Director: Shane Black
Runtime: 130 minutes
Last summer kicked off with Joss Whedon's The Avengers, the cumulative effort of merging the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk (sorry, Ed Norton) franchises. After a series of solid, but often unremarkable, standalone films, Whedon's geek-tastic superhero bonanza was seen as a high for Marvel Studios. However, this posed a challenge for the standalone films that would lay the ground for The Avengers 2: would audiences be as invested in just watching one member of the Avengers roster at a time? It's hard to say for all of them. Tony Stark and Iron Man, however, can breathe a sigh of relief. Iron Man 3, this year's kick-off to the summer movie season, blows away all of the previous Avenger films, and establishes its hero as Marvel's single most fun figure.
After the chaos in New York City, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., back in top form) struggles to cope with his comparatively mundane life (along with some nasty panic attacks). Thor is back in Asgard, the Hulk is likely in hiding, and Captain America is off on his own adventure. However, it doesn't take long for a new threat to arise (this is the Marvel-verse, after all). Enter mysterious international terrorist The Mandarin (an enjoyably hammy Ben Kingsley). Without giving too much away, Tony initially has little interest in tackling The Mandarin, preferring to leave him to the government and Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Yet when the shadowy terrorist's attacks start to hit home, Stark is left with no choice but to rebuild his life and seek revenge.
Even though Iron Man 3 takes Stark to the darkest emotional territory, it is also the liveliest and funniest film in the series. Co-written by Drew Pearce and director Shane Black, much of the dialogue is sharp and energetic, with any number of delightful back-and-forth exchanges between Stark and a member of the ensemble. Among that ensemble are the aforementioned Kingsley, along with Guy Pierce as smarmy scientist Aldrich Killian, James Badge Dale as Killian's henchman Savin, and Rebecca Hall as researcher Maya Hansen, who has a link to Tony's past. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as well, as Stark's girlfriend and business partner Pepper Potts.
Where Black and Pearce's screenplay works best is when it puts two or three characters together and lets them bounce off of each other. At times the dialogue can border on overwritten, but the exchanges are largely successful due to Downey Jr.'s presence. Iron Man 3 does for Tony what Iron Man 2 should have done: pushed him completely to the edge, physically and emotionally. In doing so, the film once again makes Stark an engaging and fun protagonist, compared with 2's version of the character, who was often too big of a jerk. Even though some of the set-up for the plot can feel a little dragged-out, the film always has Downey Jr.'s performance propping it up. And once the film properly takes off, it's a largely thrilling endeavor.
Black keeps Stark separated from his suit for longer than expected, and it pays off. A section of the film set in rural Tennessee gives Downey Jr. more room to build Tony as a character, and experience him outside of either the Iron Man suit or his swanky mansion. Even scenes without Stark present deliver, such as a bit with Pepper and Maya concerning the latter's moral quandary about her research. Likewise, Killian and The Mandarin easily outclass the previous Iron Man villains, albeit in wildly different ways. The only cast member truly lost in the shuffle of it all is Cheadle's Col. Rhodes, who comes into play so late in the game that you almost forget his character is a real presence in the movie. Thankfully, once he starts figuring into the plot directly, Cheadle makes for yet another strong foil for Downey Jr., particularly during the finale.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film, however, is the success of the action sequences. No previous Iron Man film has ever delivered a truly noteworthy battle, with the climactic fights often proving underwhelming. As such, the bar wasn't set terribly high for Black. Thankfully, he decided to clear it by a considerable margin. Three major fights, all different, in the second hour erase the bad memories of all previous Iron Man action scenes. One is particularly fun for the way it forces Stark to fight using only two pieces of his armor. On the opposite end of the scale are a thrilling sequence involving a damaged Air Force One, and the knockout climax set amid a massive oil rig. It's larger than life stuff, and Black captures it with intensity while never forgetting to inject crowd-pleasing thrills. The near-seamless visual effects only add to the experience.
But, at the end of the day, it's all about Tony Stark and his metal alter ego. By tapping into the character's fears and insecurities, Black and Downey Jr. create the best portrayal of the character yet. Multiple characters inhabit suits in the film, yet only Tony Stark can ever truly be Iron Man. And while Iron Man 3 doesn't reach the grandiose heights of something like The Dark Knight, it is such an energetic and enjoyable experience that it's difficult for the flaws to really remove one from the experience. Frankly, it's the most purely enjoyable Marvel film since 2003's X2: X-Men United. If I were Thor or Captain America, I'd be nervous right about now. Those two have got their work cut out for them.