Marvel isn’t just playing with house money with the stratospheric success of their recent shared-universe collection of movies, they’re playing with a house GDP that could probably stabilize Eastern Europe and Africa for the next decade. Even though the movies themselves have been hit-or-miss, I do appreciate that they’re willing to futz with the formula from time to time, bringing in people like Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh to give these shiny, robust superhero stories a bit of outside flavor. “The Avengers” soared because Whedon turned a group of superheroes into the “Scooby Gang” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on steroids, the comradery and smart dialogue leaving a deeper imprint than the requisite CGI explosions.
Enter Shane Black, who’s like Whedon’s cynical, slightly burnt-out older brother, and “Iron Man 3,” which reunites Black with Iron Man himself Robert Downey Jr. eight years after the ingenious, underrated “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” reignited the careers of both men. What makes “Iron Man 3” such an incredible surprise isn’t just because Downey as Tony Stark and the director/co-writer Black work in perfect concert with each other, and reignite the series after the disappointing clusterfuck/crime against cinema that was “Iron Man 2.” Black doesn’t just put a smidge of his personality into this film. He’s practically a sleeper cell in how he gleefully subverts the tired formulas that Marvel and modern blockbusters traffic in far too often. This is a hilarious, wildly entertaining 130-minute middle finger to the shackles of mainstream Hollywood and the insane expectations of comic book fans themselves.
Taking place around Christmas (as Black joints tend to do for some reason), the film finds Tony Stark in a bad way. He’s still reeling from his brush with death at the end of “The Avengers,” and the onset of panic attacks has deflated his patented narcissism quite a bit. As a result, his obsession with Iron Man further consumes him, with his collection of armor suits now up to 42 different designs. The televised threats and terrorist acts committed by the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who is brilliant in ways I won’t reveal here). Tony’s distressing behavior doesn’t sit well with his girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, once again, given some surprising new things to do this time), who also has to deal with a fellow technology entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (the always welcome Guy Pearce) who has created a substance called the Extremis, which can regenerate limbs with the unfortunate side-effect of turning the soldiers who use it into walking bombs.
Those are the familiar globs of ridiculous plot that define all of these Marvel films, but “Iron Man 3” becomes decidedly unfamiliar when the Mandarin launches a personal attack at Tony, which leaves him alone in Tennessee with a busted suit and a precocious kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins, a total natural on-screen) to keep him company. This is when the film really takes off, thanks to the witty, razor sharp script by Drew Pearce and the director Black, one of the finest crafters of dialogue we have, going all the way back to the first “Lethal Weapon.” The middle section with Stark trapped in this small town might be the best stretch of any Marvel film. Downey is brilliant; he’s a natural for Black’s dialogue, especially in the scenes with Simpkins, which swerve away from any child-sidekick cliches, allowing the film to probe into Tony Stark as a broken, vulnerable man for the first time in the series. The last movie drowned Downey in hollow sarcasm, the snark destroying any semblance of tension. This film works because it does have some semblance of thematic resonance, with a voiceover from Downey explaining how “we all make our own demons.” This explains the motivations for Killian’s insane plan, the reasons why the scientist who created the evil technology (an underused Rebecca Hall) would give up on doing good in the world and the final, ingenious and hysterical final twist regarding the origins of the Mandarin himself.
That right there is the bedrock for what makes “Iron Man 3” such a surprise; watching Shane Black give the genre’s old cliches the gleeful shellacking they deserve. Tony makes fun of Harley for not having a dad; Pepper gets to be the hero herself for a while, giving a female character something meaningful to do. The twist involving the Mandarin has pissed off a substantial portion of the Internet, but reverence to source material has held many comic book movies back, a mistake this movie doesn’t make.
Black and Pearce’s dialogue is infinitely more combustible and exhiliarating than the onslaught of explosions we get at the end of the film. But Black has a confident touch with the action scenes, his personality still intact within them, particularly in an airborne rescue mission following the explosion of Air Force One. The film does faulter toward the end when it tries to serve two masters, with the director’s barely-concealed contempt for the superhero mythology and Marvel’s insistent urge to blow up everything in yet another fireworks display of good versus evil. But Downey, particularly working with Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes who gets decked out as the red white and blue Iron Patriot, is so much fun to watch, his cruel charisma the perfect test subject for the film’s more deconstructive passages.
“Iron Man 3” is such a blast because for a while it shows Marvel is willing to let some subversion creep into their cinematic assembly line. This is a money-making machine first and foremost, but there’s an exhilarating kick to watching Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. fuck wit h the wiring.