As a modern commentary, as a piece of pop culture popcorn pizzazz, Shane Black has started the Summer 2013 season off well.
Life for a superhero is, apparently, very hard indeed. Not only are you required to save the world, deal with the inner issues that makes you the go-to guy or gal (shapeshifting, inhuman strength, etc.), and live with the aftermath of defeating an entire alien race... or arch villain... or a madman bent of global domination, but there is that nasty little leftover known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Typically evidencing itself in panic attacks, insomnia, and uncontrollable worry, it seems insane that someone as arrogantly over the top and full of himself as the egotistical Tony Stark would laugh in the face of such a malady. But in Shane Black's satisfying end to the main Marvel triptych, Iron Man 3, our hero is indeed lost in the throngs of his after-Avengers anxiety. He remembers how close he came to dying, and how quickly he could lose everything he now cherishes.
You see, Stark (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) is having a hard time sleeping. Having turned over his empire to the more than capable Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and with former friend Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) subbing in the champion department (as the newly minted Iron Man rip-off, the Iron Patriot), he has little to do except tinker in his lab and build a series of specialized prototype suits. He also thinks back on a meeting he had in 1999 with an attractive botanist (Rebecca Hall) and a weirdo semi-stalker fan (Guy Pearce) who wanted to collaborate of a project with him.
Fast forward to now, and the oddball has become Aldrich Killian, a multi-millionaire who wants Stark Industries on his team. Of course, Tony could care less. He is more worried about a new terror threat against the planet's populace - an insane despot with a penchant for suicide bombings known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). As he deals with his inner crisis, Tony faces the loss of Pepper (both figuratively and literally - almost) and the destruction of his Malibu home. Eventually befriending a kid in Tennessee (Ty Simpkins), he starts to link the Mandarin to Killian. Eventually, we learn the truth about the Mandarin, a plot proposed by Killian, and the importance of that meeting way back at the end of the millennium.
Like a combination of the cartoony first installment and Christopher Nolan's re-imagined Batman series, Iron Man 3 is a true delight. It is perhaps the best of the Marvel movies, matched only by Joss Whedon's wonderful The Avengers in both scope and character complexity. Under previous director, John Favreau, Tony Stark was all attitude and swagger. If he ever showed fear or concern, he would brush it off with a clever one liner or a hilarious aside. Now, Stark is stuck in a psychological mess he can't escape. Something about dealing with Loki, the Chitari invaders, and saving the city of New York has left him professionally paralyzed. It is also destroying his love affair with his partner, Pepper Potts. She is tired of seeing him so unhappy - and so fanatical about building more Iron Man suits.
For his part, The Mandarin becomes a viable menace, though almost by accident. Since we never see the man commit any act, his Bin Laden like video screeds border on the absurd. But because Black paints him as a modern terrorist, capable of killing from great distances away, we feel his force. On the other hand, Killian is kind of a redundant red herring. You can tell from the 1999 meeting that he's going to turn into some manner of thorn in Stark's side, but the end result is a little less...spectacular. In fact, all of the evil elements of Iron Man 3 don't get enough play. This is probably because of the PG-13 rating, or the finale which sees an entire cargo ship (and its occupants) under attack by dozens of multifunction robotic Iron suits. That probably gave the MPAA a few "far too violent" fits.
For his part, Black ups the action ante, providing excitement and awe where Favreau just offered overindulgence. When Stark's Malibu mansion is raided, there's a nice balance between destruction and visual poetry. Similarly, a last act skydiving sequence is literally breathtaking, a true "how did they do that" moment in a movie filled with F/X and CG. The ending, as mentioned before, truly sends things out with a bang, and throughout the movie, the director divides his time between the chaos we've come to expect and the character beats he's hoping to establish. There is some great spectacle here.
It's that focus on Stark's psychological struggles that turns Iron Man 3 into something some fans (and a few film critics) might balk at. As Nolan did with Bruce Wayne, Black wants to make the billionaire playboy philanthropist into an actual human being with dimension and needs. He's even given that Hollywood standby -- a little kid -- to countermand his constantly churning bravado. Sure, the scenes with little Ty Simpkins are pretty great, but they speak to a desire (probably from new Marvel parent company Disney) to tone things down for the Suite Life of Zack and Cody crowd. Sure, the movie has muscle when it needs it, but those looking for a solid, superhero sendoff may be a bit befuddled by all the tenuous, touchy feely elements.
Still, as an overall effective entertainment, as a way of giving this character a proper (supposed) swansong, Iron Man 3 is terrific. It takes the elements of the franchise we love and marries them to a narrative that gives everyone more room to grow. Sure, purists may wince what what's become of both The Mandarin and Killian, but the adaptation works well here. As a modern commentary, as a piece of pop culture popcorn pizzazz, Shane Black has started the Summer 2013 season off well. While it may be more grounded in the truth of being the savior of the planet, Tony Stark's problems play very real indeed. Luckily, there's great fantasy to fill out the audience's needs as well.