Crackerjack popcorn entertainment done overwhelmingly right, Iron Man 3 is a robust example of what Hollywood can do right when it puts its mind to it — bringing tremendous resources to bear upon a larger-than-life story, entrusting it to smart, capable people, and turning them loose with fully invested confidence. A fun ride brimming with nice character details that fit together in comfortable and occasionally savvy ways, writer-director Shane Black takes over the franchise reins with a breezy aplomb, delivering a movie packed with both thrills and amusement.
Taking place in the unfolding Marvel superhero universe after the events of last year’s The Avengers, the film finds billionaire industrialist and erstwhile playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) struggling not so much with faithfulness as a properly apportioned sense of time commitment with his now-steady squeeze, new Stark Industries chief Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
A string of bombings by a media-manipulating terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has left intelligence agencies baffled, owing to their lack of forensic evidence left behind. Meanwhile, inventor turned magnate Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) has — perverting the research of Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), an old one-night stand of Stark’s — figured out a way to regenerate missing limbs, and entered into a shady and unsafe program involving unwitting injured war veterans. Complications, explosions and wisecracks ensue.
As embodied by Downey, Stark is brash, cocksure and quip-happy — not a superhero who wears his cloak (or in this case suit) heavily, but instead with a confident, forward-leaning pleasure. In this regard, while the first film was released five years ago almost to the day, still during the tenure of President Bush, Stark can be seen as a metaphor for a re-energized American patriotism, shaken free from doubts and missteps of the early millennium, and pointed upward and onward with vigor and clarity of purpose. The subsequent sequels have each picked up on this theme to varying degrees (“Failure is the fog through which we glimpse triumph,” Iron Man 3 at one point asserts), and after his trusted former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is injured in a blast, Stark even delivers a come-and-get-it address directly to the Mandarin (“No politics — this is just good, old-fashioned revenge”), giving out his home address on live television.
Black, working from a screenplay co-written with Drew Pearce, deftly walks the line between being true to his established leading man and telling a story more rooted in a post-Avengers world. References abound to the “events in New York,” but Stark also wears a sheen of post-traumatic stress disorder that seems properly to scale, and sized to his own ego and peccadillos. The biggest, most pleasant surprise of Iron Man 3, however, may be how well the action filmmaking works. Black — in a huge step up, budget-wise, from his only other directing credit, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — imparts a nice sense of spatial recognition throughout, and all of the set pieces seem to fit smartly within the story, instead of as adjunct showcases for CGI gimmickry.
It’s true that Stark’s friendship and alliance with James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), the government-outfitted War Machine, now officially rebranded as the Iron Patriot, is handled in more or less functional strokes. And the explanation and deployment of Stark’s stockpiled Iron Man army is, well, if not a cheat then sometimes seemingly a bit of a winking narrative fix.
But the performances here are highly enjoyable (in addition to the regulars, young Ty Simpkins scores highly as Harley, a kid whom Stark befriends), and the rakish Iron Man 3 accomplishes the rare three-quel feat of actually leaving you wanting even more from a franchise. (Disney, PG-13, 129 minutes)