“Iron Man 3,” co-written and directed by Shane Black, whose quick-witted 2005 indie “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” likely helped lead Robert Downey Jr. score the title role in this star-reviving series, is two movies in one. More often than not, such a critical observation lends itself to a scathing analysis about how a picture doesn’t know what it wants to be, but in this case, both movies work and they fit together well enough that the medley sings. In fact, it’s a blessing — a 130-minute comic book adaptation focused on a singular narrative is usually an oppressive prospect; doubling the amount of plot keeps things interesting.
The first of the two movies is a dark, brooding affair — not to the apocalyptic extent of last summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises” because of the “Iron Man” franchise’s penchant for comedic relief, but the closest thing we’ve seen in the superhero realm since. Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, now saddled with debilitating panic attacks—a natural extension of his character, as narcissists tend to lack self-confidence at the deepest levels—finds himself up against The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who despite his namesake is clearly modeled after an Islamic terrorist, threatening American annihilation in bin Laden-style videos. While writers Black and Drew Pearce’s treatment of this material is not especially profound on a political level, it’s provocative that they tickle the terrorism nerve so specifically; even the heady “Dark Knight” series kept its parallels to the modern day War on Terror subliminal, whereas here, such references are part of the main attraction.
Then, halfway through, in an inspired and rather daring plot-twist that’s too big of a punchline for me to spoil, the movie immediately adopts a lighthearted, cartoony tone that’s more in line with what comic book adaptations were before Christopher Nolan made filmmakers realize that it was possible (albeit not easy) to achieve grander things with such source material. (OK, maybe Black begins the transformation a few scenes earlier when providing Stark with an ’80s-esque boy sidekick, but before this, we certainly wouldn’t predict the film’s ultimately sprightly trajectory.) The primary villain becomes Guy Pearce’s mad scientist Aldrich Killian, who has been ominously looming in the background for the first half and whose lab experiments have paved the way for a colorfully fire-filled climax.
Perhaps it’s regrettable that Black’s fondness for action spectacle in both halves of “Iron Man 3” results in the sidelining of the non-villain supporting characters, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle’s Rhodey, who were mainstays of the first and second films, respectively, but the director crafts action so skillfully that it’s hard to complain. The Mandarin’s attack on Stark’s Malibu mansion captivates with chaos, even though we know all the major characters will come out alive. The big finale, in which Stark summons his new army of drone Iron Men, never becomes impersonal in its CGI-overkill because Black always keeps the events grounded in Downey Jr.’s magnetic characterization. The aesthetic that Black and cinematographer John Troll cultivate throughout is striking: not traditionally cinematic in its clearly digital compositions, but still enormous in scope, as the pair thankfully resist any urge for the film to be visually consistent with its Marvel cousin “The Avengers,” which looked like the most expensive TV episode ever produced.
Is “Iron Man 3” particularly memorable? Despite its general effectiveness, not really, and how much milage is left in Downey Jr.’s wryly infectious version of Tony Stark is questionable, though the introduction of his anxiety disorder is a culturally relevant dimension worth manipulating in future installments. But as the quintessential summer blockbuster—a cinematic event that has something for everyone, whether they like their superhero movies dark or farcical—the film hits its marks. Especially after Jon Favreau’s clunky second installment in the series, Black’s stab at “Iron Man” is worthy of applause simply for its clean storytelling (a real accomplishment given the bifurcated narrative) and visual refinement. Plus, there won’t be a 10-year-old boy who walks out of the movie feeling unsatisfied, and contrary to what the possessive man-child fanboys will argue, that’s the audience who matters most when it comes to Marvel.