Has Robert Downey Jr. had enough? Called to duty as Tony Stark four times in five years (2015's The Avengers 2 will make number five), the charismatic star seems a bit weary of the role. It's not that Downey can't toss off a terrifically timed wisecrack or twist even the most perfunctory dialog into something worth listening to — it's that the sparkle has faded.
None of this detracts from the delightful cocktail of swagger and self-doubt that is his billionaire braggart. Downey delivers the kind of jittery, egotistical Tony Stark audiences and Marvel Studios expect. He even weaves into it an undercurrent of bitterness. But at the end of Iron Man 3's two-plus hours it becomes clear that neither he nor we actually feel anything for the character. He's just a colorful cog in director Shane Black's cheeky and manic super hero spectacle.
Opening with a puckish monologue and a flashback to 1999 (before Tony Stark became a hero), we see the playboy-genius cavorting with a nerdy vixen (the criminally underutilized Rebecca Hall) who is working on a biomedical application for her nanotechnology. Too bad it's just a one-night stand and her tech has the unfortunate side effect of exploding its subjects into flames. Enter Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant Stark fanboy who's looking for a research partner but ends up dissed by his arrogant idol. The seeds for a violent comeuppance are sown.
Flash-forward to present day. Stark is suffering from PTSD because of the gods and aliens events in The Avengers. He's a scattered mess, unable to sleep, obsessing over his Iron Man suits and unable to connect with his one true love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Making matters worse, a shadowy terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley hamming it up) — a mashup of Osama bin Laden and Fu Manchu — is turning unsuspecting Americans into human time bombs. Teamed with the now-debonair Killian, Mandarin not only puts the hurt on Stark but targets the White House in a nefarious plot.
You'd think from the trailers that this is a darker, more Christopher Nolan-type of comic book movie. You'd be wrong. Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce have concocted a looser, more sarcastic actioner that's just as big, busy, and self-aware as Black's past scripted efforts (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). And, like most franchise sequels, his movie goes overboard with supporting characters, plot complications, and let's-top-that action sequences. Unlike Iron Man 2, however, it isn't muddled by haphazard plotting and the tedious need to set-up The Avengers.
Instead, Iron Man 3 sports a breezy, over-complicated but otherwise formulaic action flick narrative. The mysterious Mandarin isn't quite what he seems, Stark goes on the run without his super suit and recruits a snappy little kid (Ty Simpkins) to help him out, Potts is put in peril, and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) teams up with Tony for a buddy cop-style third act face off against the villains. Black keeps the pace fleet-footed and frantic, injecting it with plenty of rat-a-tat-tat one-liners. Particularly clever is the way he forces nearly every character into an Iron Man suit.
Black’s action sequences certainly pop, even if his edit choices sometimes fall short. Though it takes a little while for Iron Man 3 to get into fighting mode, when the punches hit they connect with panache. Stark's cliffside mansion is spectacularly blown to smithereens, the villain's attack on Air Force One delivers a heart-pounding mid-air rescue, and the shipyard finale with a phalanx of remote-controlled Iron Men impresses... at least for the first few moments.
But there's never a real sense of drama. Everything is so frantically paced that there's little in the way of emotional connection or development, just sketchy affectations. Characters and personal conflicts are introduced almost as fast as they are discarded.
Though he spends the majority of the movie outside his iron suit, Tony Stark is just a shell of a three-dimensional human being, never building on Jon Favreau's vision of a bitterly funny reformed war profiteer in the original Iron Man. That may be why Downey reportedly skipped the improvisations this time out and just stuck to the script. Why bother, if his character ends up being just another empty suit?
Dir. Shane Black; writ. Drew Pearce, Shane Black, Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby; feat. Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle (PG-13)
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