the events of The Avengers.
This is a more vulnerable Tony than we’ve seen since his time in an Afghani cave in Iron Man—he’s suffering panic attacks and insomnia and is barely managing to function after his second near-death experience. And it’s only downhill from there, as a new terrorist threat known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who is gleefully, hammily brilliant) arrives on the scene and Tony’s world is literally blown apart.
I don’t want to divulge any more of the plot because the joy of Iron Man 3 is being surprised by Iron Man 3. And it is truly surprising. The more grounded character beats are a nice return to what made the first Iron Man great, but it’s how the story falls together that makes Iron Man 3 a cut above your usual threequel. Tony has a full plate with The Mandarin and the return of an old rival and an old flame, Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen (Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall, respectively). Don Cheadle finally gets something to sink his teeth into as Colonel Rhodes and Gwyneth Paltrow has plenty to do as Pepper Potts. Black practically wrote the book on buddy cop scenarios with Lethal Weapon, and it’s terrifically fun to watch that dynamic play out between Tony and Rhodey. And Pepper is well served, too, being both the emotional heart of Tony’s world and a stone cold badass when needed.
But it’s Black’s direction that makes the movie. He falters a little in the larger action sequences but what really sticks out about Iron Man 3 is that it feels like a Shane Black film, not a Marvel movie. In Phase One Marvel pretty well ran roughshod over their directors in order to create a coherent cinematic language and universe for their characters, and that wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision. The unifying palette of bright, Pop Art colors was a nice touch that called back to the classic comics in Marvel’s library, but there were times the films felt stifled—particularly Thor—in favor of not making too many waves for other filmmakers to deal with. In contrast, Black has a much freer rein and that wider universe has no bearing on Iron Man 3 at all. There are no other Avengers, no SHIELD, no setup for future films.
In many ways this is a plus; after the wide-angle view of The Avengers it’s nice to settle in with just one superhero and deal with his day-to-day reality. But there is a little bit of a logic glitch—The Mandarin is terrorizing the world and SHIELD is nowhere to be seen? The explanation is that the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier are occurring at the same time and SHIELD, in somewhat disarray after The Avengers, is too tied up to bail out Tony. That’s fine, but there is no mention of that at all. Iron Man 3 proves that this experiment will now work without constantly reinforcing the larger universe, but you also can’t ignore it whenever it suits you. Even just one toss off line about SHIELD being busy would’ve sufficed to acknowledge the presence of that wider world while simultaneously dismissing its absence.
Overall, though, Iron Man 3 is just tons of straight-up fun anchored by fantastic performances across the board. RDJ finds new depths with Tony and Kingsley is going to blow your fucking mind. The explanation for “Extremis”, the biomedical component Tony investigates, is rushed, but the Extremis comic books were terribly dense and the oversimplified explanation in the movie serves a mass audience better, even if it does get a little squiffy around the edges if you look at it too hard. Like The Avengers, Iron Man 3 overcomes what logical flaws it has with sheer, unadulterated awesomeness and if watching Tony, Rhodey, and a host of Iron Man suits plunge into battle doesn’t make you fist pump, you probably don’t have a soul.