The first part of the closing credits of Iron Man 3 (before the endless scroll of technicians’ names and the requisite post-credits stinger) is presented in a kinetic retro style, with split screens, freeze frames and wipes that make it look like the opening sequence of a 1970s action-adventure TV show, complete with a brassy theme song. That level of creativity and cleverness is on display only sporadically in the rest of the movie, which seems to struggle between being another dutiful entry in the ongoing Marvel superhero saga and a more distinctive stand-alone movie from director and co-writer Shane Black (taking over from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau).
Black and Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. worked together fantastically in Black’s 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Black brings a bit of that movie’s wit and style to Iron Man 3, starting with the self-aware narration from Downey. Snarky quips have always been a part of Downey’s Tony Stark character, but Black gives them more punch, and he also connects Tony’s sarcasm to his increasing inner turmoil. Iron Man 3 is less a sequel to the previous Iron Man movies than it is a follow-up to last year’s The Avengers; the events of that movie weigh heavily on Tony, who is having trouble coping with the trauma of having fought off an alien invasion.
He buries himself in his work, building yet another fancy new Iron Man suit and, in the process, alienating his long-suffering girlfriend/business partner Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Attacked by the ruthless terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), Tony must pull himself back from the brink of self-destruction to vanquish the evildoers, win Pepper back and save the world (of course). That involves plenty of the massive action set pieces for which Marvel’s superhero movies are known, and the climax in particular is loud, busy and chaotic, a barrage of explosions that is eventually just exhausting.
But before that, Black infuses the movie with some top-notch banter and quirky side characters (even a precocious kid who helps Tony rebuild his armor is more competent than cloying). A twist involving the Mandarin undermines some of the menace built up in the movie’s first half, but evil scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) makes for a suitable co-villain, and the movie has a more cohesive story than the inconsistent Iron Man 2.
Black also manages to overcome one of the biggest liabilities of recent Marvel movies; despite the numerous references to The Avengers, Iron Man 3 tells a complete story on its own, with an ending so definitive that it would be a satisfying way to send Tony Stark off into the sunset. Given Marvel’s track record at the movies, we know that will almost certainly not be the case, but the lack of extraneous characters and plot points setting up future movies is refreshing. Black still has to hit all the required superhero beats, but he does it with as much personality as he possibly can.