After kicking off the first phase of Marvel movies that culminated in the Avengers making all of the money in the world, it seems fitting that the next step of this franchise should be taken by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. Alone again after he and his super-friends saved new York from aliens, Tony Stark now faces a more personal, grounded journey. However, this does not mean the franchise has ‘gone dark’ and Iron Man 3 has not become Batman in a fancier suit. Instead, newcomer Shane Black leaves a very personal mark on the year’s first true blockbuster, filling the film with humour and a refreshing lightness of touch, continuing the separation of Marvel’s silly and fun cinematic universe and the Chris Nolan world of pseudo-realism and emotional heaviness.
After the events of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble, Mr Stark (having saved Manhattan and destroyed an alien spaceship by throwing a nuke at it) is a tad unwell. He can’t sleep, is prone to anxiety attacks and is almost certainly suffering from PTSD which, realistically, should probably afflict every action hero ever. These problems are not helped by the sudden arrival of fan favourite villain The Mandarin (now an Al-Qaeda style militant rather than the lazy Chinese stereotype of the comics). Civilians are getting fried by explosions all over the US and Ben Kingsley’s (doing a wonderfully camp Bad Guy Voice) terrorist mastermind appears to be behind it. Not only that, but a new experimental military serum, called Extremis is doing the rounds, with the soldiers who take it left with incredible healing abilities and the power to heat up their bodies to steel-melting temperatures – this was a minor personal gripe of mine about the film, as I absolutely hate regeneration powers in films. Tony’s bodyguard (Jon Favreau) is rendered comatose by one of these attacks, leading the hot-headed hero to make the very silly decision of calling the Mandarin out by telling him his home address.
The subsequent attack on his Beverly Hills mansion (seen in all of the trailers) is the first proper set-piece sequence in the film and, as a piece of action, it is rather phenomenal. In fact, all of the major comic-booky sequences are incredibly well done, Shane Black making as much use as possible out of an enormous budget, and the final fight is perhaps even too bombastic. Everything looks great, with the almost futuristic sheen perfectly fitting with the tech-focused character. It is important to say though that the film is not all action, with Black devoting plenty of down-time to humour and trademark buddy antics. Iron Man 3 is undeniably very funny, getting the most out of an on-form Robert Downey Jr, although it could be argued that too much time is spent on the comedy, effective as it is. Inevitably, any form of real emotional connection falls flat, but this is a pitfall of any superhero film; you know that the main character will live and you don’t really give a toss about anyone else. For example, when the stupidly-named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, being generally ok) is kidnapped by evil scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) the only thing I cared about was getting back to the Iron Man scenes. Also, plus points to the film for having a child character who didn’t annoy me.
On the topic of the plot, I feel obliged to point out that there is a twist. Whilst I really liked it, as it set up the rest of the plot nicely and was one of the film’s funniest scenes, I’m pretty sure it will really piss off the die-hard fans of the comics (a quick glance at Internet forums shows the depth of the ire). There was something slightly disappointing about the reveal and I think it might actually make some events earlier in the series irrelevant, but one also has to credit Shane Black and Marvel for making such a ballsy move. There was also a lack of actual ‘Iron Man’ moments, but seeing Stark being incredibly inventive without the suit was nice. A couple of subplots also felt underdeveloped, notably the stuff involving Don Cheadle’s Iron Patriot and the villainous (I think) vice-president. Honestly, these could have been cut to give the film a trimmer running time (an action/comedy movie about a man in a magical flying suit does not need to be over two hours long) or even to make way for some better explanation of Extremis and the evil company behind it. Instead of some proper, decent, exposition we are treated to a long flashback sequence with lots of obvious foreshadowing and some clunky science dialogue. This lack of development also gives a hint to, presumably, a rather expanded director’s cut on the DVD, which will probably release around Christmas, seeing as Iron Man 3 is set during Yuletide (although this could just be due to Shane Black, as the man loves to set his films at Christmas).
In the end, Iron Man 3 is an excellent way for Marvel/Disney to follow up Avengers and start the next wave of superhero blockbusters. It is also a pretty good way to kick off the summer movie season, which is looking particularly strong this year (Star Trek, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and more all seeming to be rather promising). It is miles above the tedious in-joke that was the second film and is, for me, the strongest Iron Man instalment so far, even if it doesn’t quite match Avengers. The action is spectacular, and RDJ gives it his all (as a man who earned $85 million for just two films should do) and the humour more than makes up for the lack of human drama and as a popcorn sci-fi action flick IM3 fully achieves its goals. Oh, and the patented Marvel post-credits sequence isn’t really worth sticking around for, just in case you were torn about an early toilet visit.
Writer/Director: Shane Black
Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Ben Kingsley, Gwyneth Paltrow
Runtime: 130 mins
PS: I also watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master on DVD recently. If you want to witness a true masterclass in every possible category of film-making, you should too.