Exuberant "Iron Man 3" Hits, Sustains High Note

In the wake of two enormously successful “Iron Man” films (and an accompanying superhero mash-up, “The Avengers”), Marvel could have rested on its laurels with “Iron Man 3,” extending the series’ legacy as lucrative but tepid summer entertainment. Yet, remarkably, the series’ latest entry flies in the face of everything that came before it, resulting in a wonderfully imaginative (and frequently bizarre) riff on the superhero genre. Some audiences won’t know what hit them, but “Iron Man 3” is a picture of absolute infectiousness – and a nearly perfect piece of summer entertainment.

Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, arrogant billionaire turned introspective superhero, the events of “The Avengers” having left him racked with anxiety. His domestic life with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has become monotonous, but his present is about to be rocked by the indiscretions of his past. As depicted in a note-perfect flashback, Stark’s years of narcissism have left him with some very dangerous enemies, headlined by Ben Kingsley as a terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin and Guy Pearce as a shady businessman named Aldrich Killian.

While the film’s first thirty minutes aren’t particularly imaginative, Tony’s world is quickly turned upside down, as is our ability to tune in to the film’s ever-changing frequency. The opening of the second act sees our hero dragging his suit through the snowy backwoods of Tennessee, and it becomes very clear that we best forget our expectations and strap in for the ride.

Writer-director Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”) proves to be the game-changer here, bringing a wit and creative spirit to the proceedings that forebearers Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon couldn’t muster. The film is an incredible tightrope walk between comedy and action and drama, and while there are some significant pacing issues, Black pulls it off beautifully, deftly summoning the best traits of big budget filmmaking. Some of the narrative twists and turns are likely to put off comic book purists, but these story tics – like the brilliant arc of Kingsley’s Mandarin – are essential to the spirit of the story.

Several of the pic’s setpieces are absolute stunners, the best of which is an aerial rescue sequence that’s sure to elicit “how-did-they-do-that?” gasps from most moviegoers. Additionally, most of the action scenes avoid the metal suit vs. metal suit doldrums through the inclusion of Pepper (not just as a passive bystander) and other strong supporting performances, including James Badge Dale as a henchman and Rebecca Hall as one of Tony’s ex-girlfriends.

Though some of “Iron Man 3” borders on wacky, Shane Black is careful to never lose the plot, and when the film drifts toward “Spider-Man 3”-like excess, Black knows when to pull back. Alternatively, he’s never afraid to add spice to scenes that need it, reliably calling on inventive line-readings and spur-of-the-moment snark from Downey Jr. Unlike its predecessors, the humor in “Iron Man 3” never seems forced and the dialogue zips along gleefully, rarely veering into cliché or unnecessary exposition.

Ultimately, “Iron Man 3” is an embarrassment of riches, raising the stakes for future superhero films – Marvel, DC, or otherwise. Rather than being tied down by self-seriousness, the film uses that weightiness to free itself. By not belaboring Tony Stark as a broken, moody hero and instead using his story as a backdrop, the pic’s energy never dips, allowing for a nonstop barrage of verbal and visual fireworks. It’s certainly not the film people are expecting, but I loved it for that. Its absolute refusal to fit inside any kind of box is what makes “Iron Man 3” so exciting, and I can only hope that other filmmakers take note of its freewheeling enthusiasm. This is how you kick off the summer movie season.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: May 2, 2013
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriter: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, Wang Xuequi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content)