Three’s the Charm
By Carl Kozlowski
Everyone loves a comeback, and perhaps no Hollywood star has exemplified that in recent times like Robert Downey Jr. and his star turn as Iron Man. But when its first sequel, 2010’s Iron Man 2, was deemed a far weaker film than the first, largely due to a terrible screenplay that was being written even as it was being filmed, Downey threatened not to make a third unless he could help give his good friend, writer-director Shane Black, with a comeback of his own.
Black has long been a modern Hollywood legend, having set records for the sums of money he was paid for his scripts for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But his only film in the past 17 years since Goodnight was the 2005 low-budget caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is most famous for giving Downey the first starring role of his unlikely comeback, even though it failed at the box office despite critical acclaim.
Downey agreed to do Iron Man 3 only if Black took charge of the film’s writing and directing duties, and the gambit has paid off with yet another comeback: That of the series itself. Packed with the wicked wit and abundant action of the original, IM3 also has the unusual advantage of grounding its action in a place and time that makes things fresh by keeping them surprisingly tied to the real world.
IM3 opens with billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) recounting the strange events that befell him in on the night of Y2K, the night of Dec. 31, 1999, when earthly disasters would have been triggered by massive power grid failures. A pushy, nerdy young science entrepreneur named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) wants to show Stark a new technology that can revive and strengthen dead and injured plant life, and which he hopes will eventually be able to do the same for humans.
But Stark, depicted nearly a decade before the time lines of the first two films in the trilogy, is filled with youthful arrogance and first mocks then ignores Killian. Fourteen years later, Killian re-emerges as a handsome playboy paying a visit to Tony’s girlfriend, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to lure her to work at his now-thriving company on the final stages of his revitalization project, Extremis.
Potts turns him down, and soon Killian is enraged just as a series of mysterious al Qaeda-style video transmissions by an evil-looking man called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) threaten the world with terror. At the same time, formerly MIA U.S. soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are mysteriously appearing and wreaking havoc in big cities and small towns. After his Malibu mansion is destroyed by a ruthless fleet of helicopters, Stark flies off in a defective Iron Man prototype suit to find one such soldier.
His destination is Nashville, but due to a funny series of running gags showing his IM suit acting defective, Stark crash-lands in the woods of rural Tennessee. Here, teamed with a young fatherless boy who helps him hide his suit and shows him the ropes of small-town life, Stark begins a series of adventures that are at once action-packed, heartfelt and hilarious as he has to save the world by literally starting over as an average man before he can reclaim his superhero status.
This may sound complicated, and there’s tons more plot twists that unfold from there, yet Black is a master of action-comedy and is in firm and highly creative control throughout. The fact that nearly half the movie takes place in the small-town heartland of America, with Stark as a fish out of water but also in fatherly mode while taking the highly unusual approach of actually treating Southerners with respect rather than as imbeciles, gives the film a very fresh feeling rather than the stale flavor from which most sequels suffer.
The movie not only maintains the series’ surprisingly effective emotional warmth, but the fact that it’s set around Christmas (a hallmark of all Black’s films) also adds some Norman Rockwell-style magic to the proceedings. The script also has some hilariously biting satire of the news media and the means with which terrorists spew their venom in the age of high-tech communications, with Kingsley bringing together a brilliant mix of menace and mirth as an evildoer who’s not all that he appears to be.
Black also packs in terrific action sequences and guides strong performances by an ace cast that handles emotion and adventure with equal aplomb. On every level, after the creative failures of Iron Man 2, viewers could have dreaded an even more dispiriting disaster. But thankfully, cinematic superheroes Black and Downey have instead saved not only their franchise but the start of the summer movie season.