It would have been very easy for the makers of “Iron Man 3” to punk out in the final period. They could have gone for overwrought seriousness, a la Christopher Nolan’s exhausting (if beautiful) “Dark Knight Rises.” They could have created something forgettable and phoned in like “Spider-Man 3.” It could have been overly cute or had a wedding or any of the other ludicrous ways to end a storyline.
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Drew Pearce and Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley
But, somehow, miraculously, it didn’t.
Instead director and writer Shane Black brought Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark into a deceptively simple premise, framed it ingeniously as a wacky comedy, and gave it a center of thoughtful discussion of everything from the military, to the corruption of pure science, to the way that seemingly unimportant past events tend to come back and bite us in the ass.
We start with Downey, Jr. playing a newly traumatized Tony Stark, still reeling from his experience during “The Avengers” and unable to sleep from the nightmares of the wormhole that nearly killed him. He spends his time building an army of Iron Men in his basement to feel safe, ignoring his now live-in girlfriend and business partner Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). This plotline is better in theory than in execution- it’s not the greatest portrayal of PTSD I’ve ever seen- but it’s worth it to create the sensation of the existing comic universe, and that what happens in one franchise affects the events in another.
Stark of course doesn’t have the luxury of an anxiety problem- a Bin Laden clone named The Mandarin (a superb Ben Kingsley) has been setting off bombs and threatening to kill the President. And an ominous Guy Ritchie is sniffing around Stark’s girlfriend (and touting his invention, a highly weaponizable drug that can reprogram the human brain). It’s not a spoiler to say that the two are related, but in a way, way better way than you might think, right up until the big reveal in the second act.
Black’s script, written with Drew Pearce, is a marvel- quick and well-timed, with a rat-a-tat cadence that sometimes sounds ripped directly from a 1930s screwball comedy. Some of the best scenes feature only Downey, Jr. and a small child (Ty Simpkins) who helps him during a dire hour of need. These could have been schmaltzy, the kid nauseatingly precocious, but essentially it’s just Downey, Jr. and the kid trading off being charming assholes. I could watch it all day.
The “Iron Man” franchise has always had an interesting viewpoint of the military. The basic facts of Tony Stark’s backstory — a former warmonger who decides to use his genius to stop evil instead of simply building more weapons — means that the military industrial complex is both reviled but also a major focus of the story. The connection between war and commerce, the line between doing science purely for its own sake, and applying that science to morally bankrupt ends are lightly explored without ever shouting the right answer. One of the things I always liked best about “Iron Man” was the fantasy that we could create a machine that was both a weapon and an unambiguous instrument of good. Of course, it’s just that- a fantasy- but the movies (and the comic books they are based on) reflect that desire in a palpable way.
It’s far from perfect. It gets pretty long in the teeth near the end, and while most of the action scenes are stunning to watch, the climactic battle sequence is a hammy, dull mess. Turns out, there’s only so long you can watch a bazillion robots fight each other, over and over, in remarkably similar shots. And poor Don Cheadle once again is relegated to super-cool black best friend Col. Rhodes, complete with terrible one-liners that don’t seem like they exist in the same universe as Downey, Jr.’s sharp, dryly funny dialogue. But all in all this a pretty satisfying and sheerly entertaining way to pass the time until Joss Whedon completes “The Avengers 2.”
Seriously, though, Joss. I need you to finish “The Avengers 2.”