Shane Black Brings Wit, Pathos to Stark-Focused 'Iron Man 3'

Directed by: Shane Black; Runtime: 130 minutes
Grade: B

Jon Favreau's departure from behind the camera of the Iron Man franchise was a surprise blow: despite a lackluster yet profitable outing from his bombastic sequel, he's responsible for establishing the tone, polished action, and Robert Downey Jr.'s phoenix-like presence in this crucial fixture of Marvel's cinematic universe. Fortunately, his replacement, Lethal Weapon writer and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Shane Black, not only gets this intended attitude and how to direct the titular hero, he also served as a pro-bono "lifeline" for the Favreau-Downey Jr. team during the first film, so there's less of a transition than one might expect. While Black's signature sharp wit and eye for outlandish action invigorate Iron Man 3, a significant improvement over the series' sophomore slump, he also brings a stimulating decision to the table by forcing Tony Stark to spend most of the film out of the suit. This leads into a flawed, uneven, but compelling portrayal of a man's identity and post-trauma stress without the safety of his gadgets, with frequent references to the spirit of what made Favreau's original special.

As the start of "Phase Two" of Marvel's ever-expanding film lore, Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers, where Tony Stark (RDJ) played a crucial role in stopping an other-worldly invasion in New York City. Shaken by the experience to a point of acute panic attacks, Stark finds himself obsessed with his mechanical tinkering, creating and modifying suits in the hours where he can't sleep or spend time with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), now CEO of Stark Industries. During that time, a bearded fanatic known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) claims responsibility for curiously evidence-free terrorist activities through hacked television broadcasts, backed up by cryptic "lessons" about American indulgence, artifice, and claim to territory. In a fragile state of mind and dealing with the reemergence of a momentary colleague from his past, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whose radical plans for human advancement (and his attractiveness) draw Pepper's attention, Tony flexes his Iron Man muscle -- and, y'know, owns up to his duty as a sentinel -- by publicly provoking The Mandarin.

Before that, Iron Man 3 offers a glimpse nearly fifteen years into the past as a quasi-preamble, before Stark made his reputation as a public hero. Outside of Black and co-writer Drew Pearce's evident character reasons for doing so -- namely introducing Killian at a younger age, as well as the beautiful, brilliant scientist Maya Hansen (played by a woefully under-utilized Rebecca Hall) and her invaluable yet unstable work in organic regeneration -- this also serves as a reminder of a Tony Stark before he stumbled into the duties of a narcissistic hero in a near-impervious suit of his design. Thus begins a personal journey for Stark: complete with voiceover directed at an unspecified listener (you find out who in the post-credit sequence) that transitions to the present era, the strain on his persona created by a near-death sacrificial decision in New York flirts with the comic-book's famous "Demon in a Bottle" story arc ... without ever mentioning alcohol, which wasn't really Black's decision. Instead, the cornerstone -- the demon he struggles with -- is that anxiety itself, and it's a nice bit of character development in the film's first act.

The script from Black and Pearce expands on that internal crisis by finding a way to leave Stark without his gear, his girl, and his support structure at a pivotal point, where he's abandoned in the middle of nowhere with only his wits and scientific knowledge (and a boy essentially embodying a young engineering-savvy version of Tony Stark) to guide him. Some will find this change of pace refreshing, a return to those moments in the Afghanistan cave where he constructed the first rudimentary suit; once again, he's using only his inventiveness to weave in and out of tricky situations and get Iron Man in fighting shape. Others will find the lack of higher-octane action and similarities to other recent "fallen, morale-damaged hero" storylines frustrating, and that's partially due to circumstances that are wobbly even for comic-book logic. The pressure rests on Downey Jr. to convince those watching of his fraught situation, and his charisma -- now with the added touch of Shane Black's humorous edge -- keeps the attitude upbeat, hectic, and faintly mythic, bolstered by scenes such as Tony literally dragging the weight of his armor over his shoulder across a snowy field.

Director Black's eye for unique, amusing action adapts well to the moments where Stark does and doesn't have use of his suit, or even where he only has part of his suit, but they're of a different variety than one might expect of a follow-up to the powerhouse grandeur of The Avengers or, hell, even Iron Man 2. Sure, there are moments of traditional heavy-metal bombast that'll ignite a crowd, such as the destruction of Stark's seaside mansion featured in the advertising campaigns and another where Iron Man zips through the air to rescue a dozen or so free-falling citizens, a personal favorite action beat from the series. They're fewer and further between than the previous two films, though, instead replaced by Stark's resourcefulness -- his reflexes and cunning, his awareness of explosive materials, his ability to construct weapons out of rudimentary materials -- as he scrambles to investigate and thwart The Mandarin's acts of terror. His ability to overcome certain situations with his ingenuity stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but it's counterbalanced by how it enhances one's outlook on the character.

Black's style of humor and fascination with duality and facades compliments Iron Man 3's blockbuster predisposition, where one can easily see shades of The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in its blend of low-rumble suspense and sardonic dialogue. While The Mandarin eventually puts a deadline on his lethal master plan, orchestrated around Shane Black's fascination with Christmastime as his backdrop, the story's urgency relies more on the expedited discovery of the terrorist's identity and location. The answer behind the curtain is about as polarizing as the choice to leave Stark out of his armor for the majority of the film, where the script offers some facetious commentary on extremist group figureheads and the "economy" of provoking fear in the public eye. After seeing it three different times, it's still hard to determine whether I actually liked the twist or not; it delivers a surprising blow with a few unexpected layers, yet it's also handled very broadly, to a point where the impact -- despite a crackerjack performance from Ben Kingsley -- almost can't be taken seriously.

Iron Man 3's follow-through mostly justifies its antics upon reaching an explosive conclusion, though not without a dose of reckless, overzealous writing -- namely how it avoids a lingering issue over Tony's reserve suits -- that Black's endings haven't been immune to in the past. Superhuman soldiers with burning grips and breaths of fire create a high-stakes scenario for our hero and buddy-cop Rhodes, played reliably by Don Cheadle, as the film approaches a climax full of Iron Men, fireworks, and plenty of Hail Mary leaps within a dangerous shipyard, backed by a reliably fierce performance from Guy Pearce as his role in the Extremis program comes to fruition. What surprised me the most about the ending, once the smoke clears, is how final and cathartic it ends up feeling, as if it very well could be the bookend to Iron Man himself if they decided not to move the series forward. Giving closure to Stark's tribulations as a self-focused hero and his rocky relationship with Pepper Potts, it'll make the eminent day when the Avengers come knocking on his door again all the more intriguing.

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