Review: Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr test Tony Stark in action-packed ‘Iron Man 3’

“I am Iron Man.”

That was Tony Stark’s big announcement at the end of 2008’s first film in what has become one of the biggest franchises in the world, the cornerstone of an even larger franchise called The Marvel Universe, a creative gamble that has paid off in a huge way. In that moment, Stark, personified rather than played by Robert Downey Jr., not only flipped the superhero formula on its head by revealing his identity to the world but also announced himself as the owner of the character. He’s now played Stark five times on film, and there is no one who would argue that in terms of the pop consciousness, Downey is Stark and vice-versa.

In “Iron Man Three,” as it’s written during the closing credits, Stark finds himself genuinely tested by the Mandarin, a media-savvy terrorist, and a rival businessman who is angling to take away Pepper Potts. From that simple logline, Shane Black has spun my favorite of the standalone films about the character, including the first film. I think Jon Favreau deserves all the credit in the world for getting the entire thing off the ground, finding the right tone to play everything at, creating a credible world that has now expanded in ways that would have been unthinkable a mere five years ago.

What surprised and satisfied me most about “Iron Man Three” is just how thematically tight it is. This is a film that overtly addresses the difference between the suit and the person inside it, and not just in the case of Tony Stark. This is a world where everyone seems to have a face they present to the world and a secret face as well, and the tension between those identities is what drives the movie. Tony’s simply the most pronounced version of how this plays out, and in his case, one suit isn’t enough anymore. Since the events of “The Avengers,” Tony has been manic about keeping himself safe and protecting Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), and he’s built several dozen new suits, constantly tweaking and modifying. He has panic attacks at any mention of what happened in New York or the wormhole he just barely survived. He is barely holding himself together, and so when a new threat shows its face, he’s not ready for it.

It’s almost shocking how much of a Shane Black film this is. I expected him to play around a little but within something that felt like pretty much every other Marvel movie. Instead, I recognize that this is firmly set within the Marvel universe, but the story and the voice in which it’s told? Unmistakable. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” fans in particular are going to find themselves howling at the film’s framing device and at a few twists and turns in the detective elements of the story. The result of this particular creative alchemy is a film that suggests they are still just starting to figure out what to do with this character, and I sincerely hope that the final credit of the film, “Tony Stark Will Return,” is not just an empty promise.

In the film’s opening scenes, we flash back to New Year’s Eve, 1999, when Stark was at a conference in Bern, accompanied by Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, decked out like Vincent Vega to hilarious effect). Both Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) are introduced in this sequence, and Tony talks about how he created his own demons through his actions on that evening. I often feel like the tenuous connections between the heroes and the villains in superhero films are mere excuses to bring them together, but in this script, co-written by Black and Drew Pearce, is about cause and effect. We’ve seen Tony Stark grow quite a bit in these films so far, and it makes perfect sense that the old Tony created the evil that finally lands on him in this film.

The Mandarin is a hard villain to figure out for a modern movie, and one of the real triumphs of the film is the way he’s been re-imagined here. He is a media-age terrorist, every word and gesture designed to send a message, and Ben Kingsley seems to relish every word he delivers in the film. It is a surprisingly rounded performance, and there are some real surprises in the way Kingsley approaches the character. Most of the film’s villains are realized very well, with James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak both making strong impressions as former soldiers who have been modified using the Extremis technology that was developed by Killian. And while fans of the comics may recognize character names or terms like “Extremis,” this is not a direct adaptation of anything you’ve read in the comics, so don’t walk in expecting that you know every detail of what you’re about to see.

A huge lesson seems to have been learned from “Iron Man 2,” and there is basically nothing in this film that feels like they’re setting up any other movie. There’s no shoe leather for “The Avengers 2,” there’s nothing that feels like a commercial leading to “Captain America 2” or “Thor 2.” Instead, it is a self-contained story, intentionally isolating Stark and forcing him to solve a problem without just leaning on his armor for once. I love movies where you strip away all of a hero’s tools and leave him stranded, and I love movies where you just wail on your main character and leave him dented and bloodied by the end, and this is both of those. If you’ve seen any of the marketing materials for the film, you’ve seen some footage of the attack on Tony’s house, and the set-up for that is tremendous, as is the pay-off. What it does is force him underground to plan his next move, and it makes him human. He can’t just strap on his latest uber-weapon and break through the ceiling of the Mandarin’s house, so he’s forced to become the best possible version of Tony Stark again.

Gwenyth Paltrow absolutely has her best outing yet as Pepper, and she’s got some of the movie’s best moments to her credit this time. My wife, as active an “Iron Man” fangirl as I can imagine, audibly gasped three times in the movie, and all three times involved Pepper. Paltrow is the one who gets to play her part aware of just how outrageous everything around her is. Pepper has never gotten used to the suits and the villains and the flying and the aliens and the warfare, and she doesn’t want to get used to it. Stark recognizes that in her and desperately needs it. It’s a very sweet relationship that offers up a lot of natural fuel for the drama that underlines everything else in this film.

Likewise, Don Cheadle’s got some great stuff to work with this time, and he seems to have such an easy rapport with Downey. For a Downey scene to work, you have to give him someone who can punch at his weight, someone nimble. Cheadle does it well. Paltrow does it well. Favreau absolutely loves doing it. Ty Simpkins, so good in “Insidious,” plays a kid who runs into Tony at his lowest point, and what could be a disgustingly syrupy relationship in the wrong hands is actually very funny and does a nice job of reminding Tony about humility. All of this is done at a gallop, though. This is by far the most action-heavy of the “Iron Man” films, and thanks to the powers of the various people modified by Extremis, it’s some big comic-book high-impact action. It feels like “Terminator 2” in terms of how rough it plays things, and I’m still not sure if I’m taking my kids to see it. It gets serious, and the intensity of it is part of what makes it great. It also helps that the script ties things up in a very satisfying way, bringing the series full-circle both thematically and emotionally, complete with a last line of dialogue that seems like the only way this film could end.

As always, stay till the very very end of things, which is a pleasure in this case thanks to a vibrant, upbeat closing-credits montage that looks like it could have been the opening each week for a live-action series called “Iron Man! And Friends! (in color)”. It’s a little splash of awesome right there at the end. And do your best to avoid any plot details for the movie. I’ve told you very little here, and that’s by design. You’re not going to have your mind blown, but with pulp this pure, you want to enjoy the ride the way it was designed. If this is Shane Black as a blockbuster director, then bring on whatever’s next, and make sure “Iron Man 4,” “Iron Man 5,” and “Iron Man 6” are all on his “to-do” list as well.

“Iron Man 3” opens in the US on May 3, 2013.