Summer movie season has officially arrived with the release of "Iron Man 3," the third (and-a-half, including last summer's "The Avengers") chapter in the story of billionaire industrialist and inventor, Tony Stark. The film continues Marvel Studios' winning formula of picking interesting filmmakers for their mega-budget superhero blockbusters over more commercially viable (i.e. boring) options. Shane Black, the director and co-writer of "Iron Man 3," is responsible for the screenplay to action classic "Lethal Weapon," but his only directing credit is the brilliant 2005 neo-noir "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," (which just so happened to also star Robert Downey Jr.). He proves to be an exciting choice, adding his own sensibility to what could otherwise have been a middle-of-the-road comic-book adaptation, improving immensely on the disappointing "Iron Man 2," and kicking off "Phase 2" of Marvel's cinematic universe in spectacular fashion.
As the film begins, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., proving once again that this is a role he was born to play) is suffering from anxiety attacks and insomnia due to some post-traumatic stress leftover from the events of "The Avengers." The stress has begun to take its toll on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's girlfriend, and now acting CEO of Stark Enterprises. To make matters worse, a new threat appears in the form of a Bin Laden-type terrorist known as The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), who periodically takes over the nation's airwaves to taunt the population and claim responsibility for a number of bombings across the country. And because that's clearly not nearly enough conflict, Guy Pearce is also thrown into the mix, playing ambitious entrepreneur Aldrich Killian, who pops up at Stark Enterprises intent on pedaling some new bio-tech mumbo-jumbo he dubs Extremis, which is capable of regenerating damaged human tissue, but has the unfortunate side effect of sometimes making its test subjects explode.
Despite an overabundance of plot, what's most surprising about "Iron Man 3" is the relatively introspective tone the story takes; rare for a superhero film, the plot is largely character-driven in nature. The film is ultimately about Stark learning to function as a person outside of the armor and finding ways to utilize the resourcefulness and intellect that are his true superpowers. It's in this way that Black finds ways to make the movie his own, complete with several of his favorite thematic elements, from buddy-cop-style banter to the Christmas setting. It's a compliment to say that it often feels more like a Shane Black film than a Marvel movie.
I was concerned by the overly serious tone all the trailers had taken leading up to the film's release, but I had little reason to worry — the film is often laugh-out-loud funny. The script, co-written by Drew Pearce, gets a lot of great material out of Stark's teaming up with a young boy for a lengthy portion of the movie. Kid sidekicks are usually a recipe for disaster, but Downey has a nice rapport with young actor Ty Simpkins and Black does a nice job balancing the few moments of heart with a healthy dose of snarkiness, so that the plotline never grows too cloying. Black is equally adept with the action set pieces, with the highlight being the spectacular rescue of the passengers of a hijacked Air Force One.
As a writer, Black doesn't have Joss Whedon's gift for allowing every member of an ensemble cast their moment to shine, but he comes damn close. Downey basically is Tony Stark at this point, so I'm not sure if that qualifies as coasting or not, but he brings a vulnerability to the role this time around that elevates the character. Gwyneth Paltrow's portrayal of Pepper has always been one of the best elements of the Iron Man movies, and her chemistry with Downey is undeniable, but none of the movies have ever known quite what to do with her. Here, the story toys with making her a badass character in her own right, but then relegates her to the damsel-in-distress role for a significant portion of the film.
Kingsley is flat-out great as The Mandarin. It's difficult to talk about his plotline without giving too much away, but let's just say that significant liberties have been taken with his character compared to the comic iteration, and they play out brilliantly. Pearce is also quite good, and Killian is an effective villain, but his scheme is overly convoluted with so many separate components that I never entirely understood how they all fit together. But let's be honest, supervillain world-domination plots are rarely logically sound, so it's really more of an added bonus when they legitimately make sense.
What matters is that Shane Black has crafted an exciting summer movie that doesn't sacrifice character for action, and in his capable hands, "Iron Man 3" is a total blast.