Not that long ago, Robert Downey Jr. was a once-acclaimed actor who couldn’t get work because of past issues with illegal substances, and Shane Black was a once-hot screenwriter (“Lethal Weapon”) whose stock was in freefall after highly lucrative work on scripts like “Last Action Hero” failed to light up the box office.
Nonetheless, in 2005 Black managed to secure funding for his debut as writer-director, the comedic caper “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” He cast Downey in the lead, giving the actor a fresh showcase for his snarky energy and effortless delivery. This under-seen gem almost certainly helped Downey secure his next starring role: “Iron Man.”
For “Iron Man 3,” Downey returned the favor, championing Black as a replacement for departing franchise helmer Jon Favreau. Together, the co-writer-director and star clear the stale air that surrounded the second film in the Marvel saga of billionaire tinkerer Tony Stark and create a rousing and refreshingly idiosyncratic kickoff for the summer movie season.
Favreau does return as Stark’s wingman Happy, along with Don Cheadle as best friend and fellow metal suit wearer Colonel Rhodes, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, now Stark’s live-in partner.
The film also returns to the series’ roots, in a fashion. For much of the film, Stark is without his actual and emotional armor. He loses the first during an attack by domestic terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) that spectacularly demolishes Stark’s home and lab. The second is stripped by his love for Pepper and lingering feelings of insignificance left from the encounter with gods and aliens during the climax of “The Avengers.”
Separated from his support network, Stark’s forced to suck it up and go all MacGyver in a makeshift workspace with a pre-teen fanboy (Ty Simpkins) as his assistant. As he works to find The Mandarin and build tools to fight him, another foe, scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), emerges from Stark’s pre-superhero past.
Through voiceover, unexpected plot developments and some hilarious dialogue, Black deftly undercuts the self-seriousness that afflicts the genre. At the same time, he stays true to the series, delivering gripping action scenes and wrapping a dense narrative into a cohesive package.
Like Stark, the movie has its weaknesses, particularly the pointless use of 3D and a supporting role for Rebecca Hall (“The Town”) that’s distractingly sketchy. But like Stark’s red and gold suit, it ultimately comes together and soars.