There’s little chance you’ll walk out of “Iron Man 3” without seeing something you like. Writer/director Shane Black delivers the heroics, the laughs and the romance in bravura form. However, the output is all over the place. The film jerks viewers in so many directions that it’s hard to focus one’s attention on a single instance without immediately being blasted through the wall by another set piece vying for screen time.
For the first half of the film, Black — creator of “Lethal Weapon” and the underappreciated detective romp “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” — balances the mania, deftly conveying Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) fragile mental state following the events of “The Avengers.” The realization that he’s not actually the center of his own universe has done a number on Stark’s mojo. So, when he challenges the megalomaniacal warlord known as the Mandarin (a riotous Ben Kingsely) to a mano-a-mano fight and encounters missiles instead of a man, he’s unable to escape by way of the usual machina ex machina. The result of that confrontation is one of Black’s best decisions: Stark spends a good amount of the remainder of the film without his armor, a trope that magnifies his vulnerability and brings a level of tension rarely seen in this franchise.
Jettisoning the suit isn’t Black’s only trick: the second half is chock-full of surprise twists that are uncommon in the well-trodden mythology of a Marvel superhero. Black pulls off most of the change-ups with skill and panache, but as the surprises multiply, an unsettling impermanence rears its head and robs from the film’s emotional core. There are too many strings being pulled, too many pieces being moved around, too many metal suits in the air. What seems refreshingly stripped-down in the middle act ultimately feels too souped-up by the close. It’s a nourishing meal that becomes dessert and drinks and a hangover the next morning.
Of course, this franchise is all about bombast, and it’s a testament to the script that the film doesn’t falter completely amid the chaos. There’s a lot of subtext to chew on about how Americans feel safer with a face to assign to acts of terrorism and how human frailty can be compounded by technology rather than improved by it. There’s even a nod to veterans becoming addicted to dangerous substances when returning Stateside. But there’s also a mawkish voice-over that’s cheekily excused by a post-credit gag, some annoying fake deaths and a few puns that wouldn’t pass muster in Saturday morning cartoons — so this is hardly Black’s best effort.
If you see the film, see it for the ensemble — Downey Jr., Kingsely, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce all are stellar — or the well-rendered pyrotechnics. But after such a cluttered, tone-deaf experience, it’s hard to meet the words “Tony Stark will return” following the credits with anything but an exhausted sigh.
Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) Grade: C+