A little too much and a little not enough, director and co-writer Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3” nonetheless has everything Disney and Marvel need to keep the “Avengers” superhero constellation shining and regenerating well into the 23rd century. It’s what you call a pre-hit: As of Tuesday morning, the movie already had zoomed past the $200 million mark in worldwide box office.
Eighty percent of the globe has already gotten a look at it. North America’s essentially an afterthought, if hundreds and hundreds of millions of likely dollars can be called that.
Here’s where we are with Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., who the film’s background materials remind us is the biggest star on the planet by measurement of franchise association (the “Sherlock Holmes” movies and the “Iron Man” / “Avengers” universe). The climactic alien melee in last year’s all-star reunion “The Avengers” has left Stark nerve-racked and an insomniac workaholic. A new global terrorist, very much in the Bin Laden mold, has oozed onto the scene: The Mandarin, from the comic books. As portrayed by Ben Kingsley, with a strange, Laurence Olivier-in-“The-Betsy” dialect, you’re not quite sure where he’s coming from, either geographically or ideologically, which is the point.
In a flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999, Stark’s encounters with inventor and entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) set the story in motion. Everything in Stark’s life can be read as a Hollywood metaphor: Killian’s the spurned fan, Maya’s the disposable one-night-stand who, years later, comes back into his life. The nerd-turned-smoothie Killian, who has a bit of history with Stark’s partner and lover Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), is working on a human evolution project known as “Extremis.”
Meantime, fire-breathing mutants are wreaking havoc, at one point taking down Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The Mandarin goes about his business, destroying Stark’s home, slaughtering innocent civilians in the name of teaching America a lesson. Stark ends up in rural Tennessee, where in a gleefully cynical bid for a preteen audience (a few years too young for the violence in “Iron Man 3,” I’d say), Stark befriends a bullied 8-year-old (Ty Simpkins) who becomes his tag-along and sometime savior.
A strange detail: In “Iron Man 3,” Stark no longer needs to be in the Iron Man suit. He’s able to operate the thing remotely when needed. The movie’s like that too. It’s decent superhero blockbustering, but rather remote and vaguely second-hand. At this point, even with Black’s flashes of black humor, the machinery is more or less taking care of itself, offering roughly half of the genial wit and enjoyment of the first “Iron Man.”
Black’s not especially lucid or creative in staging massive action sequences; even the major set-piece, in which Stark attempts the mid-air rescue of Air Force One passengers, is a medium wow at best. (Which qualifies it more for “yeah, big whoop” status.) On the other hand, when the truth behind The Mandarin arrives, it’s a wild “reveal” and very much in tune with Black’s sense of self-referential showbiz humor, which he twisted into a very interesting pretzel in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
From the “Lethal Weapon” franchise to “The Last Boy Scout,” Black loves jocular sadism, and there’s a lot of it (too much) in “Iron Man 3.” When Stark goes on a killing spree, it’s as if we’ve been dropped back into Mel Gibson / Danny Glover-land. For all the trauma Stark’s supposed to be shouldering, Downey rarely seems less than superhumanly cool. He’s a huge talent, verbally adroit and quick on his feet, even when the feet are encased in digital metal. But one of the things I resisted about the second “Iron Man,” the parts where Stark became a badly behaved, trashed-out party boy, has cooled into a kind of imperious remove in “Iron Man 3.”
No less than “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which placed a detective story inside the world of Hollywood wannabes, “Iron Man 3” treats Stark and Downey as untouchable superstars, just gliding through. It’s not without its payoffs; I enjoyed a lot of it. But overall last year’s “Avengers” delivered the bombastic goods more efficiently than this year’s Marvel — 2.5 stars.