When it was announced that Jon Favreau would not return as director of the third “Iron Man” film, the producers surely fielded offers from every name director in town. So how did Shane Black land this gig, again? The guy hasn’t written or directed a feature film since 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and yet here he is, doing that Shane Black thing once again, only this time with superheroes, while trying his best to streamline his R-rated ways for a PG-13 audience. As it turns out, “Iron Man 3” works, but just barely, and it’s more in spite of Black’s influence than because of it. At the beginning of the second act, Black begins to get in his own way, and for anyone familiar with his work, it’s not long before a strong case of deja vu sets in. He even set the movie during the holiday season, just like “Lethal Weapon.” And “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is not handling the events that took place in “The Avengers” well. He can’t sleep, he’s experiencing panic attacks, and he’s neglecting his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The last thing he needs is a crisis, so of course he receives two, in the form of a think tank genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who’s trying to woo Pepper into funding some groundbreaking genetic research, and a stone-cold terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who has launched a series of unusual bombings across the country. Tony dares the Mandarin to take him on; the Mandarin responds by destroying his house. Tony Stark, one of the richest and most famous men in the world, is at rock bottom.
Taking privilege away from those who have it, and forcing them to use their wits in order to survive: it’s a fun story device, but doing it with Tony Stark is unfair to the story device. He’s too damn smart and capable to be down for more than a few seconds, and any attempt to weaken him turns out to be in vain in a very short period of time. The one thing about the story that Black nails – and it’s a big one – is the execution of the Mandarin. In the comics, the Mandarin derives his power from 10 ancient rings powered by alien technology. That isn’t going to fly in the movie universe (it would feel like cheating), and Black comes up with a rather clever way of grounding the Mandarin while maintaining his deadliness, paving the way for a showstopping performance by Kingsley. Black also gives Paltrow the long-overdue opportunity to be something other than a damsel in distress, though at the same time, he uses her as bait for a good chunk of the third act.
Indeed, that third act will serve as the barometer for how people feel about the movie overall. For those unfamiliar with Black’s work, it will probably be a non-event. It’s action-packed and entertaining and fun. For the rest, it will feel dated and silly. When Downey and Don Cheadle sneak up on the Mandarin in the movie’s big finish, it’s hard not to think of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. People dodge ridiculously large fireballs, and Downey spends time in a dungeon in a scene that looks like a mirror image of the one from “Lethal Weapon,” though without the torture (we’re assuming the torture wasn’t in the original script, but Gibson insisted upon it). When one takes the story and thinks of it in conjunction with the bookend narration and the obligatory teaser shot at the end of the credits, it all makes sense, but in a cynical way. It reeks of hand wringing, that they manicured the script for the sole purpose of paving the way for the launch of another “Avengers” franchise, knowing that it would weaken this film, but that’s all right, because this movie will make money regardless. That’s pretty damn cynical.
“Iron Man 3” is a movie in conflict. Marvel obviously wants these movies to be as good as they can be, but there is also the “Avengers” big picture to consider at this point. Each of these films is designed to set up another film outside of its universe, and so far they have done very well with that, but they seem to have forgotten that what started this incredible wave of momentum that Marvel is enjoying right now is the fact that the first “Iron Man” kicked ass, and it did so by putting itself ahead of the Avengers as a whole. Every movie since then – “The Avengers” excepted, mostly – has played it much safer. Some have been very good, others less so, but all of them have been about the greater good. Tony Stark doesn’t give a shit about the greater good, so it’s painful to see an “Iron Man” movie toe the line.