Though Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke’s Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko have all made substantial efforts to break down and destroy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the tycoon turned superhero’s most volatile relationship has always been with his cherry-red-chrome suit, in conjunction with the glowing magnet battery that keeps him alive, that turns him into the eponymous Avenger. While Jon Favreau’s sleek, satisfying Iron Man matched its oomph-infused action sequences with a funny, reasonably bitter vision of America Inc., the wonky sequel showed that the mechanism of a rigid, narratively muddled script, further burdened by a narrative agenda to drum up excitement for The Avengers, had taken over nearly every shred of the story’s human element, save Downey’s wildly charismatic take on America’s favorite fictional corporate juggernaut.
All the more reason to welcome Shane Black’s unexpectedly galvanic Iron Man 3, a madly creative, darkly comical, and fiendishly self-aware actioner with muscle to spare, as the new heir apparent to the throne-of-summer blockbuster. The famed scribe that penned Lethal Weapon, subsequently birthing the boom era of the buddy-cop flick, Black gives the narrative, the language, and even the direction a much-missed dose of personality and clarity. As Stark now looks to take on the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a celeb-terrorist who has bio-engineered a group of Americans into unknowing time bombs, Black begins to take apart the accepted boundaries and structures of the superhero film, and if he still employs a variety of familiar genre tropes, he certainly dismantles as many as he indulges.
Of course, Black has largely substituted the structural similarities of today’s most lucrative, popularized genre with that of another from a bygone era: the gritty actioners, tossed with gallows humor, that dominated Hollywood from the twilight of Reagan on through the electoral defeat of Bush the First. That the film recognizes that from early on and constantly lashes it with pliable humor gives the film a looser tone and an attitude of bold sarcasm. Tony, settling in with longtime companion Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), still dolls out the one-liners and radiates hubris with aplomb, but he’s now hampered by identity issues and anxiety, stemming from his climactic free fall from Earth’s atmosphere in The Avengers. His conflicted sense of aggravation is enflamed when Happy (Favreau), his beloved erstwhile bodyguard, is nearly killed by Savin (James Badge Dale), a mysterious, supernatural agent capable of conducting immense heat and causing explosions.
The attack on Happy brings Tony face to face with the Mandarin, but also with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the Stark fanboy turned corporate titan who engineered the treatment that gave Savin his deadly powers. The dynamic is reminiscent of the heedlessly convoluted storyline involving Rockwell’s Hammer in Iron Man 2, but the script, co-written by Black and Drew Pearce, tinkers with the formula in remarkably clever ways, and does so with minimal reference to Joss Whedon’s engaging yet weightless box-office behemoth. Black implements a purveying sense of vacillating identity and upended self-possession in the zippy dialogue, the openly duplicitous narrative, and the serpentine structure. Visually, he shows a shrewd sense of how to build active tension, and expresses newfound involvement and sensitivity in his quieter scenes, showing a great deal of growth from his scattershot debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey.
Indeed, twists abound, as even the film’s marketing campaign ultimately amounts to a red herring. Iron Man 3 is less the latest installment in the titular series or a new volume in the sprawling Avengers galaxy than it is the return of Black as cinematic persona. As a director, he prefers big, busy set pieces, and Iron Man 3 serves as a rousing compendium of Black’s salad days in Hollywood, along with a few of his chosen genre’s landmarks. He evokes Air Force One and Point Break during a bravura airborne kidnapping sequence; The Long Kiss Goodnight informs Tony’s small-town run-in with Savin and company; and the astounding climactic assault on a crashed oil tanker, complete with botched public execution, suggests the climax of Lethal Weapon 2 on a raw diet of comic books and mainlined adrenaline. Even the casting—William Sadler is the president and Miguel Ferrer is his vice president—suggests a well-armored nostalgia trip to the Die Hard days, but Black is careful to not let nostalgia dictate or disrupt his style.
A modicum of change isn’t unreasonable after decades in Hollywood, and Black here replaces his once-acidic spite for government and bureaucracy with a call for corporate responsibility. If Black still shows a preference for the guns and missiles of military culture, and a distrust of science, he at least now complicates the presumed villainy of those who tinker in such fields with a sense of moral hindsight, characterized here in Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hanson, Killian’s girl Friday. The film even survives the introduction of a precocious youth who helps Tony investigate an attack in Tennessee that he credits to the Mandarin. But worry not, Black hasn’t totally given up throwing darts at the powers that be: for PR, Don Cheadle’s Colonel James Rhodes is forced to rename War Machine as the Iron Patriot, after spray-painting red, white, and blue star-spangle all over his suit. Later, Cheadle’s tag-team work with Downey is purposively and warmly reminiscent of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s storied Lethal Weapon repartee, even amid a battle royale between the Mandarin’s fiery legions and a battalion of specialized Iron Men, remotely controlled by Jarvis (Paul Bettany).
Stark’s final bird-flip to his corporate identity and renouncing of the technology that’s defined him may put a bit of a fine point on Black’s humane themes, but it certainly doesn’t court righteousness or sentimentality. Ultimately, it does well to reinforce the refreshing humanity of Iron Man 3 and helps to forgive Black’s tempered flights of timely cynicism, including the televised execution of a BP-ish oil-company exec. Starting as the story of a great but shallow man who literally had to rebuild himself to survive, the Iron Man series has always had quite a lot of stake in resurrection, mainly through human inventiveness, raw creation, and its cold, industrial byproduct, but the series has also reverberated with reflexivity in this regard. The series that Favreau began and Black has now brilliantly reconfigured has served to help resurrect the superhero genre in the wake of twin catastrophes Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, resurrect Downey, an actor of tremendous seduction and force, as a natural leading man, and now resurrect Black as one of Hollywood’s most assured and clever hit makers. And yet, the most appealing thing about Iron Man 3 is its ambitions to not merely resurrect, but reinvent the nature of such elementally safe entertainments. And even if he isn’t completely successful, this thrilling film would be remarkable enough for openly outing Christopher Nolan’s sheep in impeccably tailored wolf-suits.