Iron Man 3 opens with an arresting image — the destruction of three Iron Man suits, right in a row, bang bang bang — and a voice over from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a bit of business about facing your demons that quickly degenerates into gibberish. “Never mind, I’m gonna start over,” he says, and the screen fades to black, thus concluding the first of the film’s many assurances that, while it is a mega-budgeted summer tent-pole movie, it is also the work of devilishly clever writer/director Shane Black — whose previous collaboration with Downey, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, included one of the most blissfully self-aware narration tracks in all of moviedom (“Don’t worry, I saw Lord of the Rings, I’m not gonna end this like 17 times”). And that’s the key to the movie’s success: beyond all the explosions and action set pieces and 3D wizardry, you can still hear a writer with a distinctive, entertaining voice. And that’s what separates films like this from their blockbuster brethren, which too often were clearly created by a committee.
Which is not to say that the film is some kind of indie-minded, anti-commercial intellectual exercise. It is, above all, a superhero sequel, and the screenplay (by Black and Drew Pearce) dutifully picks up where its predecessors have left off: with Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) cohabiting as he continues to tinker around in his high-tech lab, developing versions of the Iron Man suit that he can operate remotely, or that can come to him, albeit in pieces (making for a fine bit of CG-assisted slapstick).
But there is a darker force at work: a supervillain called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who is behind a campaign of public bombings. “Some people call me a terrorist,” he says, in his scary, bin Ladenesque video messages. “I call myself a teacher.” One of the victims of those attacks is Stark’s bodyguard and buddy Happy (Jon Favreau); that injury, Stark’s insomnia, and leftover uncertainty about the events of The Avengers (Happy: “Now you’re off with the Super Friends, I don’t know what’s going on with you anymore”) have made him, in his words, “a pipin’ hot mess.”
All of that, and the additional layers of supporting characters with shifting intentions and allegiances, are pretty pro forma blockbuster stuff. And the action beats are, as expected, well executed: the attack on his Malibu home (greedily sampled in the trailers) is a bruiser, and the piece-by-piece reassembly of the suit during that attack is hero-shot fodder writ large. An attack on the president’s plane (and is there a more summer blockbuster-conjuring phrase than “an attack on the president’s plane”?) pops; the climactic sequence takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, amusingly and thrillingly.
Those scenes are serious fun, but they aren’t what’s interesting about Iron Man 3. More discerning viewers will find themselves drawn into the film’s peculiar and invigorating second act, in which Stark finds himself in Tennessee, investigating the first of the bombings. The Iron Man suit is damaged on the way, and spends a good chunk of the narrative under repair — meaning that for a long stretch of Iron Man 3, there’s no Iron Man. Instead, there’s Tony Stark and a kid named Harley (the wonderful Ty Simpkins), who becomes his buddy and assistant, and the snappy back-and-forth of their dialogue is breezy, funny, and joyous. The Tennessee detour is strangely fascinating, because it gives Black the chance to write a buddy movie again. And once he gets to go off on that jag, he seems reluctant to put Stark back in the suit (don’t forget, he opened the movie by blowing those suits up).
Black’s story is an odd one: his first produced screenplay was the original Lethal Weapon, and after a couple more big paydays for big action flicks, he disappeared from Hollywood for nearly a decade. When he came back, with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a film that was also a turning point for Downey, who perhaps pushed for him to get this gig), his writing was looser, funkier, and — in an admirable bit of self-destruction — drawn to blowing up the clichés that he’d helped establish. Iron Man 3 is full of those touches: the henchman who cuts and runs during Stark’s battle at the villain’s lair (“Honestly, I hate working here, they’re so weird”), or his gentle advice to Harley about his absentee father (“No need to be a pussy about it!”).
The picture’s sense of humor is what keeps the viewer off-balance, and that’s a welcome feeling indeed within the structure of a big studio blockbuster. And it might seem ridiculous to float the notion of authorial voice within that kind of money-printing machine, but consider: Iron Man 3 is great in much the same way that The Avengers was, inasmuch as it is both a Shane Black movie and a Marvel franchise flick, in equal proportion. It manages to be both at the same time, just as The Avengers was both a Joss Whedon movie and a tent-pole entry, just as the Dark Knight movies were both Christopher Nolan movies and giant superhero mega-films. Now, quick, who was the auteur behind The Green Lantern? Or The Fantastic Four? Or Elektra? Exactly. Execs, take note: if you’re going to keep making your superhero movies — and there’s every reason to believe you are — at least have the courtesy and common sense to hire a filmmaker with a voice. And then let them use it.
Iron Man 3 is out Friday in wide release.