Sequels tend to have it tough. Third movies usually have it tougher. By that time, a lot of ground has already been covered by the previous movies, and that usually means that there is a need for some reinvention. And reinvention is always tricky. Iron Man 3 faces this challenge with a new director, and what happens is kind of interesting. Director Shane Black draws from his usual bag of tricks, and applies the elements of a bygone era of movies to the modern superhero flick. It can feel pretty uneven at times, but the entire experience is both smarter and funnier than one might expect it to be.
A mysterious terrorist known only as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been bombing US targets, killing hundreds of people in the process. When his former bodyguard gets caught in one of these bombings, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides to take matters into his own hands, issuing a personal challenge to the Mandarin. This leads to his home being attacked, leaving most of his support structure destroyed. Stripped of most of his technology and stuck in the middle of nowhere, Stark must rely on his wits to unravel the mystery behind his foe.
Those familiar with the work of director Shane Black will find the tone somewhat familiar. Though the trailers seemed to indicate a darker reinvention of the franchise, the movie has more in similar with Lethal Weapon than it does The Dark Knight. It has a flawed hero suffering from some sort of psychological trauma trying to unravel some sort of mystery, quipping all the way. It just so happens that this particular hero is equipped with a high tech suit of armor, but otherwise, he’s cut right out of the 80s action comedy mold.
The result is rather interesting. The film is on a much larger scale than the films of that era, but it still mostly dials down to a more personal level. It tugs on an intriguing thread that has Stark basically suffering post-traumatic stress disorder following the gargantuan events of The Avengers. It’s a nice little humanistic accent that offsets some of the bigger silliness that goes on in the main thread. The larger stuff can be a little hit-or-miss. Though a lot of it is quite inventive, some of the sequences just don’t pan out. The action climax gets a little too chaotic, making it difficult to follow the action.
But director Black really invests in the scenes that don’t have any armor in them. He really does set the stage for a strong performance from Robert Downey Jr. The director plays to his strengths, offering his plenty of room to quip while still keeping the pathos of the character clear in the foreground. As usual, he finds ample support from the other members of the cast. Gwyneth Paltrow continues to be excellent as Pepper Potts, and Don Cheadle has great rapport with Downey. Guy Pearce continues his growth into a full-on character actor, and Ben Kingsley delivers a surprisingly fun turn.
There’s actually plenty to quibble about in Iron Man 3. The shared universe of the Marvel movies presents new narrative hurdles that the movie simply ignores. Where was S.H.I.E.L.D. in all of this? Why didn’t Stark ask for any help? And the movie runs a little long, perhaps indulging too much in its quippy banter. But this movie set out to be fun, and it thoroughly accomplishes that goal. It found new ways to be fun within the superhero context, balancing the larger scale with smaller moments of personal exploration. It’s a pretty good start, all in all.