The title should get this across, but just in case: this review is full on spoilers. Avoid this review until you've seen Iron Man 3. This is a film where being spoiled might actually hurt your enjoyment of the movie.
When Marvel Studios hired Shane Black to direct Iron Man 3 there was a sense of elation and trepidation. Elation because Black is one of the best in the history of the business; his Lethal Weapon script changed the face of action movies for decades. His best film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is nothing less than a masterpiece, and a key moment in the rehabilitation of Robert Downey Jr. He delivered the best line in Predator*.
The trepidation came from the fact that Black was stepping into the threequel of a successful franchise that had hit the skids in part two (creatively, not fiscally) and that had to service a larger universe of connected properties. This wasn’t going to be Shane Black doing his Shane Black thing, I figured, this was going to be Shane Black making nice with the suits and turning out a slightly edgy version of the ‘product.’ I figured we’d get the surface Blackisms - a Christmas setting, some voice over - but that everything else would be Marvel Movie Product.
Holy shit was I wrong. Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as it’s called in the end credits) is front-to-back a Shane Black movie that just happens to involve the latest adventures of Tony Stark and friends. The surface stuff I expected is there for sure, but there’s also a heaping helping of Shane Black throughout - this is like an Iron Man movie as seen through the Johnny Gossamer universe. And it’s brilliant.
Drew Pearce and Shane Black have written not just the best Iron Man script to date but the best Marvel script; until now the origin stories have provided enough backbone for scripts that were shaggy or, in the case of the Iron Man films, being written extensively on set. Iron Man 3 is a fully realized story, though, with actual arcs and discoveries and reveals that don’t come right from the pages of comic books.
In fact Iron Man 3 is already pissing off comic fans because of the way that it aggressively deviates from the comics. It’s a fascinating way to approach the material, and I think Pearce and Black make it pay off. They know that we have certain expectations when we hear what characters are in the film; The Mandarin has a certain history, as does newer villain Aldrich Killian. Comic fans have expectations for these characters, an understanding of the shape of their stories. And on some level that’s great; we like to see Hamlet again and again because we like the tale as it’s told. But on another level it’s restrictive; should the entire Marvel Movievers be beholden to storylines written decades ago?
And so Pearce and Black engage in the most satisfying storytelling jujitsu of the last few years; they mislead us with The Mandarin and, at the last minute, reveal that he’s a front. Everything we thought we knew about this story, every guess we had made as to how it would play out, is suddenly and totally wrong. And it’s thrilling. Too often with these films we’re in the audience checking off references and plot points (“Oh yes, that’s a reference to a thing the character did back in Marvel Two In One...”) and the actual stories of the movies fall to the wayside. Yes, what Marvel has done so far is honor the original characters and stories, they’ve understood that these are the things that make the properties valuable, but at the same time they’ve finally come to realize that being overly faithful to these things does nothing but rob the narrative of drama. Everybody knows that Gwen Stacy’s going to die on a bridge; every Spider-Man movie includes a bridge just to fuck with us on that point. When she finally does fall off the bridge it's going to be sort of anti-climactic.
Of course the reveal of the truth behind The Mandarin would be worthless if it was handled poorly. Thankfully Black has cast Sir Ben Kingsley in the role, and he demolishes the part. As The Mandarin he’s a heart of darkness, a stylized amalgamation of four decades worth of demagogues and terrorists. As Trevor Slattery, the drunken British actor hired to play The Mandarin, he’s a comic dream, a dissolute mess into which Kingsley just hilariously collapses. It’s a brilliant performance, and the very concept of the character perfectly undercuts what might have otherwise been a too-grim slog. This isn’t a Batman movie, Black and Pearce understand, and they maintain a playfulness without sacrificing a sense of danger.
If Kingsley has the best role in the movie, Downey comes in a fine second. That’s saying something; at this point in his career Downey has become somewhat tedious. For a while it was exciting to watch him claw his way back from addiction and imprisonment, and then it was fun to see him walk through stardom without letting it touch him. But at some point a few years back his smirk gained too much smarm, and his attitude started to become tiresome. His charisma devolved into schtick. By Iron Man 2 I had enough; come Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows I was all but ready to tap out. Praise be to Shane Black for getting Downey back to the right place, back to the unsteady wiseass stance he had in Kiss Kiss.
The script breaks Stark down well; it’s not a Dark Knight Rises sort of breakdown, but it’s effective nonetheless. Stark is suffering from PTSD after the events of The Avengers, and when The Mandarin comes on the scene he makes the supreme mistake of calling the terrorist out on live TV. In short order Stark loses his home, his armors, and, as far as the world is concerned, his life. Set adrift without a functioning suit, Stark is forced to rely first on a precocious kid named Harley and later his own wits to scramble back. Downey plays real vulnerability here, not the half-assed poisoned vulnerability from the unwatchable Iron Man 2. We get to see a Tony Stark who is in the middle of a massive life change, and we’re reminded what it is about this guy that makes him so likable in the first place - his smarts, his jazz-like improvisation and his sharp, almost dark sense of humor.
The fact that there’s a precocious kid helping out Stark and he’s one of the best things in the movie is a miracle. How does that happen? It comes largely from Black, who has an innate sense of banter and interplay, and who will not allow his movies to get bogged down in sentimentality. The sensibility here is such that any moment of saccharine is immediately cut with sarcasm; Black has total control of his tone. I also like the way that the scenes with the kid act as a refutation of the entirety of Iron Man 2; “Dads leave sometimes. Don’t be a pussy about it,” Tony tells the kid, who has an absentee father. Take that, Howard Stark filmstrips!
Iron Man 3’s highlights are all character bits and dialogue. It’s a very funny movie, filled with laugh out loud moments that are not sitcommy, but that come from character (and sometimes from breaking our perceptions of character. Black has a gift for giving henchmen fully realized personalities that are are hilarious). That doesn’t mean Iron Man 3 is light on action; it has way more action than the first film, and this time it’s all very well done. Tony breaking into The Mandarin’s lair using weapons made from toys and knick knacks is a highlight of the year so far; also great is a sequence where Tony must battle goons while wearing only one Iron Man glove and one Iron Man boot. The plane rescue sequence, which Marvel has shown quite a bit of in trailers, is a breathtaking highlight. It’s an extraordinary example of character coming through in action and of the film’s general optimistic tone. In other hands that rescue might have been a desperate sequence, one where Tony has to make hard choices as to who survives. In Iron Man 3 Stark pushes himself to the edge, saves everybody and cracks wise all the while. Again, the danger is here, but it’s not an overwhelming bummer.
The action finale is slightly less effective. As you’ve seen in every trailer thus far it involves Stark bringing in dozens of unmanned drone suits to fight; what I like about this is how Pearce and Black make it rooted in character. In any other movie this would have just been a bit for the toy companies - “Here are 40 new designs, guys. Get to making figures!” - but in Iron Man 3 the ludicrous specificity of each armor (there's one with jackhammers on the arms) makes sense. Coming out of The Avengers Tony Stark feels out of control; he survived the wormhole through sheer luck, and he's now living in a world of gods and magic. In the time since he has hunkered down and created a suit for each and every possible contingency. He will never again be caught unprepared by anything.
I would have liked to have seen more of those suits in action; as it stands the final battle is a lot of light boot-trails flying around a dark environment before exploding. A sequence that has people who can turn into lava bombs fighting drone suits of armor should be a little more detailed, but Black has chosen to focus on Stark, Pepper Pots and Rhodey in the forefront, allowing all of that stuff to be background seasoning.
One of my biggest problems with Iron Man 2 is that it felt too much like a placeholder film; a lot of stuff happened that had no impact on anything, and the stuff that felt weighty was all about setting up other films/the larger universe. That complaint cannot be levied against Iron Man 3, which taken on its own presents the finale of the Iron Man series. There’s a card at the end of the credits that reads “Tony Stark Will Return,” but if there were no more Iron Man or Avengers movies Tony’s arc would feel fairly complete and full. This is how stories should be told - they should have endings. There’s no reason there can’t still be more Iron Man, but in terms of the story that began at the start of Iron Man - louche playboy turned superhero - this is the conclusion. What comes next will be a different chapter, with a different, more mature Tony Stark at the center of it.
If Iron Man was the statement of purpose for Marvel Phase One, I’m hoping Iron Man 3 is a statement of purpose for Marvel Phase Two. That purpose, judging by this movie, is smart and thoughtful stories that take character into consideration first. That purpose is allowing the visions of filmmakers to have equal footing with the visions of Stan and Jack and Don and the other classic Marvel creators. Yes, it’s important to honor the great stories that made these characters who they are, but it’s also important to tell new stories, to shake things up and to have new perspectives - just as they continue doing in the comics month after month.
You'd think that three films into this franchise - seven films into the larger Marvel Movieverse! - things would be tired. But Iron Man 3 is exactly the sort of fun, exciting, funny movie that makes you want to check showtimes for the rest of the films leading up to The Avengers 2. This isn't just the best Iron Man movie, it's a recharge to the whole shared universe concept. Marvel can make movies that exist together while still having unique, awesome identities of their own.
Walking out of the theater you'll be saying "Make mine Marvel... and Shane Black!"
* Jeez you gotta big pussy. Jeez you gotta big pussy.