Three years ago, staggering under the ponderous excesses of Iron Man 2, I wondered:
What would happen to the Iron Man franchise if you took out all the "iron"—the slit-eyed helmet and headlamp breastplate, ruby-red gauntlets and metal mukluks, repulsor rays and boot-jets—and left just the man, billionaire daredevil Tony Stark, armed with nothing more than his wicked goatee, dagger-sharp irony, and impenetrable aura of self-love?
Thanks to Shane Black, we now have a (mostly gratifying) answer to the question. Once a preeminent enabler of Hollywood's addiction to excess—he was the screenwriter for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight—Black subsequently took a decade off before offering amends as the writer/director of 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a wicked, ironic homage to the hard-boiled noir. That film, not coincidentally, was also a key step in the comeback of one Robert Downey Jr., who had recently taken his own hiatus from cinema at the request of law enforcement.
Now the two have reunited for Iron Man 3, which shares many of the strengths—and a few of the weaknesses—of their previous collaboration. Chief among these is the obvious chemistry between the two: Black excels at writing witty, self-referential, pop-infused banter, and there is no actor working today who is better suited to delivering it than Downey. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, their new movie opens with a voiceover by Downey (this time as Tony Stark) in which he again displays his extraordinary gift for carrying on conversations with himself. "A famous man once said we create our own demons," he begins. "Who said that? It doesn't matter. Now two famous guys have said it." He pauses. "I'm gonna start again."
Black and Downey depart from the usual superhero script in a variety of ways, but perhaps most notable is the decision to strip Stark of his Iron Man suit for most of the middle third of the film. And for the record, our hero fares quite nicely with just the goatee, irony, and self-love.
A mysterious and theatrical terrorist, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), has begun a bombing campaign against U.S. targets, and when one of its victims is Stark's own bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two films in the franchise), Stark issues the villain a personal challenge. It is, however, an ill-advised one, as the Mandarin responds by sending helicopter gunships to demolish Stark's seaside Malibu mansion. Missiles are launched, last-second evacuations are achieved, and the house falls beneath the waves as spectacularly as any since Usher.
Unconscious, Stark is auto-piloted away from the scene by his own armor, to rural Tennessee, where he'd planned to investigate a lead involving an explosion that may be connected to the Mandarin. And investigate he does, though without the help of said armor, the batteries of which are in terminal need of recharging. In place of his super-suit, Stark enlists the aid of a young boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins) ...
Yes, this is the moment in virtually every action movie when the script descends into cloying sentimentality: The plucky kid breaks through the emotional barriers of the walled-off hero, etc., etc. I know this, and you know this. But more importantly, Shane Black knows this, and he has an enormously amusing time subverting the trope.
Iron Man 3 is full of such knowing touches. The script, which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce, features references to Scott Baio and Downton Abbey and Westworld, along with barbs evidently aimed at U.S. defense policy: Stark's buddy, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) stumbles around Pakistan in red-white-and-blue armor, and the government is all too eager to fall for fictive threats. On a more self-referential level, there are a few light jokes at the expense of The Avengers ("Ever since the guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety kind of went out of the window") and at least one line that I took as a not terribly veiled shot at the frustrations, reportedly internal as well as external, of Iron Man 2, when Stark explains,"You start with something pure, something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises."
That said, Black's movie is not without its own flaws. As he did in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he seems to have taken to heart the Raymond Chandler admonition that the "scenes outrank the plot": For all the pleasures offered by the former, the latter is a bit of a convoluted mess. It involves two scientist/entrepreneurs (played by Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall) whom Stark met at a 1999 New Year's Eve party, where he stood one up and had a one-night stand with the other. The two have since been developing the Extremis virus, a serum that provides its recipients with powers of regeneration, super-strength, and the ability to generate heat—the only side effect being a tendency, on occasion, to spontaneously combust. Though the exact relationship is initially unclear, the two now seem to have some connection to the Mandarin.
Kingsley is marvelous as the terrorist kingpin: Festooned in robes, his hair braided and fingers heavy with rings, Sir Ben chews his vowels as if they were beef jerky and harbors a Terrible Secret. Alas, despite their talents, Pearce, Hall, and the rest of the cast—which includes James Badge Dale as a villainous heavy and Gwyneth Paltrow, Cheadle, and the voice of Paul Bettany reprising their customary roles—are given far less opportunity to rise above their narrative obligations. The villains' ultimate motives, meanwhile, are difficult to ascertain: some heady goulash of wanting to enlist Stark's financial support, wanting to rule the world, and wanting a date with Paltrow's Pepper Potts.
It all ends, as these exercises inevitably must, with a massive action sequence, in which an army of Extremis-enhanced soldiers spars with a dozen or so remote-controlled suits of Iron Man armor. If this finale sounds reminiscent of the clunking conclusion of Iron Man 2, it is—and it isn't. In the last outing, Tony Stark, the man, was largely lost amid the mechanized mayhem. But this time around, Black advances the counterintuitive insight that the more Iron Man suits he throws into the fray, the less they actually matter. Their destruction, one after another, serves as an advertisement of their disposability. Who cares? Stark can always build more. The only irreplaceable ingredient is him.
Indeed Black's movie—an ungainly, circuitous, and yet profoundly satisfying contribution to Iron Mania—ends on exactly this note. "You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys," Downey's Stark explains. "The one thing you can't take away: I am Iron Man." Amen to that.