If I’m going to jump into Iron Man 3 finally and try to beat the clock for Ant-Man this upcoming weekend (I’ve still got Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and my complete thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron to write about), there’s something I’ve got to knock out of the way.
In spite of being a fan of comics and especially of Marvel since I picked up my first copy of “Werewolf by Night” at age 6, I don’t do much for fan service. In fact, I usually praise pictures for outwardly avoiding fan service. When we get fan service, we get a film like Iron Man 2 filled with a million references and no actual thoroughline to make me feel like the movie was worthwhile in the end. No, my personal preference is when a comic book adaptation will link itself up to its source and become its own thing. Therefore it doesn’t surprise me, nor does it really assuage me that I was not so ready to grab pitchforks and torches as many of my friends were when Iron Man 3 came out and Shane Black made a point of deviating the fuck out of the character, changing up so much of what he means in a manner that compliments his arc but also trying to turn the Marvel world on its head by its very controversial 2/3 reveal. In fact, I was almost willing to praise the film for going there.
If only it didn’t have its problems as a movie beyond that – namely the fact that in the long run it doesn’t feel like Marvel was particularly feeling the changes Black wanted to bring to the board and that by this point Downey Jr. feels so damn bored in the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. Which, y’know, even Downey Jr. being bored is an exciting performance for us on a superficial level – he’s still hella fun to watch. But it also means he probably wasn’t ready to follow along with the necessary arc shifts that Tony goes through in the film and that means that none of his character beats hit as hard as they need to.
By this point in the Iron Man series, billionaire playboy philanthropist genius superhero Stark is going through some serious PTSD from the final battle in The Avengers (which demanded he stare threatening alien life in the face and risk his life in an intense manner). It’s ruining his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), current CEO of Stark Industries, and it’s ruining his focus when a villainous terrorist by the name of Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is sending videos gloating about his claims of killing American soldiers and bombing American soil. And of course, matters aren’t helped when one of those bombings hospitalizes his best friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, in his first time not directing the series) and two faces from Stark’s past – Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) emerge, both scientists working on something out of Stark’s radar (but not entirely out of his league).
Anyway, all this baggage piles up into destroying Stark’s Malibu home and leaving him for dead and that’s where the picture goes on to turning into your usual Shane Black picture, this being his first directing work for Marvel and his second directed film (after an impressive career of action picture writing). And so it also demands a full-on shift of Tony Stark’s persona – more on-the-nose in the final moments of the picture than anything but still there throughout – of becoming more relaxed and bring less of himself out of this iron maiden he’s created.
From there, Black’s script doesn’t really do much to carry the story to any place beyond the next action setpiece (or a bit of a stall in the middle where we get Ty Simpkins play some local kid Stark teams up with briefly) and just facilitate some sort of insistence that Tony Stark grow as a person by the end of the film until having to say “fuck it” at the end and force a conclusion that demands the movie become more consequential to Stark’s arc (though we find at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron that nothing in Phase 2 Marvel meant a goddamn thing). Plus there’s just one such aspect of the ending that absolutely makes no sense in the context of a movie that occurred immediately after the life-threatening scenario Tony went through in Iron Man 2.
But even if it’s just superficially fed and eventually discarded and Downey Jr. makes his performance feel like an obligation (a fun-to-watch obligation, but an obligation nonetheless), the change is there for Tony to go through and add to the Iron Man canon. Besides which it’s practically the same storytelling we took in Iron Man, just without the freshness this time. I don’t mind that mustiness when we have some pretty great setpieces like the central Air Force One rescue, perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had at a Marvel film other than the Star-Spangled Man scene in Captain America: The First Avenger. Or the hilarity of Ben Kingsley’s performance, comic book fan backlash be fucking damned. Iron Man 3 may fail at remaking the wheel like Black tried to, but it’s still overall a great time (enough that I saw it twice in its theatrical run) and it’s relatively top-tier compared to most of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films we got.
Oh and this is like the kajillionth Shane Black-penned film taking place on Christmas released far from that season. I know better and recognize why Black chooses that holiday, but I love to entertain the concept that it’s the only holiday he knows and he doesn’t know when the hell it is.