This will sound like faint praise, but it's something of a wonder that we aren't sick of seeing Robert Downey Jr. suit up as Iron Man. Unlike Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, whose appearance in even the first, delightful Pirates of the Caribbean film diminishes in the memory with each lame successive installment, Downey's Tony Stark has managed to stay in our good graces.
In part, that's because Downey knows how to deliver a joke. And with superhero movies now ubiquitous, there's something to be said for a franchise that refuses to take itself too seriously. But can endearing goofiness work against a movie? If we are to take the enormously entertaining — but thoroughly disposable — Iron Man 3 as evidence, then ... maybe.
This funniest and least consequential of the Iron Man films (not counting last year's The Avengers) is notable also because it marks Shane Black's return to the director's chair. In the 1990s, Black became a minor celebrity (and a punching bag for critics) as Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter, a guy whose specialty was over-the-top, wisecracking buddy action movies (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout). He seemed to disappear for a while, then returned in 2006 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a somewhat smaller-scaled over-the-top, wisecracking buddy action movie starring Downey and Val Kilmer. That film was more of an outright comedy — as is Iron Man 3, which for all its CGI mayhem can't resist the chance for a good one-liner or an odd bit of unrelated banter.
The villain this time is an Osama bin Laden–like terrorist mastermind called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, doing the worst John Huston impersonation ever). Somehow he has something to do with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant scientist who wants to re-engineer humans. Their bizarre plan involves kidnapping the president in a way that makes the kidnapping-the-president plot from the G.I. Joe movies look like gritty realism.
The rest is fairly standard what-happens-when-a-hero-loses-his-powers stuff. Stark is suffering from panic attacks as a result of the events in The Avengers — an odd note given that one doesn't expect such a lighthearted movie to haunt anyone's dreams, even if its finale wrecked half of New York and ripped a hole in the time-space continuum. Then again, the Iron Man movies were the animating spirit of Joss Whedon's superhero-team-up blockbuster, with its mixture of wiseassery and epic carnage. But Black's flip tone makes it hard to believe that anyone here is ever in real danger.
What made the first Iron Man successful was not just its irreverence but also Stark's genuine vulnerability — a guy with shrapnel in his heart, in more ways than the obvious. Even the lax and uninvolved Iron Man 2 wrung some pathos from Stark's weaknesses. That has never been Black's thing. What he does is wisecracking buddy movies with lots of explosions. And in Iron Man 3, for both good and ill, he gets his biggest canvas yet.