The surprise of Tony Stark is gone. Five years after we first met him, the Iron Man hero's sharp-tongued wit and vaguely manic, stream of consciousness rambling are no longer subverting our idea of the superhero. We've had three adventures with Robert Downey Jr.'s franchise staple and his act has gotten too familiar. Which is why, I suspect, director/writer Shane Black was brought in to take charge of Iron Man 3, the sorta-kinda trilogy-ender that opens tomorrow. Black earlier helped revive Downey Jr.'s ailing career with the smart, caustic, funny Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so maybe the thinking was that he could do the same thing for aging Tony Stark. He half succeeds.
Iron Man 3 finds Tony settled into a post-Avengers malaise. He's still tinkering in his sleek home laboratory and talking to his personable computer friend Jarvis (Paul Bettany, earning his paycheck), but there's a new anxiety about him. The world, nay the universe, has suddenly gotten a lot bigger and Tony, former master of the small universe he knew, is not handling the change well. He's grown distant from his lady-friend Pepper Potts (the ever-game, ever-elegant Gwyneth Paltrow) and he's even started having panic attacks. Yes our smooth, suave hero, usually cool and quippy in even the direst of circumstances, is a mess. It's a bit of a bummer, but it's also pretty interesting to see Tony so down in the dumps. Black even gives him some Kiss Kiss-style voice-over narration, weary and foreboding as a mysterious flashback opens the film. The tone from the get-go is more serious, a bit more ragged, than in the previous two films, but still sprightly and sardonic. The humor just feels more gallows adjacent. It's a bit jarring but not unwelcome, this injection of darker pathos into Marvel's mostly glossy stable of films.
It's a shame then, for Tony Stark and for us, that, inevitably, along comes the villain's plot to take us out of this odd but beguiling character study of a falling man and into the usual jumble, clatter, and crash of a blockbuster movie. This particular villain is a shadowy terrorist leader known as the Mandarin, glimpsed in jittery, quick-cut videos that his organization sends over the airwaves after hacking into TV feeds. He's played by Ben Kingsley, speaking in a homey American accent that is deliberately over-the-top. His threats are vague, his motivations even more so, but he nonetheless instills plenty of fear by orchestrating various bombings around the globe. We witness just such an attack on Mann's Chinese Theater (excuse me, TCL Chinese Theater), a sequence that's more grim and gruesome in light of recent events than I'd have to assume was the original intent. So this Mandarin guy means business, but who is he? And what does he want? Only Tony Stark can crack the case!
After the Mandarin makes things personal, attacking Tony's friends and destroying his palatial Malibu mansion/space station in one bracing scene, our hero sets off on a little detective trip, to small town Tennessee of all places. There he meets a little boy (the alarmingly wily Ty Simpkins) who helps him solve the mystery. Yeah, there's a long stretch of this film in which Tony Stark and a little kid sleuth around Tennessee. Black creates several moments like these, when the big blockbuster suddenly feels like a much smaller, more intimate movie. Alas we're ripped back into the loud Marvel world soon enough, Black succumbing to summer movie pressures and giving us a long, rattling climax that grows more senseless with each frame. By the end we're dealing with a major deus ex machina — or rather machinae — as a bunch of Iron Man suits we didn't know existed suddenly show up to save the day. Wait, why didn't Tony use these earlier? Black, clever as he is, falls into the common trap of inventing his movie's rules as it conveniences him, rather than establishing a world early on and making his characters maneuver around it in interesting ways.
That doesn't mean that there isn't still some plucky fun to be had. There's a major villain-related twist (yes, it has to do with the smooth, sinister scientist played by Guy Pearce) that slyly pokes fun at the recent trend of putting a bit too much gravitas into our superhero fare. And there's a thrilling — downright thrilling! — sequence in which Iron Man saves a group of people who've just been sucked out of an airplane, one that reminds us of the wondrous abilities of this ludicrous suit in a refreshingly nonviolent way. The suits, of course, play big roles in the movie, Tony having developed motion-cue technology that makes his suit fly onto his body at just the flick of an arm. It looks cool the first time, but the physics quickly become jumbled and, again, work in frustratingly different ways depending on the narrative needs of the moment. But that one flying sequence, a grand and uplifting rescue, lets us relish in the simple mechanics of this super suit, rekindling some of the giddy awe first felt in the old days of 2008.
Who knows if there will be another Iron Man film. Of course he'll appear again in The Avengers 2, but Black ends things in a way that could mean it's the end of Tony's standalone adventures. And that would be fine. Some questions are answered, some personal issues conquered, and Pepper even gets a chance to kick a little butt. I think we've seen all we need of this slick, jokey-jokey, ultimately risk-free world. I suspect that Black's subtle undermining of the whole superhero setup — giving us an ultimately silly villain and a superhero riddled with anxiety problems — is maybe meant to be Iron Man's last subversion, a gently winking reminder that we were watching a silly comic book thing all along. Of course a more efficient way to do that would be to blow things up and leave them blown up, but that, I'm afraid, wouldn't be the franchise way.