Enlisting Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man and surrounding him with a world as comic as it was comic book, director Jon Favreau established one of the most memorably irreverent superhero franchises to date. Taking over the reins, Shane Black—a veteran screenwriter with only one directing credit (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to his name—had big shoes to fill. Known for writing action comedies like Lethal Weapon, Black can be counted on to deliver laughs and engaging narrative, but the big surprise of Iron Man 3 is the staggering confidence of its action sequences.
Thanks to the franchise’s earlier successes, Black has no shortage of resources at his disposal, and he uses them to deliver at least two astounding set pieces: a helicopter attack on Tony Stark’s home and an elaborate mid-air rescue—of a dozen plane passengers—that manages to be as amusing as it is unprecedented. This kind of excess runs the risk of feeling bloated and unnecessary, but Black brings a mischievous comic voice to the proceedings, one that knowingly comments on the hyperbole. This gives the film a playfulness and warmth that is rare among blockbusters.
Black and co-writer Drew Pearce wisely take Stark out of his comfort zone, separating him from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the tools he normally has at his disposal. They also give Stark an unlikely sidekick for much of the film in Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), a young boy who becomes a kind of surrogate son to Stark. Bringing to mind the authentic rough edges of the kids in 1987’s Black-scripted The Monster Squad, this character helps bring the film down to earth.
While the Iron Man series still hasn’t found another villain with the authority of Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, the assortment of adversaries faced by Stark in Iron Man 3 improves upon the franchise’s previous entry. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) both prove to be amusingly eccentric and Savin (James Badge Dale) supplements this with just the right amount of genuine menace. The terrorism component of the threat is a miscalculation, adding a real world foreboding that feels out of place, but this is eventually undercut by a series of inspired satirical gestures.
While Stark’s ability to triumph over even the most extreme crisis without being remotely phased is genuinely comical—and his latest inventions facilitate several remarkable rescues—this denies the film dramatic weight. Even when our heroes are in jeopardy or appear to be hurt, we can be certain that they will emerge unscathed. As a result, the proceedings feel no less recreational to the characters than they do to the audience. Conventional dramatic wisdom suggests that this might make for a slight, disposable filmgoing experience, but Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma is such that watching him enjoy himself onscreen not only sustains the experience, it actually fills the void left by the film’s other deficiencies. This may be little more than an escapist entertainment, but it’s one buoyed by the spirit of a born entertainer.