Iron Man 3: the most irreverent superhero movie yet?

With spoilers, we wonder whether adding Shane Black to the Iron Man franchise has resulted in the most irreverent superhero movie yet...

Note: this article contains detailed spoilers for Iron Man 3, and is intended for those who’ve already seen the movie. 

“Ever since the guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety kind of went out of the window,” one character notes in Iron Man 3 – a great line which could easily sum up the unsubtle nature of the movie itself.

With Shane Black at the helm as director and co-writer (with Drew Pearce), Iron Man 3 feels like a kinetic, riotously entertaining compendium of every superhero movie idea to date, all packed into an explosive and extremely funny two-or-so hours.

Following on from the events of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 sees Tony Stark suffer from a debilitating case of mail-traumatic stress. The arrival of hammer-wielding gods and aliens from another realm, it seems, has left him in an existential funk. “I’m just a man in a can,” he sighs, as he tinkers with his luxury basement full of robo-toys.

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Meanwhile, some old acquaintances from the past, including scientists Mia (Rebecca Hall) and nerdy Killian (Guy Pearce) have been working on some sort of miracle genetic serum which helps to restore body parts and provide super-strength, yet has the occasional side-effect of turning people into walking incendiary devices. On the side of evil, there’s the dreaded Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), who looks like a mixture of Osama Bin Laden and a wizard from The Hobbit, and plots a media-led campaign of destruction. 

Well, that’s the gist of the plot, at least; while the lights are down, Iron Man 3 is a churning, set-piece-heavy movie that lurches from one catastrophe to the next, as Tony Stark’s mixture of self-doubt and cockiness (an oil-and-water set of neuroses, surely) brings him on a collision course with the bad guys.

Although the Iron Man films have been shepherded by Jon Favreau up until now (and he appears again here, entertainingly, as TV-loving security guy Happy Hogan), Shane Black commendably places his own mark on this third movie. Tony Stark’s always been a man of quips and banter, but Black’s brand of acid-tongued pith and sarcasm is evident in many of the movie’s one-liners (“I’ll show you my research, but I won’t show you my home town,” Mia says to Stark). Then there are other Black-isms, such as the yuletide setting, the bickering henchmen and some absurd, detective-fiction-inspired situations which could have come straight from the fantastic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

There’s an irreverent sense of humor to the movie’s turns of events, too, which might irk some comic book readers (more on these later), but provide Iron Man 3 with its most hearty laughter, at the screening I attended at least. As one particular plot twist hoves into view, it’s difficult not to wonder: is Iron Man 3 intended as a parody of Bush-era foreign politics? Certainly, The Mandarin’s resemblance to Bin Laden, and William Sadler’s President’s vaguely George W-style side-parting, appears to lend weight to the theory. 

Then there’s Don Cheadle’s Colonel Rhodes, who looks resplendent in his colourful Iron Patriot suit, but ends up crashing around the Middle East and not doing much at all for a large part of the movie. In fact, his suit becomes a sort of prison for both himself and, later, the kidnapped President (another Shane Black staple, is kidnapping), and there’s a certain gleeful sense of anarchy in the bit where we see him strung up, spread-eagled, and looking faintly absurd in the Iron Patriot’s now useless battle armour.

“We create our own demons” is the lingering, introspective message the movie has to give us, and this, along with the repeated references to the War on Terror and allusions to recent campaigns in the Middle East, makes this an unusually weighty entry in the Marvel Universe.

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Finally, there’s Ben Kinglsey’s The Mandarin, a familiar figure from the Iron Man comics, pressed into an unusual mold here. With his unfeasibly long beard and grandiose speeches, Iron Man 3’s version of the character is a media-savvy warlord with a taste for the theatrical. But from the first time we see him, we sense something a bit off: his clothing, that throne, those rings: it’s all a little too showy, a tad absurd. His American accent is atrocious. Has Black made a terrible misstep here?

By the glorious reveal at the mid-point, we learn that, no, it was all part of the story: Mandarin is little more than a construct (“A think tank thinked him up!”), a character portrayed by Kingsley’s sleazy, dishevelled London thespian Trevor Slattery. Kingsley’s performance here is a superb piece of comedy, as is Stark’s reaction when he discovers that this feared terrorist is pure smoke and mirrors – a puppet for the true villain, Killian, who wants to use the fear of terrorism to sell his Extremis technology. (In a bit snipped out of our interview due to its spoiler-filled nature, Shane Black told us that he loved the idea of Tony Stark fighting a villain wearing a “Lacoste shirt and chinos”.)

Put all this together, and you have a superhero movie that is both smart and playful; it explores similarly current themes to the Dark Knight trilogy, but does so in a far more humorous, Technicolor manner. And like The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3 finds a way to bring Stark’s story to a close, while at the same time leaving the door open for more adventures: Stark could put his Iron Man suit on again in a future movie, or maybe the wide-eyed young inventor Harley (Ty Simpkins) will one day take up his mantle.

Some readers of the Iron Man comics might be somewhat dismayed at the movie’s rather casual treatment of The Mandarin (and fan reaction so far does appear to have been mixed) but for us, Black’s mischievous reveal was one of the funniest surprises we’ve seen in a comic book movie for some time. What Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have achieved, in pulling together the funny and the tense, the wryly satirical and the action-packed, all in one summer movie, really shouldn’t be underestimated.

When Black was signed up to make Iron Man 3 back in 2011, its producers probably sensed that Black’s cynical style of writing made him the closest the filmmaking world has to a real Tony Stark. And it has to be said, they were quite right.

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