One of the keys to the roaring success of the third Iron Man movie, hereafter to be referred to as Iron Man 3, is that there isn’t a lot of Iron Man. This is good because the suit is an elegant metallic blank and is largely computer-generated, and we’ve seen virtually (and I do mean virtually) everything that it can do while having to pretend to be convinced by little cut-ins of Robert Downey Jr.’s face in alleged flight or battle. This is also good because two more hours of rock-‘em-sock-‘em CG robots would set up unfavorable comparisons to last summer’s superhero-franchise-tent-pole-orgasmatron, The Avengers. Part Threes are notorious series killers, and it boded well that Jon Favreau — whose Iron Man 2 had narrative love handles from all the fat in its budget — ceded the director’s chair to the still-hungry Shane Black. Clearly Black understood that Downey had to be the heart (such as it is) of this thing and that no actor can triumph over a cartoon tin man.
The idea is to kick Downey’s billionaire industrialist Tony Stark out of his comfort zone, so that instead of throwing money at every problem, he has to function as a lone gumshoe, think like a garage mechanic, and, when necessary, MacGyver it up. In the script credited to Drew Pearce and Black, Stark brings upon himself his exile into the low-tech wilderness. In 1999, he explains in voice-over, he created his “own demons” — blowing off a wide-eyed Über-nerd (Guy Pearce) to sleep with a dishy biologist (Rebecca Hall). Having rooted the villain’s genesis in his hero’s character flaws, Black proceeds to show the angry, arrogant Stark doing a nyah-nyah-come-get-me-you-know-where-I-live routine to a robed terrorist mastermind called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), whose (very exuberant) videos make plain that he’s targeting the president of the United States and whose last explosion puts someone close to Stark into a coma.
The rocket attack that takes out Stark’s high-tech cliffside manse has been the stuff of trailers for the last six months. I can only add that it’s even more impressive in 3-D, that it’s fun to see the Iron Man suit on Gwynny Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and her panicked little blonde head in the inserts, and that a shot in which the camera seems to plummet alongside Stark and the crumbling remains of his bombarded dwelling was probably not worth the money (which could have been used to feed and educate many poor children) but, given that it’s already spent, is a Triple-Decker Wowza with Cheese. The movie’s subsequent 90 minutes must have cost a lot, too, but the trick of the modern comic-book superhero picture is to make it look as if its makers are “getting a little more real” with the milieu. The milieu is no more real than half of Hollywood’s heterosexual relationships, but we so want to believe.
The other problem with post-Avengers movies is that you wonder why Stark doesn’t just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Captain A., I need a favor,” or, “Earth to Asgard, come in Thor … ” Iron Man 3 handles this not by pretending The Avengers didn’t happen but by having Stark overbusy coping with the trauma of what everyone calls “New York.” To add insult to PTSD, his (Stark’s, not Downey’s) fans want to know more about the Avengers than Iron Man. One such fan is a too-snappy, too-articulate, too-hard-to-resist Tennessee adolescent named Harley Keener played by Ty Simpkins. Having a workshop handily abandoned six years earlier by his AWOL dad, Harley trades insults with Stark while exhorting him to recover his inner garage-workshop-tinkerer. Their bickering produces one disconcertingly weird line, following a vicious firefight between Stark and a female quasi-Terminator: “If you do someone a solid,” Stark tells the boy, “don’t be a yutz” — probably the first time the phrase “do a solid” has been paired with the word yutz and certainly the first time “yutz” has been used by a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant superhero. The Jews really have infiltrated popular culture.
Downey is less obnoxious than he was in The Avengers and more vulnerable, partly because Black knows how to modulate his leading man’s shtick — Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) was a jolly vehicle for the sardonic, freshly sober Downey and the opening salvo of the actor’s triumphant comeback. Black is good at giving his heroes a morbid, self-hating edge and even better at coming up with hateable villains. Unlike most comic-book directors, he doesn’t stint on the killings — an attack on Air Force One has the body count of Air Force One in about 1/50th the time. The timing isn’t great for an escapist romp that features explosions in public places in American cities. But this kind of picture always seems to get a pass, the box-office take barely dented even by shooters in multiplexes. Nothing gets between us and our superhero blockbusters.
As to the chemical and biological nature of the villain and his literally fire-breathing minions, I won’t ruin your day with any spoilers. I couldn’t if I wanted to since I never fully understood their powers, which expand and contract according to the needs of the script. I didn’t care, though: Iron Man 3 has a lot of incident and the big action set pieces are at least coherent enough for us to know which way the shock waves are blowing. It would be nice if today’s superhero didn’t have the same ball-and-chain girlfriend who wants him to take fewer risks and put more effort into the relationship (“Eye contact, Iron Man!” she doesn’t say but might as well). But at least this time “Goopy” Paltrow gets to perform a few superheroics herself, along with enduring some heavy-duty torture that’s bound to please her haters — for whom the sight of the top of her face being peeled off in Contagion was like Christmas in July.
Iron Man 3 has an unusually high number of witty turns, from Pearce’s clumping disfigured geek turned insinuating smoothie to Don Cheadle’s amusingly gung-ho Colonel Rhodes, ever disheartened when he can’t rocket around alongside Stark. I always enjoy seeing Dale Dickey, who was so stunning as the hillbilly matriarch in Winter’s Bone and the meth fiend who in Breaking Bad dropped an ATM machine on her boyfriend’s head. The talented comic actor Adam Pally has an exuberant bit as a Stark groupie in a TV van. It’s the sort of inspired silliness a movie like this needs, and it also gives Downey a chance to prove what a brilliant straight man he can be — he uses his superstar sense of entitlement to generate a great, impatient slow burn.
Finally we come to the Mandarin of Ben Kingsley, whose beans I wouldn’t dream of spilling. Every time I see Sir Ben I think he’s due for another of Her Majesty’s honors: Lord High Executioner of Mischief. Long live the Kingsley of Comedy!