The Avengers has come and gone, and now we get to see Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) dealing with the trauma he apparently experienced in New York. He has insomnia, and it strains both his work on the latest Iron Man suit as well as his relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). His bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) is now head of security for Stark Industries. And, all around the world, there’s broadcasts from a strange terrorist figure named “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley).
The movie opens with Stark recounting a New Year’s Eve party way back in 1999. He’s at a conference in Bern, trying to bed a buxom botantist, Maya (Rebecca Hall) before the year’s turnover. He’s interrupted by pimply geek Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who’s trying to start a think tank and wants Stark’s help. Stark blows him off, and if the use of Guy Pearce didn’t already suggest it, Stark states outright that it was the beginning of trouble.
Thirteen years later, Aldrich shows up at Stark Industries, again seeking support, though he does seem more interested in rubbing everyone’s nose in his success. He has created a new whatsit kind of technology called “Extremis” that allows the brain to regenerate tissue…and, somehow, make the patients melt things with their hands. (Dr. Curt Conners from the latest Spiderman films is going to be smacking his head with his tail when the inevitable crossover comes.)
All of it rubs Happy the wrong way, so he tails Aldrich’s goon (James Badge Dale), finding him distributing drugs to vagrants outside theaters and causing them to explode. Since the Mandarin takes credit for the explosion, it’s not a stretch to surmise that the two are connected. Stark issues a challenge to the Mandarin to face him directly, and soon rocket-bearing helicopters are blowing up his house in the kind of explosion-y-ness stuff that trailers are made from. Iron Man is presumed dead while the rather alive Tony heads to Tennessee to investigate an explosion similar to the one that incapacitated Happy.
The script by Shane Black, who also directs, is the precise opposite of Iron Man 2. Whereas that film was long on convoluted plotting and short on thrills, this third entry delivers sequence after sequence of pretty damn fun action. The plot is still somewhat convoluted (what is the Mandarin’s plan exactly? And why spend so much time with Tony trying to figure out the source of the bombings when it’s revealed to us so early on?), but you hire the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for clever dialogue and impressive set pieces.
Each action sequence plays with a variation of Stark suited — some it’s just him without the Iron Man armor, another is a makeshift outfit he rigs when the suit isn’t available, still another is him fighting through goons while the individual parts are dressing him. The reason, other than the fact that it makes for some interesting fights, is that Tony’s experimenting with a new prototype of armor that can respond to his specific motions. If I were nitpicking, I’d ask why he’d keep bothering with this suit when he could have just gone with an earlier model that already had the bugs worked out…or how can it travel several hundred miles in a matter of seconds…or, “Didn’t he already have models that could do this?” but I won’t. It’s a dazzling mix with a finale that will be difficult to top in Iron Man 4.
The one complaint I do have is that the dialogue tends to get too self-referential. Stark will start talking about something then talk about himself talking about, and so on and so on. Characters will talk over each other, too and make awkward pauses and stutters in an attempt to sound realistic, but it comes off as…well, stuttered and awkward. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it is disruptive and inconsistent.
Downey is on autopilot, but that’s what the role calls for, same for Paltrow, Pearce, Favreau, and William Sadler as the President. The only real standout is Kingsley, though much of that comes from a twist that is astonishing simply because the filmmakers were able to keep it secret. Do you really go to Iron Man for great performances anyway?
It’s everything you’ll want from an Iron Man 3. Black delivers the goods and vastly improves on the previous installment in the series. Even though the action has an almost by-the-book inventiveness to it and he’s trying to channel David Mamet in the dialogue half the time, the spectacle, whether in 3D IMAX or whatever screen makes up for it.