Marvel Studios and Disney are running these characters into the ground with recycled storylines that do nothing more than create empty shells for big budget special effects. I’m sure somebody is probably thinking that, but a comic book fan, or simply any lover of summer superhero fare, enjoys the serial structure of these films. And what’s wrong with that? Of course, studios will milk that cash cow dry, but that doesn’t mean quality won’t appear, even if that quality is imperfect, like that offered by “Iron Man 3”.
Choosing Joss Whedon, a proven comics writer and fan of superhero stories, proved the powers that be actually care about these stories (not just the cash cow). “Iron Man 3’s” director Shane Black, who also directed the fabulously witty, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (the pre-“Iron Man” role that solidified Robert Downey Jr.’s return to the A-list), is an equally strong replacement for Jon Favreau. Sure, Favreau failed to reprise the magic of the first film in “Iron Man 2”, but that first film remains the best in the franchise, and one of the top superhero films of all time. While Black doesn’t provide the most concise story about Marvel’s metal knight, he taps into the Tony Stark humor so many adore, and concocts a final showdown that’s incredibly satisfying.
The first 10 minutes of “Iron Man 3” are rough. Rather than visually progress the story, an awkward voiceover by Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) highlights his life post-New York (yep, it takes place after “The Avengers”), even introducing a terrorist, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), in an incredibly lazy way. We also meet the equally ominous character, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the head of AIM (comics fans, begin your nerd out now), in an equally awkward flashback to New Year’s Eve of 1999. I imagine they did this just so Stark’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Favreau), could sport some tragic fashion faux pas.
Eventually, the film finds its groove, taking Tony in a completely different direction than in the previous three film appearances. Rather than attempting to improve his armor (the general premise of the previous films), Tony travels to the Midwest in search of answers to several mysterious terrorist attacks. Some of the most delightful moments in the film occur between Tony and a local boy, Harley (Ty Simpkins), as they attempt to work through the web of deception, and Tony’s anxiety-related demons.
Superhero films are often a boys’ club, but “Iron Man 3” (much like the appearance of Black Widow in “Iron Man 2”) offers a glimmer of hope for the future. The damsel, love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), has quite a bit more to do this time around (but you won’t hear any more details from me). And then there’s Brandt (Stephanie Szostak), the best of the baddies infected with Extremis, a rather important — and heated — substance in the film, but you’ll just have to watch to know how important.
The primary problem with the “Iron Man” series remains the same: as much as we love Downey Jr. in this role, Iron Man needs more screen time. I imagine the current $200 million budget might challenge that claim (and clearly the film’s incredible opening weekend does as well), but who wouldn’t want more action scenes. That said, when everything hits the fan, “Iron Man 3” concludes in several blazes of glory, even if sidekick Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is unfortunately underused (even more tragic considering how little he did in the previous film as well).
Hats off to director Black, once more, for recapturing the humor he did so well in his directorial debut and the “Lethal Weapon” series, in which he began his screenwriting career in 1987. Say what you will about this installment, but you’ll laugh from beginning to end. Sure, “Iron Man 3” lacks the narrative finesse and simplicity of the 2008 installment, but Kingsley and Pearce are worthy replacements for uninteresting villains of the past. Hardly the best of “The Avengers” franchise, it takes an important step in the right direction and provides a memorable detour for a character who could easily become too stock. There’s quite a bit more to do with these characters (especially Rhodey), so I anxiously wait, like a giddy fan on this month’s comic book day.