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Iron Man 3 proves that Hollywood can make a better second sequel than the first one. In the case of this franchise, Iron Man 2 wasn’t a bad movie, but it also didn’t escape the confines of what was safe and predictable. Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash villain was fun to watch on-screen but the road to that film’s resolution surprised no one, and that cockatoo of his just weirded me out.
With Iron Man 3, Marvel and Robert Downey Jr. called in Shane Black. The screenwriter behind the first Lethal Weapon film, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout and the more recent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black’s first directorial project), Black is known in the business for being one of the hottest and highest paid screenwriters of the 80s and 90s and for being a piece of Hollywood trivia. His screen stories are filled with double entendres, over-the-top gunplay, heroes that are defined by the darkness they battle and villains that confidently cross the line into evil that is recognizable from the true crime stories we witness on the nightly news.
By going for a writer who needed a second big-screen outing, Marvel Studios and producer Kevin Feige might have been hoping to make the same kind of creative two-for-one approach that Joss Whedon delivered with last summer’s Avengers movie. Even though Black isn’t the same kind of writer as Whedon, and his material is darker and cut more from the cloth of a thriller, Iron Man 3 is a surprising excellent sequel as well as a logical, intelligent progression of the story arc that Tony Stark went through in The Avengers (and to a lesser extent, the first two Iron Man movies.) Surprise surprise, it’s better than I thought it would be.
With all of the build-up that Jon Favreau had said about introducing The Mandarin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the way that Black handled it was pretty good. I won’t go into spoilers in my review but Ben Kingsley handles the different complexities of the role with his usual solid acting skills. Turning to Guy Pearce as AIM founder Aldrich Killian, Pearce’s character gives the audience a better adversary on the Machiavellian level than Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. Both bad guys are played with better by Black than Rourke and Rockwell were used by Favreau as the adversaries in Iron Man 2. There may even be a secondary meta level to The Mandarin and Killian’s purpose as villains in the Iron Man universe. Given the phantom-like nature of The Mandarin and his 21st rebranding as a bin Laden-like leader, Black may have been constructing a parable about how America has been fighting the war on terror for the past decade, but in a universe where superheroes and gods exist. As Killian says during the events of Iron Man 3, the way that nations prepared for their wars changed when “that guy with the hammer fell out of the sky.” That is a great way to impart realism into the Iron Man world, and to ground The Mandarin as a believable villain for Tony Stark to face instead of a dated stereotype of unchecked communism.
The other great thing that Iron Man 3 does is to give its story several twists and unexpected moments. Some of that comes from the new technology that Stark is playing with in his suits, but most of it comes from the set-up and payoff of particular scenes. Black shows greater understanding of how to manipulate the machinery of moviemaking, creating sleight-of-hands like a magician does during his show. I’m being intentionally vague on purpose, but once you see the film then you’ll know what I’m referring to.
The effects are as good as we expect from this kind of movie, and the soundtrack (by Brian Tyler) better than the first Iron Man. The introduction of a kid sidekick for Tony Stark is handled adequately but still feels like a demographic request from the Disney owners than a smart storytelling decision, but I can accept it because it’s limited and doesn’t shove too much sugar down our throats. Some of the action does move too fast, and I had no idea how Tony/Iron Man was getting out of several terminal situations. Perhaps it’s due to Black handling a big budget FX driven movie and learning on the job, but it does rob the film of opportunities for greater emotional payoffs, like when Tony saves the lives of the Air Force One crew.
Still, I came in with lower expectations and left with a smile on my face. Iron Man 3 closes the trilogy-and-a-half storyline for Tony Stark (I’m counting The Avengers in with the three Iron Man movies.) It ends a journey that Stark began when he was abducted in the first movie (and which we now know was started by the actions of The Mandarin, so in essence he created Iron Man.) This finale ties a ribbon around this first arc of Iron Man’s journey in the Marvel movie universe, and if needed, a close to the chapter that Robert Downey Jr. played the character. I don’t think that this is Downey’s swan song for Tony Stark, but whatever direction The Powers That Be take with Iron Man 4 will be one that can head off into different avenues as long as the quality of storytelling remains the same. Shane Black has confidently proven that the Iron Man sequels don’t have to suffer degradation with each higher numbered installment.
Review Score: 85 / 100