Following the smashing success of The Avengers, Marvel have huge expectations to fulfil as Phase Two of their cinematic master plan launches with Iron Man 3, a sequel of sorts to both that gigantic team-up as well as 2010’s messy Iron Man 2. In an inspired move, veteran action-comedy writer/director Shane Black was brought in to inject some much-needed vitality and inventiveness to the franchise, and he does so with aplomb. Fellow newcomers Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall likewise prove themselves welcome additions, and Robert Downey Jr. continues to own the titular role — and, by extension, these films — with his abundance of charisma and wit. The film certainly has its share of flaws, chiefly involving the murky motivations of the underwritten villains, but this is otherwise an overwhelmingly entertaining way to cap the Iron Man trilogy which will have fans hoping that “Tony Stark will return” indeed.
Marvel’s grand plan for an interconnected cinematic universe populated by comic book superheroes and villains started five years ago with Iron Man — an unexpectedly entertaining origin story, the success of which validated the company’s ambitions and relaunched Robert Downey Jr’s career — and culminated last year with their crowning achievement, The Avengers, so it’s no surprise that Phase Two should be ushered in by their flagship franchise. After Iron Man 2 was misguidedly used as an Avengers primer — causing director Jon Favreau to turn down future directing duties (he stays on as an Executive Producer) — the series was in desperate need of reinvigoration to avoid franchise fatigue, and Shane Black proves himself just the man for the job with this refreshingly fun stand-alone film. Although renowned as a master of action-comedy writing — scripting genre favourites Lethal Weapon, The Last Boyscout and The Long Kiss Goodnight — Black seemed somewhat of a wildcard choice to helm a project of this size, with only 2005’s largely unseen (but most excellent) neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to his directorial credit. What that film clearly demonstrated, however, was a true kinship in sensibilities between Black and Downey, and their great rapport is central to Iron Man 3‘s success as the former’s pithy dialogue is perfectly suited to the latter’s already iconic portrayal of “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” Tony Stark/Iron Man.
Iron Man 3 opens with a flashback prologue which finds the brash Tony we know from the first film partying in Switzerland on New Year’s Eye, 1999, alongside the alluring and talented botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and his reliable bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Brushing off an earnest pitch from awkward scientist Aldrich Killian (a partially recognisable Guy Pearce), Tony learns of (and soon forgets) Maya’s passion project which has the potential to regenerate and enhance cells to cure chronic injuries, but is extremely unstable. Meanwhile, present day Tony is sequestered in the lab of his Malibu mansion, obsessively tinkering with his Iron Man suits as he struggles to come to terms with the life altering events of The Avengers. “Nothing’s been the same since New York”, explains a humbled Stark, who now suffers anxiety attacks and can’t sleep. His relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is neglected, and she is paid a visit by a newly suave and smarmy Aldrich who is looking for an investment in his DNA enhancement project “Extremis”. While Tony’s new self-doubt gives the character a little more depth — and the remarkable Downey more room to explore Tony’s psyche — it feels labourious at times and the film takes longer than it should to really get going. Tony’s mood worsens when a mysterious new terrorist mastermind named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) launches a series of anti-US bombings which curiously seem to have no explosives behind them, and when Happy is injured in one such attack, Stark is forced into action and impulsively calls out the Mandarin, climaxing in the spectacular destruction of his cliffside mansion.
While that first act summary might sound like a dour, dark and Nolan-esque new take on Iron Man — as the majority of the marketing suggested — it’s a relief to discover that this is not at all the case, and Black’s expectation-subverting film is in fact the most fun of the trilogy. Aided by co-writer and fellow Marvel newcomer Drew Pearce — himself no slouch when it comes to witty genre writing, as anyone who has seen his hilarious 2008 series No Heroics can attest — Black challenges Tony like never before, as he spends considerably more time without his suit than in previous incarnations and is forced to rely on his keen intellect to survive. The pair’s script also defies audience expectations with one particularly surprising second act reveal which ranks among the most rewarding in recent memory. But more crucially, the film is imbued with the spirit of Black’s best work, and as a result Iron Man 3 often feels like a late ’80s action-comedy posing as a modern superhero film (or vice versa?). All the classic Black hallmarks are here: the Christmas setting (curious in April, but no less effective), detective-ish plot, meta voiceover, interracial buddy team-up (with Don Cheadle’s Rhodey getting more to do this time), mockery of henchmen, a pestering yet charming kid (Ty Simpkins), and some surprisingly violent scenes for a family film. In fact, the only thing missing is the R-rated profanity! To the writers’ credit, each of these tropes work well here, with the Christmas setting, Dickensian young boy and flashback/narration structure effectively establishing a Christmas Carol parallel to Tony’s crisis.
Black equips himself well with the majority of the action, including one spectacular free-fall sequence that has Iron Man attempting to navigate a mid-air rescue of 13 plummeting people while utilising a malfunctioning prototype suit. His inexperience with a film of this scale is occasionally evident, most noticeably in the action-packed finale, which — despite being much more engaging and inventive than multiple men in iron suits fighting each other — feels a bit muddled and overlong (also too dark, but this is likely the result of the post-converted and unnecessary 3D). The film also suffers from the same generic cinematography and overuse of digital effects as every other glossy Marvel release, but at least the soundtrack mercifully spares us AC/DC’s bogon rock staples this time.
With Black’s dedication to character, previously minor cast members Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle are given substantially more interesting scenes here and both deliver the goods. Ben Kingsley relishes his outlandish role, although it’s regrettably impossible to discuss his performance in further detail here without revealing spoilers. In her first blockbuster performance, Rebecca Hall is intriguing but unfortunately underused, while Guy Pearce struggles to standout in a key role that clearly needed further development and clearer motivations — coming off like a composite of characters we’ve seen before, such as Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2), Jason Lee’s Syndrome (The Incredibles) and his own Peter Weyland (Prometheus). Character actors William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer are brought in to lend weight to the impressive supporting cast — as the President and Vice President, respectively — while the dangerous Extremis soldiers are led by a menacing James Badge Dale. Based on Warren Ellis’ nifty Extremis comic, the DNA-enhanced soldiers’ storyline is undercooked and inconsistent here, with some proving easily defeated while others are more reminiscent of Terminator 2‘s unstoppable T-1000. Worst of all, the disturbing body horror transition detailed in the comic has been replaced with cheesy orange glowing effects that seem better suited to a TV movie.
Once again the backbone of this film is Downey, who deploys those rapid-fire non sequiturs with such skill and ease that he could clearly play this character in his sleep now, and it’s no surprise to learn that many of his lines are improvised. He also displays an impressive physicality in this third outing, having to execute a decent portion of the action sequences out of the suit for a change, and Tony Stark is much more fully-fleshed as a result. Downey’s marvelous, loose and endlessly watchable performance remains the sole reason audiences connect to this franchise, which is a feat achieved by a very few on this level — Sean Connery as Bond or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones come to mind — and this must now rank as his signature role.
The list of complaints for Iron Man 3 may read a tad long, but this is no Spiderman 3 — despite the comparable proliferation of villains and bloated running time — and Black and co. get more right than they do wrong. So much about the film is refreshing, including the fact that this is the only stand-alone Marvel story, it never takes itself too seriously, there are several thrilling action sequences, the key cast all give their best performances of the series, and the retro action-comedy tropes and sardonic dialogue set it apart from every other comic book movie, so I was more than willing to forgive it’s flaws. Black’s film is by no means on the same level as The Avengers, but it is likely the strongest Iron Man film so far, providing a satisfying end to the trilogy — and potential farewell to the character should Downey choose to leave it here — as well as a promising vision of Marvel’s next phase in which these characters needn’t exist purely as cross promotion tools for The Avengers 2.
Iron Man 3 is out now in NZ, and opens May 3 in the US. Watch the trailer below.