This will sound like a back-handed compliment, but it's something of a wonder that we haven't gotten sick of seeing Robert Downey Jr. suit up as Iron Man. Unlike Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, whose appearance in even the first, delightful Pirates of the Caribbean film seems lesser and lesser with each new lame installment, Downey, along with his Tony Stark character from the Iron Man and Avengers films, has managed to stay in our good graces.
In part, that's because the guy knows how to deliver a joke. And as superhero movies get more and more ubiquitous, there's something to be said for a franchise whose very stock in trade appears to be its inability to take itself too seriously. But can such heights of goofiness start to work against a movie? If we are to take the enormously entertaining and thoroughly disposable Iron Man 3 as evidence, then ... maybe.
As the funniest and most inconsequential of the Iron Man films to date, this third installment in Marvel's money-printing superhero series is notable also because it marks a return to the director's chair for Shane Black. Back in the 1990s, Black became a minor celebrity (and a critics' punching bag) as the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, a guy whose specialty was over-the-top, wisecracking buddy action movies like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. He seemed to disappear for a number of years before re-emerging in 2006 as a director with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a somewhat smaller-scaled over-the-top wisecracking buddy action movie starring Downey and Val Kilmer.
That film was more of an outright comedy, and so too, it seems, is Iron Man 3, which for all its CGI-laden mayhem cannot resist the chance for a good one-liner or an odd bit of unrelated comic banter. Perhaps ironically, it took an action veteran like Black to turn the Iron Man movies into something closer to pure comedy — as opposed to Jon Favreau, the former comedian who directed the first two films (and here reappears, briefly, as Tony Stark's security guy Happy).
The villain this time out is a supposed Bin Laden-like terrorist mastermind named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, doing what must be the worst John Huston impersonation of all time), who stages attacks using human bombs and then makes heavily produced terror videos. Somehow this also has something to do with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant scientist from Tony Stark's past who has returned with a plan to biologically enhance humans. The villains' ultimate plan is bizarrely elaborate — too elaborate to explain here, especially given the spoilers that would be involved — and vaguely nonsensical. Let's just say it involves hijacking the War on Terror and kidnapping the president, but in such a way that it makes the kidnapping-the-president plot from the G.I. Joe movies look like gritty realism.
The rest is fairly standard what-happens-when-a-hero-loses-his-powers stuff. Stark's Malibu mansion is destroyed by the bad guys, and he winds up stuck somewhere in small-town Tennessee with a suit drained of all power. He's also suffering from regular panic attacks as a result of the events of last year's Avengers — an odd note, since one doesn't expect such a lighthearted movie to haunt anyone's dreams, even if its finale wrecked half of New York and ripped a hole in the time-space continuum. Then again, the Iron Man movies were the animating spirit of Joss Whedon's superhero team-up blockbuster; they all traffic heavily in that mixture of wiseassery and epic carnage. None more so, perhaps, than this latest installment.
Indeed, all that jokiness and mile-a-minute banter starts to work against Iron Man 3 as the story moves along, as the flip tone makes it hard to believe anyone is ever in real danger. "I hate working here. They are so weird!" says one low-level bad guy as he drops his weapon and walks away near the end. It's a funny gag, but something that feels more like a refugee from an Austin Powers-style spoof.
What made the original Iron Man so successful was not just its irreverent sense of humor, but also the fact that Stark seemed genuinely vulnerable — a guy with shrapnel in his heart, in more ways than the obvious. Indeed, even the lax and uninvolving Iron Man 2 managed some genuine pathos out of Stark's weaknesses. This time out, Black can't quite replicate that vulnerability, in part because that's not really what he does. What he does is wisecracking buddy movies with lots of explosions. And in Iron Man 3, for both good and ill, he gets his biggest canvas yet.