If there's one thing I've learnt from many years of watching superhero movies, it's this: manage your disappointment.
They will never be as good as you think, never hit the same beats that the comics manage with such elegance, and never have you leaving the cinema thinking “You know what? I could happily have had another half-hour of that.”
I'd love to tell you that Shane Black's Iron Man Three bucks that trend. If anyone could, it's the guy that fundamentally rewrote the action movie with The Last Boy Scout, and with The Last Kiss Goodnight gave the genre its first credible female lead.
For the first twenty minutes, it feels like he's cracked it. Even better, it feels like he's done it on his terms. The voiceover, the wisecracks, the Christmas setting… goddamn, this feels like a Shane Black film. He and Robert Downey Jr have history, of course, working together on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. There's a natural, relaxed, fluid feel about the dialogue and the setup. You believe that Tony Stark is a man losing the one thing he could always wear as armour if the Iron Man suit wasn't around… his self confidence.
Crippled with self-doubt and panic attacks after the events of The Avengers (Marvel's insistence on tying their franchises together must be really annoying if you're a casual movie-goer instead of a fan), Tony is struggling to find his place in a world that seems to be changing under his feet. His girl is running the family business, and he's spending all his time futzing with the suit. Meanwhile, a biological alternative is being field-tested under his feet, while a psychopathic terrorist called The Mandarin is blowing up bits of America. It's a tough time for our billionaire playboy, and he makes all the wrong decisions to get his life back on track. Before he knows it the house, the mansion and the girl are gone, and he has to reinvent himself to save the day.
There's a lot to like in Iron Man Three. Really, there is. It's well-cast and acted, with RDJ again not so much acting as inhabiting the manic yet haunted Tony Stark. There's a neat plot twist that I genuinely didn't see coming and some great dialogue. I'd dearly love to see Black's first draft script for the film, because I bet it's a stormer.
But the film suffers from all the problems of the third in a movie franchise. That first-draft script has been studio-noted into something that's twenty minutes over length, where all the yes-no plot beats in the third act are lined up like dominoes, where Tony is helped out by a precocious kid, gods help us. His anxiety problem isn't resolved. It conveniently goes away so that he can start flying around and punching people. The idea of the Extremis process, a new kind of super-soldier serum, being anything other than a speed and power upgrade (in the Warren Ellis and Adi Granov books that a lot of IM3 has been cribbed from, Tony uses Extremis as a way of interfacing with the suit, enabling it to be lighter and faster) is never explored. For Stark, one of the smartest men on the planet, to ignore this potential technological goldmine seems a bit short-sighted.
Any of the thoughtful or clever bits to Black's script are nearly drowned out in all the sound and fury that's an inevitable part of any blockbuster. This, fundamentally, is always going to be the problem with superhero movies. There's no room for the quiet stuff, for the unexpected moment of character development. Nuance is subsumed in the next big explosion. That's why I prefer the comics. There's room and time and budget to play around with plot and character that simply isn't available to the film-maker. It's great that Shane Black managed to wrangle as much time out of the suit as he could for Tony Stark. I have a feeling Robert Downey Jr. may have been a prime mover in that, wanting to get as much time with the character as he could.
You shouldn't walk into Iron Man Three expecting a radical reinvention of the superhero film. It's far too immured with the big Disney/Marvel track to tread a path of its own. It's perfectly enjoyable but exactly what you'd expect. Can we call a product a failure if it performs to specifications?