By Benji Tunnell
JOPLIN, Mo. —
"Spider-Man 3" undid a lot of good will from the previous two installments, and "Batman Forever" began easing expectations for the truly atrocious "Batman & Robin." Then there's "X-Men: The Last Stand," Brett Ratner's cruel joke on humanity.
While all of these series have been able to bounce back either through sequels/prequels or reboots, it still makes the third chapter in a comic book movie a little scary. With the "Iron Man" franchise already coming off of a shaky second outing, filmmakers were fighting an uphill battle.
Jon Favreau, director of the first two films, steps aside this time and turns over the reins to co-writer/director Shane Black, allowing a reunion between Black and his "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" star Robert Downey Jr., reprising his role as Tony Stark.
This time, Stark is suffering from insomnia and post-traumatic stress after the events of "The Avengers." To kill time, he has spent countless hours and dollars tinkering with various versions of his Iron Man suit.
When a series of mysterious bombings occur, a shadowy figure known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) takes credit; the goal of his terrorist organization to inflict as much pain as possible on the United States. After Stark's friend and bodyguard Happy (Favreau) is injured in one of the blasts, Stark issues a brash challenge to The Mandarin to bring the fight to his own home, leading to a spectacular attack that leaves the Stark Manor decimated and Iron Man presumed dead.
Also back are Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's live-in girlfriend and head of his company, and Don Cheadle as Col. James Rhodes, friend of Stark and part-time War Machine. Guy Pearce makes his debut as Aldrich Killian, a brilliant scientist with whom Stark had an encounter 13 years prior that triggers the events of the film.
Black gave Downey a shot when he was still considered untouchable, and "Kiss Kiss" helped to launch this second phase in Downey's career. The pairing resulted in a great twist on the noir comedy in their last outing, and this time around Downey benefits from the skilled writing and direction that Black provides.
Downey offers more emotional depth in shallow Tony Stark than previously established. Though he was involved with Pepper in the prior movie, this time around the relationship has a depth that was lacking before, giving Stark someone who he can finally love more than himself. In addition, Downey must reflect the emotional toll of the events of "The Avengers," and does so convincingly.
The supporting cast is solid again. Cheadle gets an offshoot role, sharing little time with Downey, and though it feels as if he's essentially laying the groundwork for a "War Machine" spinoff, he makes the most of his character. Paltrow continues to grow into her role, adding more depth than previously seen, carrying the weight of a love for a man who borders on self-destructive.
Kingsley is thoroughly intimidating as The Mandarin. His measured dialogue delivery came off a bit humorous in the trailers, but when seeing the full picture he is scary, bordering on evil. Likewise, Pearce makes an effective villain, carrying his grudge into a powerful plan for vengeance.
Black adds a great deal of levity in this edition, a nice counterbalance to what is an exceptionally violent PG-13 movie. Black, who launched the "Lethal Weapon" series and built a reputation for himself as the go-to screenwriter of the late '80s and early '90s, brings rapid-fire dialogue and cleverness that help offset so much of the action.
But aside from just his script contributions, he brings a skilled hand to the direction of the film, transitioning to working with a bigger budget and more special effects with ease.
The film isn't without its weaknesses. The Mandarin is such a dynamic villain that it seems a shame when the film shifts focus away from him. In addition, the movie adds a precocious and preternaturally self-aware kid seemingly for the purpose of Stark getting to rattle off some admittedly funny one-liners.
And the final scene was overly harried and frenetic, making it hard to follow the action. I understand that sequels tend to subscribe to the "bigger is better" philosophy, but the movie would have benefited from a little more restraint.
The end result is a solid, if not spectacular, third comic book movie. Far from succumbing to the "Spider-Man" curse, it helps to establish a new tone, humanize a superhuman character and set the story on the right path for upcoming sequels and "Avengers" revisits.