The “Iron Man” movies have become the thinking person’s superhero franchise if for no other reason than that they feature the thinking person’s movie star. Alone among his be-muscled and be-spandexed brethren, Robert Downey Jr. clearly considers the whole enterprise vaguely ridiculous as he zips around the skies in a high-tech iron lung. Is this what movie acting has come to?
And yet Downey doesn’t condescend to the superhero genre. Instead, he tries to raise the proceedings to his own arch, intelligent level. You sense his characters possess experience in life, not just comic-book derring-do. Like the actor playing him, Tony Stark has the slightly singed air of a man who has seen too much.
Still, Downey risks being trapped in that can. “Iron Man 3” is co-written and directed by Shane Black, a successful Hollywood screenwriter (“Lethal Weapon” and sequels) whose sole previous directorial credit was 2006’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” a rare joy for Downey watchers that was mostly unseen by everyone else. So hopes have been high that this latest “Iron Man” may have some meat on its exoskeleton.
It does — barely. The weakest in the series of Marvel Comics-related movies (including last year’s all-star pig pile “The Avengers”), “Iron Man 3” suffers from confused plotting, flat-footed exposition, and more pure, noisy nonsense than even a comic book movie should have to put up with. Yet whenever Downey is being Downey, it’s still the most subversive Marvel franchise around.
And Shane Black being Shane Black, a little oddball cleverness does sneak into the mayhem. After the apocalyptic events of “The Avengers,” Stark is a nervous wreck: He can’t sleep and stays up all night, ignoring girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and inventing new iron-suit prototypes. When a terrorist mastermind named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley in full-on Fu Manchu-meets-Osama bin Laden gear) commandeers the airwaves after a wave of bombings, Iron Man wants to suit up but is told by his best friend, Air Force Colonel “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), that “this isn’t superhero business — it’s American business.”
The most interesting thing about “Iron Man 3” is the way it cues the audience for that kind of patriotic rah-rah only to nip it in the bud. Rhodey wears a metallic superhero suit, too, but the government has changed his name from “War Machine” to “Iron Patriot” because it tested better in the focus groups. Even the Mandarin may not be what he seems, and the US response — send our flying heroes over to Pakistan with guns cocked — is clearly the wrong approach (a bit too jokingly for some of us).
Over in another corner is nerdy biotech industrialist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), still resentful over being snubbed by Stark at a Y2K New Year’s party. A comely scientist played by Rebecca Hall figures in here, too. You get bad guys who glow like nuclear briquettes, all the expected fireballs and detonations, collapsing mansions, crashing airplanes.
And you know what? The best scenes are when Stark just cuts impatiently through the claptrap. There’s a subplot about a fatherless little kid (Ty Simpkins) who helps Iron Man out, and any other movie would slather on the pathos like cream cheese. Not this one. Kid, tearfully: “Are you going to leave me like my dad did?” Iron Man: (pause) “Yes.”
Black understands that the classic Downey pose is the sardonic bon vivant briefly bewildered yet rising to the challenge, and it really doesn’t matter whether that bewilderment comes from the sudden loss of a finger (as in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) or a genetically enhanced army destroying his house (as here). There are surprises in “Iron Man 3” but they rarely come from the action sequences — with the exception of a free-falling air rescue late in the movie that had the preview audience applauding.
Instead, they come from Kingsley’s delightfully multi-leveled performance, a general disrespect for macho theatrics, and the knowledge that a superhero with all his powers is never a match for a man in full possession of his wits.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.