'Iron Man 3' gets the job done, but may also show a franchise at the end of its rope
Iron Man 3 Walt Disney Studios
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Drew Pearce and Shane Black, based on characters created by Stan Lee
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle,
James Badge Dale and Rebecca Hall
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes
Opened May 3, 2013
(out of four)
Only something really special or really risky on Marvel's part could have saved Iron Man 3 from
its biggest drawback, which is the virtually inevitable sense of fatigue it elicits. When you're the
third (or, let's face it, fourth; The Avengers was basically Iron Man & Friends) entry in a tightly
controlled franchise, a sense of sameness is bound to set in. The series and its title character have
now gone through three independent variations and one mash-up and I've liked all of them to
one degree or another, but nonetheless the four have felt more or less the same.
At a certain point, we've seen every variation of a metal-suit-on-metal-suit fight scene we can
see, and seen just about every side of Tony Stark we're going to get. The thing is, I like Tony
Stark and have loved Robert Downey Jr.'s interpretation of the character, from the original 2008
origin story to now. But I also love, say, Philip Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart; and even so, I'd
imagine that if we'd gotten to The Big Sleep Part 4, the act would have run its course.
The sheer volume of other superhero movies doesn't help matters, either. Aside from those that
set themselves apart aesthetically (Nolan's Batman saga, del Toro's Hellboy films, Watchmen,
even Captain America to an extent), they all kinda blend together. In fairness, you could make
that argument for virtually any genre from any time period, but the sheer bigness of superhero
movies (their scope, their budget, their CGI excess) makes their ubiquity all the more
It's long been my contention that franchises are best served by a willingness to constantly
reinvent themselves. The same goes for TV shows. (The more radical, the better!) This one has
never really done that (even The Avengers seemed to take on Iron Man'spersonality), so the
enduring quality of the series is a testament in and of itself. But I found myself watching Iron
Man 3 with a sense of enjoyment that bordered on ambivalence.
The big change this time around - and one of the big selling points for me going in - is new
director Shane Black. The once-legendary screenwriter, who triumphantly returned from a
decade-long Hollywood exodus eight years ago with his fantastic directorial debut, Kiss Kiss
Bang Bang (which, along with the likes of Zodiac and A Scanner Darkly, helped revitalize
Downey Jr.'s career before he catapulted to superstardom in Iron Man), handles his first mega-budget directing assignment by providing a seamless transition between the earlier movies and
this one. Sure, he provides his own spin - the Christmastime setting, the erratic, tongue-in-cheek
voiceover - but the style we've come to expect remains largely intact. The sardonic sense of
humor remains, only with a bit more of Black's trademark self-consciousness. And the dialogue,
naturally, is just a bit sharper.
The story this time finds Tony Stark still reeling from the
events of The Avengers. The experience has left him unable to sleep and prone to panic attacks -
and, frankly, sick and tired of answering questions about that wormhole. Instead of cultivating
his committed relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), he spends most of his waking
hours tinkering in his lab, coming up with a series of new Iron Man prototypes.
But time and terrorism wait for no man to get over existential struggles - not even for Tony
Stark. So when the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) makes his presence felt on the world
stage with a series of targeted bombings, Iron Man is his natural, and inevitable, foe.
Complicating matters is the appearance of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a former (brief)
acquaintance of Tony's and current mad scientist. We know he's a villain from the start - 1)
because, as a young scientist, he's ignored and abandoned by Tony Stark during the film's
opening flashback sequence, and we know that's how all arch-enemies begin; and 2) because his
name is "Aldrich Killian." There's never been a non-villainous character with a name like that.
In truth, the motivations for Tony's involvement with the Mandarin are flimsy at best (he's
feeling vengeful because his old bodyguard Happy Hogan is nearly blown to bits and falls into a
coma), the logistics of some of the film's plot machinations make little sense, and the character
played by Rebecca Hall is woefully underwritten, her behavior governed entirely by the whims
of the screenplay.
But Black does a nice job with the scope of the action, and he and co-writer Drew Pearce give
Downey Jr. some nice material for the character. What I liked most - in fact, what partially
offset some of my other reservations - were the little bursts of idiosyncratic inspiration that pop
up every so often in Iron Man 3. It feels like Black was aware that he was fundamentally
remaking a couple of other movies, so he wanted jolt us back into upright position from time to
time. The strategy pays off, particularly in the way the film gets away with lightly satirizing its
It's not surprising coming from Black, who's always been hyper-aware of genre conventions and
phenomenally clever in the way he tackles them. He may be retreading through predictable
territory, but he keeps things just interesting enough to make it worthwhile. I may not be bullish
on the future prospects of the series, but given the track records of other franchises, getting four
pretty good movies out of one character is an accomplishment in itself.