iron-man-3-poster-1Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, & Ty Simpkins

Directed by: Shane Black

Screenplay by: Shane Black & Drew Pearce

If my comic book obsessed 14-year old self was told that in the future I would see all of my favorite comic book superheroes coming to the big screen on an annual basis and they would be given the kind of respect they deserve instead of the schlocky, low-budget Roger Corman treatment they were given during my childhood, I would have soiled my pants and invented a time machine to forward me to the future. The superhero genre is the most fascinating genre from both an artistic and business perspective. Initially, superhero films were self-contained stories just like any other movie that, if they succeeded financially, they spawned a sequel.

Marvel Studios changed all that. Starting with Iron Man in 2007, Marvel did the unprecedented by creating a film universe for its superhero properties to exist within that was modeled after the comic books. In the comics, each superhero character like Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, etc. has their own monthly comic book series in which they have self-contained adventures, but that which still exist within the Marvel Universe. Alongside these individual series of books, some of these superheroes gather together and have additional adventures as a team (i.e. the Avengers) or they participate in a storyline that runs through all of Marvel’s comic books (i.e. Civil War).

For movie studios, the ideal film is one that will generate sequels and merchandise sales (i.e. action figures). Marvel Studios (and its parent company, Disney) recognized that with the use of their comic book model, there was the potential for an endless number of sequels that, if done well, would increase merchandise sales (that already existed from the popularity of the comic books). So far, Marvel Studios has not taken any serious missteps in translating their properties unless you count Iron Man 2 (which despite its unpopularity with fans, it still earned an ungodly amount of money at the box office). The studio has been very careful to stick with established Marvel mythology and only change what it feels will not translate well cinematically. As a result, Marvel fanboys have been overall pleased with how Marvel’s Phase 1 (which ended with the release of The Avengers last summer) turned out.

Iron Man 3 marks the beginning of Marvel’s Phase 2. Without giving or hinting anything away, I will only provide spoiler-free information in this synopsis . In this sequel, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is struggling to deal with his recent adventure with The Avengers by experiencing sleepless nights and anxiety attacks. In the meantime, the world faces a terrorist threat from a man named The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), who has been bombing various locations around the world. In addition, an inventor/entrepreneur named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) develops a method to regenerate missing limbs and the ability to generate extreme heat. He has an organization he calls AIM in which he uses his method to help soldiers regenerate limbs they lost in battle. Back in 1999, Killian, then a poor, struggling scientist, tried to meet with Stark to discuss his invention, but Stark blew him off. Killian is now back and he presents Stark with a new threat.

I do not know whether Jon Favreau left the Iron Man franchise voluntarily because he wanted to pursue other projects (like the trainwreck Cowboys vs. Aliens) or he was booted out after the perceived unpopularity with Iron Man 2. Regardless, the franchise has received a rejuvenating boost with the hiring of acclaimed action writer-director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). My biggest issue with the two Iron Man films had always been poor action choreography and setups. Favreau is not an experienced director and other than Zathura, his writing and directing efforts were limited to comedies (Swingers, Made, and Elf). I can probably speak for everyone when I say that I never understood why Marvel hired Favreau to helm Iron Man in the first place. His lack of experience with action/sci-fi/adventure films became glaringly obvious in the lackluster action sequences in both Iron Man films. What saved those films was mainly Robert Downey, Jr.’s magnetic performance and a strong supporting cast of actors.

With Iron Man 3, Shane Black has come to the rescue and shoved Favreau aside to present us with how a true Iron Man action film should look like. I have been a huge fan of Shane Black’s work ever since he sold his first screenplay (Lethal Weapon) back in 1987. Black brings to the table the same level of quality as someone like Joss Whedon with a similar talent for sharp, humorous dialogue and character development and an even stronger talent for writing action. Iron Man 3 has three big action sequences (one of which, seen in the trailers where the crew and passengers of Air Force One are dropping from the sky, is my favorite) contain the perfect blend of fun and exciting action and humor. The final action set piece is set in a shipyard, a type of location that is used way too often in action movies and at this point just screams of excessive cost-cutting and lazy screenwriting. However, it attests to the strength of Black’s screenwriting skills that despite its location, Black manages to come up with some very creative uses of the shipyard that I have not seen before and ends up with both an exhilarating and humorous finale.

As always, the centerpiece of Iron Man 3 is Robert Downey, Jr., who at this point has convinced audiences to think he actually plays himself in these movies. It has been rumored that Downey Jr. may not return for Iron Man 4 and if this is true, then Marvel needs to do everything in its power to return Downey Jr. to the role. The actor defines the role to the same extent that Christopher Reeve did with Superman. The appeal of the first two Iron Man films rested primarily on Downey Jr.’s performance rather than the story or the villain and many fans actually did not even like the Iron Man films except for the actor’s performance. Here, Downey Jr. has to compete for the first time with a good story and great villains.

Speaking of villains, although the relationship between inventor/entrepreneur Aldrich Killian and the Mandarin reminded me a lot of the relationship between entrepreneur Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, the relationship in this film works better and it contains a surprise that works brilliantly, which I will not spoil because its reveal is one of the film’s best moments. Guy Pearce does a fantastic job as Killian. Ambitious, ruthless, as well as very charming, Killian’s goal of a super-powered race of soldiers/terrorists presents a more formidable threat against Tony Stark than Justin Hammer’s robot army did. In the last couple of years, Pearce has been adding an impressive list of performances (Animal Kingdom, Mildred Pierce, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker) to his already noteworthy repertoire (L.A. Confidential, Memento) and he can add this performance to that list. As for Ben Kingsley, all I will say about his performance in this film is that you will see him in a role that you have probably not seen him do before and the only other film that comes to mind in which he has given us a performance this different is Sexy Beast.

The rest of the supporting cast also does a wonderful job playing their roles. Although Jon Favreau drops out of the film early on, Shane Black has given the remaining regulars  (Pepper Potts and Rhodey Rhodes/Iron Patriot) more to do in this film, especially in terms of being involved in the action. I was especially impressed by the development of Pepper Potts character and she presents the audience with another of the film’s biggest surprises.

Given the high failure rate of third sequels (Superman III, The Godfather III, Spider-Man 3), it is a huge relief to not only see how well Shane Black has done with Iron Man 3, but he has even managed to make the film the best in the series. Aside from the improved action, Black has also taken Tony Stark out of his comfort zone where he is surrounded by his technology and money. Just like in the first Iron Man film when Stark had to MacGyver a suit from scratch in an Afghani cave, Stark is again forced to use his intellect in a similar environment (redneck country). We actually don’t see much of Stark inside the Iron Man costume until very late in the movie. Up until that point, Stark works on his own with the help of a precocious little boy (Ty Simpkins), whose interactions with Stark are comedy gold.

If there is one thing I could have wished for in this movie, it would have been to allow Shane Black to write/direct an R-rated version of Iron Man 3. Black is known for the excessive amount of violence and profanity in his movies and I would have loved to have seen it done with this film. I completely understand why Marvel would not have gone with this because it would have been a suicidal business decision and it would have considerably affected the film’s box office numbers. In a few scenes, you can tell Black tried to push the envelope as far as he could without sacrificing his PG-13 rating (there are scantily clad women and a high kill count).

Iron Man 3 elevates the franchise to a new height that I hope will continue with Shane Black at the helm and Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. The film kicks it up a notch on every level, including a rousing film score by Brian Tyler, who replaces John Debney. You will not enjoy this film if you already don’t care for comic book movies, but if you do and even if you have not seen the past Iron Man films or any of the other Marvel movies, I think you will dig this successful opening salvo to the Summer 2013 movie season. By the way, stick around for the end of the credits as you will see who Tony Stark has been narrating his story to.

(SPOILER ALERT): If my suspicions are correct, the Mandarin will return.