Lighter Metal

Summer officially started last Thursday with the midnight release of Iron Man 3, the first blockbuster of the season.  The third movie in a series, particularly for superheroes, can be deadly – see Spider-Man 3 and X-men: The Last Stand (or better yet, don’t see them) – but it can also be a satisfying climax of the trilogy such as The Dark Knight Rises.  Happily, Iron Man 3 is an example of the latter.

A good measure of the credit goes to Shane Black, who moves into the director’s chair in place of Jon Favreau (who still appears as Happy).  Black also co-wrote the movie with Drew Pearce.  This was not a safe choice.  Twenty-five years ago Black wrote the original script for Lethal Weapon, which gave him a “characters created by” credit for the next three movies. He made a million-dollar payday with his next script, the self-indulgent and poorly received The Last Boy Scout.  His third script was the mega-flop Last Action Hero, and he followed that up with the forgettable The Long Kiss Goodnight.  (While it wasn’t his fault, the film took the “Krakatoa East of Java” Award when it put Canada on the New York side of Niagara Falls.)

In 2005, Black tried for a comeback with the twisty comedic mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring a finally clean Robert Downey Jr., who was looking for some redemption of his own.  It’s a good movie, but it didn’t light up the box office.  Except for one short film done under a pseudonym, Black hadn’t written or directed anything in 8 years prior to Iron Man 3.  Apparently, he was saving up the good stuff.

The movie starts with a voice over as Tony Stark (Downey) relates how the story began to an unseen person (stay to the end of the credits, when a tag reveals who he’s talking to). On New Year’s Eve 1999, Stark attends a party in Switzerland where he has three fateful meetings.  This is the pre-Afghanistan, lecherous Stark who thinks everything is a joke.  The first meeting completes the circuit with the first movie as he meets his future cave companion Yinsen (Shaun Tomb).  He also meets the beautiful cellular botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and the physically-challenged scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).  Stark cruelly blows off Killian to have a one-night stand with Hansen.  He’s gone when she awakens the next morning.

Fast forward to the present day.  Stark is not dealing well with the aftermath of the battle in New York City (chronicled in The Avengers) where he almost died.  He has a full-blown panic attack while out with Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and he can’t sleep.  His nocturnal hours are consumed with building a whole fleet of Iron Man suits.

A new threat arises in the form of an international terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who’s conducting a series of terror bombings.  The now physically-perfect Killian has a meeting with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he had known years earlier.  Killian and his assistant Savin (James Badge Dale) raise the suspicions of Happy, who follows Savin right into the middle of the newest Mandarin bombing.  Hansen reappears with a warning for Tony and Pepper about Killian, but the three of them are caught when the Mandarin stages an attack on Tony’s house.

Much of the appeal of the Iron Man series comes from Robert Downey Jr.’s acerbic and flawed Tony Stark. He can milk the comedy of the lines as he throws them away, yet he is also touchingly vulnerable, especially when it comes to Pepper Potts.  This time Paltrow gets more deeply involved in the physical action of the movie, and she handles it beautifully.

Guy Pearce is excellent as the suave, twisted Killian, who’s a worthy adversary for Iron Man.  Rebecca Hall builds on the work she did in The Town with the role of Hansen.  She has a face that pulls you in and holds your attention.  Black writes a much different version of The Mandarin from the character who battled Iron Man in the comics, and it’s a joy to watch Ben Kingsley act the role.

While the CGI effects are outstanding as always (the credits show it took a small army to create them), one scene later in the movie, done mostly with a professional skydiving team, shows there’s still a place for old school stunts.  Black shoots scenes so they keep the audience on the edge of their seats, yet will also throw in twists that keep them on their toes.  While it fully satisfies, there’s more of a sense of fun in this outing than in the previous movies.

Iron Man 3 posted the second strongest opening weekend ever, with nearly $175 million in domestic box office.  That’s also much stronger than the opening of both previous entries in the franchise.  While some of it is building momentum from the first two movies, it’s also a reward for the movie not playing it safe and giving us a retread of what’s been done before.  And that’s a reward for the audience.

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