I’d say that was unexpected, but to anyone who’s seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it really wasn’t. Iron Man 3 is the best Iron Man film to date, despite not containing Jeff Bridges, and a high point in the current “golden age” of superhero films.
I think that calling the modern era of high-budget superhero adaptations a golden age speaks to the diminutive expectations we’ve had for the genre. Since Batman Begins started a trend of somewhat decent reboots, there have been three, maybe four really good films since, a lot of okay films with nice CGI, and a couple of abominations like Green Lantern and Iron Man 2. Because we got The Dark Knight out of it doesn’t make it anything more than a slight improvement over the 90s. But Iron Man 3 is a movie in very much the same paradigm as last year’s Avengers: big enough, funny enough, and occasionally smart enough to disguise its cardboard plot.
Quite a bit of that comes from director Shane Black, best known for the above mentioned Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and also for writing Lethal Weapon. That’s another thing Iron Man 3 has in common with Avengers: a lesser-known (but still popular) director known for his self-awareness and snappy dialogue. Iron Man has Black’s fingerprints all over it, from rapid-fire banter to minor henchmen given one-liners usually reserved for the stars. It’s an enormous amount of fun to watch Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., obviously) just talk to people. Even when he doesn’t come out on top, it’s immensely entertaining.
Stark’s character, surprisingly, undergoes a fair bit of actually competent development. Tony Stark as he is at the beginning of the film is PTSD-afflicted and distant; his interactions with Pepper Potts previous to his house being blown up show him as totally emotionally stunted and unable to express himself. As the film progresses, he realises connection to people without ever dipping into corny territory. Comforting Pepper at the end of the film, he says “Nothing will ever be okay. You’re in a relationship with me.”, showing him at peace with his insecurities while retaining his usual snark. Superhero character arcs are often nonexistent to superficial and Stark’s is evident without beating the audience over the head and self-aware while still being genuine.
The film’s villain, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), is easily one of the best curveballs in recent enormously-budgeted blockbuster history. Though that seems like a narrow superlative, it shouldn’t detract from Kingsley’s performance, the specifics of which I won’t get into. He’s quite intimidating and reminiscent of the multi-arc villain of the Iron Man comics until suddenly…something else happens. And it’s brilliant.
That’s smart enough and funny enough covered. So, is Iron Man 3 big enough? Damn right, it is. The multiple-Iron Man suit fight scenes have been spoiled pretty badly by the trailers, but they’re as impressive as we’ve been led to believe and the CGI is never particularly evident. Tony Stark spends quite a bit of time out of his suit, but the movie makes sure to get him back in and doing something impressive whenever the plot starts to get questionable. The out-of-suit sequences are also fun in a more low key sense, carried by Stark’s intelligence, gadgetry, and one-liners. Their limited nature also serves to make the Iron Man scenes much more satisfying, allowing Tony to cut loose while blowing things up and looking cool.
Iron Man 3 is what lots of money thrown at already-established franchises should be: fun, stylish, and attempting to do something new with old characters. It succeeds on all three fronts despite its plot being about as thick as tissue paper. I could spend a few paragraphs poking holes in it, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I liked watching the movie a whole lot and it goes recommended.