I think it says a good bit about the latest crop of blockbuster helmers how they go about casting beloved character actors amid so much big-budget spectacle: Joss Whedon’s brief inclusion of Harry Dean Stanton in “The Avengers;” Christopher Nolan’s recent roles for Rutger Hauer, Eric Roberts, Matthew Modine, Tom Berenger and William Devane; and, in Shane Black’s “Iron Man Three" (as it's spelled out in the film's credits), William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer’s respective turns as the President and Vice President of the United States.
Neither actor steals the show, but both are vital to the story and it feels like a very conscious choice on Black’s part to fill in the margins of his first Marvel tentpole as he sees fit. In a similar sense, the writer behind “Lethal Weapon” and similar self-aware action-comedies (who has only otherwise directed 2005’s perpetually underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) has taken the superhero-movie formula and tweaked it so as to better suit his own cheeky style, and the result is a welcome continuation of -- if not a worthy conclusion to -- the “Iron Man” franchise.
We pick up some time after the events of “The Avengers,” with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) publicly hailed as a hero, but unable to sleep at night, too deeply unnerved by the very existence of other threats from other worlds against which he might not be able to defend his loved ones -- namely, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). As such, Stark’s arrogance has been tempered, but the repercussions of his earlier, more selfish behavior have resulted in the resurgence of both biotech pioneer Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and genetic scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), and when a domestic campaign of terrorism led by a shadowy figure known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) hits too close to home, Iron Man finds himself forced back into action.
If it all sounds like so much familiar super-brooding, worry not. Despite some unwitting parallels to recent Stateside bombings (not to mention a line of dialogue -- “Nothing’s been the same since New York” -- that invites certain real-world readings), the circumstances surrounding the Mandarin’s attacks remain distinctly fantastical, and the overall tone is kept breezy. More than anything, “IM3” is impressive for how comfortably it incorporates the usual Shane Black touchstones. Interracial team-up between Stark and buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle)? “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” A snappy but ultimately helpful little kid (Ty Simpkins)? “The Last Boy Scout.” A ficus plant? “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” A detective story with a Christmastime setting, henchmen mockery, unfailingly pithy dialogue and a moderately meta voiceover? Pretty much all of the above.
Yet none of that detracts from the usual comic-booky goods, the hero moments and villain reveals and day-saving derring-do. Whether it’s the utter annihilation of our hero’s Malibu beach house, a Tennessee bar brawl that sees a suitless Stark having to rely on his own wits for a change, an attack on Air Force One or a shipyard showdown, the action beats are often excitingly executed, with expectedly impeccable effects and scene geography that is only occasionally lost in an editorial frenzy. The plot concocted between Black and co-writer Drew Pearce is fairly standard-issue in the end, but the story itself benefits from a minimal preoccupation with setting up future Marvel movies and one particularly cheeky second-act gambit that echoes the director’s usual Hollywood-set larks with surprising effectiveness.
Downey, Jr. remains a rightfully cherished smartass figure, having as much a ball with Black’s one-liners as he had in “KKBB,” and he sells Tony’s newfound post-traumatic vulnerability more credibly than the film does. Paltrow gets to play Pepper as a figure finally fed up with a boyfriend more mindful of armor than amour, and Cheadle is allotted a more sizeable amount of screen time with which to play off his partner in crime-stopping. Hall’s role is regrettably marginal, and Pearce’s predictably unctuous, but Kingsley clearly gets to relish his character’s particular proclivities, enough so to compensate for an otherwise routine endgame.
A recurring motif in Shane Black films would be the matter of role-playing. A maniac gets to be an officer of the law; a super-spy thinks she’s a stay-at-home mom; a petty thief is mistaken for an actor and, in turn, a private eye. Many a character here takes turns wearing Stark tech, whether it’s one of many Iron Man suits or the militarized Iron Patriot outfit, and either “IM3” is a Marvel movie in the guise of a Shane Black action-comedy or the other way around. Regardless, it's an awful lot of fun.
SCORE: 8.3 / 10