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Iron Man 3: Putting the Comic in Comic Book Cinema

The worst thing that can be said about Iron Man 3, the newest cinematic entry into the Marvel Universe, is that it’s almost *too* funny. Shane Black, famed screenwriter and Hollywood go-to for ironic snark, wrote and directed this sequel as if the Christopher Nolan Batman universe had never existed. The trailers seemed to indicate a turn toward grit and darkness, from its foreboding terrorism imagery to its logo complete with light symbolically flickering out. While certain sequences are laced with menace, don’t expect to watch Tony Stark sulking in a corner or coming to grips with his emotions. The cascade of one-liners is never-ending, from heroes, villains, men, women, and children alike. These laughs don’t ever compromise the character development or the chemistry, but if you’re looking for Nolanesque gravitas, you’re destined for disappointment. This is escapist entertainment at its finest: big, bright and exciting, full of gags and twists, aimed with precision directly at those who loved The Avengers.

Flashback to 1999, Y2K: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is hard at work seducing a lovely scientist (Rebecca Hall), who is working on a formula that repairs damage by rewriting genetic code– we watch as Tony’s bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) snaps off a twig from an experimental plant and it grows back. Tony is so concerned with bedding this intelligent babe that he blows off a desperate cripple named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who attempts to get Tony in on the ground floor of his think tank. When Killian shows up again thirteen years later, handsome and upright, something immediately seems amiss. Meanwhile, Tony hasn’t been sleeping since the events of The Avengers, and he’s prone to severe anxiety attacks. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) has moved in, but now doesn’t seem like the smartest time to be close to a well-known superhero. Especially when a dastardly terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is on the prowl, setting off bombs in public places…

Anyone familiar with Shane Black’s work will feel his voice seeping from every pore. From the self-deprecating opening narration to the snarky banter to the Christmas setting, it screams Black. Having worked with Downey Jr. before on the wildly entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black has a terrific sense for what sounds good coming out of Tony Stark’s mouth– his voice has never really been clearer. In a sequence set in Tennessee, Stark is thrown into an alliance with a small child, and Black manages to make them fond of each other while refusing to dip too far into sentimentality– there are several moments in which he mocks sentimentality outright. Yet for all the irony and the snark, Black knows exactly when to strike with a swift moment of earnestness. One could consider it a fault within the film that it never dwells too long in its emotional arc, preferring to defer to its comedic strengths. Admittedly, it never feels like Tony’s world is truly going to change, but since large studio films are unlikely to shake things up too drastically anyhow, Black opts for laughter within the suspense, potentially undercutting the thrill, but resulting in a different brand of excitement.

As an actor, I can only imagine what a joy it is to work with Black’s dialogue. Every actor, from Downey Jr. down to day players, gets at least one juicy line to deliver– in fact, one of the best lines in the film comes from a no-name henchman in the Mandarin’s camp. We know by now what to expect from Downey Jr., who is perhaps better here than in any previous Iron Man film. Black thankfully gives Paltrow and Don Cheadle far more to do here than in the past, and their relationships shine as a result. Terrific actresses like Rebecca Hall and Dale Dickey do feel sadly under-utilized, but it makes room for James Badge Dale, an inspired casting choice for Killiam’s number two, who oozes creepy from his hilarious opening scene forward. Ben Kingsley is a terrific ham when given the proper material in genre fare, and he hasn’t had this much fun in a villainous role since Tuck Everlasting over a decade ago. Finally, perhaps the highest praise belongs to Pearce, who coasts from last year’s hamfest roles in Lockout and Lawless into the role of Killian, which fits him like a glove. He’s undeniably funny, while still emitting a very real sense of danger. His role in the final third of the film might be the highlight of his career to date.

I can understand why some critical of Iron Man 3 might dismiss it as “popcorn cinema”– it undeniably falls into that category. However, that term seems to carry with it a negative connotation of mindlessness: character development, dialogue, and chemistry taking a back seat to frenetic plot, action galore, and explosions. I don’t understand why the latter means to some that the former are impossible to achieve. Iron Man 3 is frenetic with a capital F, but it knows when to take time out to build character. It’s jam-packed with action, yet the dialogue shines more than any special effect; one of the film’s strengths is its ability to weave verbal wit seamlessly with the visual wit, as the final three action sequences are exciting and devilishly funny. While it certainly has its share of explosions, we care more about the characters watching the explosions and how they’ve worked and grown together over the course of the film. Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon, was born to make superhero films. Whether that hero is a loose-cannon former vet or a loose-cannon man in a super-suit, he understands that we won’t care about the Big Moments unless we care about our hero. He provides plenty that will satisfy the lowest common denominator moviegoer, yet he’s also created a crowd pleaser for a much more discerning crowd: the crowd concerned with chemistry and wit. If the only thing I can say is holding Iron Man 3 back is it might be *too* funny, I consider that a pretty heroic achievement.

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~ by russellhainline on May 3, 2013.

5 Responses to “Iron Man 3: Putting the Comic in Comic Book Cinema”

  1. Ain’t seen it yet but… I like snarky Stark. I expect the Man of Steel will be all brooding, atmospheric, doom and gloom emotional battles etc ill wait for that. (can’t actually wait for that!!!)

  2. I really enjoyed your review 🙂 I’m glad so many other people liked the movie and not only the die-hard fans like me 🙂

  3. You’re right about “too funny”. Maybe an attempt to stand out from the Nolan trilogy.

  4. Great review! I loved this movie. The dialogue was great, especially the whole “Who’s a hot mess now?” “It could still go either way” exchange. It was funny. And it was better to see Tony spending sometime outside of the suit so that the whole movie wasn’t just robots and Downey Jr’s face. Far superior to Ironman 2

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