How do you make an Iron Man movie fresh and exciting in a post-Avengers world, rife with aliens, Gods, super-soldiers, and a Hulk? If you’re Marvel, you strip him of his suit, take away everything that matters to him – his friends, his gadgets, and his confidence. But most importantly, you hire a filmmaker like Shane Black whose aptitude with edgy humor, whip-smart, snappy dialogue and twisty detective stories is exactly what this franchise needed.
The events of The Avengers have left Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) visibly shaken. More neurotic than ever, and prone to anxiety attacks, Stark is now a recluse who spends all his time in his lab, obsessing over building and perfecting his metal suits with the intent of protecting the ones dearest to him – his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Things have gotten so bad that a mere mention of the word “New York” sends him into a tail spin panic attack.
Meanwhile, Pepper, now the CEO of Stark Enterprises, who is already going through a ringer dealing with Tony’s neurosis, gets a business proposition from ex-boyfriend Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an industrialist who has developed a serum called Extremis that restores damaged tissue. Although she rejects the proposal, Happy decides to tail Killian and his creepy bodyguard (James Badge Dale). Elsewhere, a mysterious Bin Laden-like terrorist, known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), is hijacking the airwaves with expertly edited television addresses, claiming responsibility for a series of horrific bombings nationwide. When Happy is critically wounded in one of these attacks, Tony publically challenges The Mandarin, only to realize that this threat is far bigger and more complex than he originally imagined.
Although it hasn’t always worked for them, one of the biggest reasons why Marvel has been so successful in establishing their cinematic universe is because they hire smart and capable filmmakers with distinctive voices to handle the keys of their franchises. The studio continues that formula with Iron Man 3 by hiring writer-director Shane Black to take over the proceedings. Black, who made a name for himself with action-comedies like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, as well as the supremely underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Downey), brings those action-comedy sensibilities to this film and infuses it with all his trademarks: the pop-culture-references, the zingy one-liners, unexpected bursts of comedy interlaced between action scenes, the out-of-leftfield twists, and last but not least, the noir-styled mystery story complete with voice-over narration.
It’s this mystery angle that makes Iron Man 3 the most rewarding and exciting entry of the trilogy. After a devastating attack leaves Tony isolated from everyone he knows, and without his suit, he’s forced to spend at least 75% of the film without it. While some hardcore fans will hate this decision, from a narrative and character stand-point, it’s an invigorating move for the franchise. By putting Stark front and center instead of his suits and gadgets, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce are able to showcase Stark’s wit, mathematical genius, detective skills, and his humanity. Combined with Downey’s reliably terrific performance, they’re able to firmly establish that, even without the help of his inventions, Tony Stark is clearly the coolest superhero in the world.
The decision to strip him off his suit also gives Downey more screen-time than he’s had before. While there’s no re-inventing the wheel here, his usual dose of quips and cynicism are matched by more serious moments that make the character more relatable. It’s easily his best performance as the billionaire industrialist so far. Equally impressive are Kingsley and Pearce as the film’s antagonists. Kingsley, in particular, is fascinating as the terrorist who wears many faces.
Naturally, this wouldn’t be an Iron Man movie without the action scenes. Although he’s never directed a film on this scale before, Black more than proves himself adept at orchestrating these high-octane sequences. One of these, set aboard and outside a crashing Air Force One, in which Stark has to figure out how to save 15 people from plummeting to the Earth (even though he can only carry four) is one of the most visceral and creative sequences in the Marvel cinematic universe. Another, in which Stark’s mansion gets obliterated by a bunch of helicopters might be the most brutally violent sequence of the series.
Iron Man 3 was saddled with the unenviable task of being the follow-up to The Avengers. But instead of following that mega-blockbuster’s “bigger is better” mantra, writer-director Shane Black and star Robert Downey Jr. opt for a smaller-scale detective-style adventure that puts Tony Stark front and center. The result is a witty, exciting and filmmaker-driven blockbuster that, unlike Iron Man 2, puts story and character, instead of visual effects and needless world-building, at its core.