The crushing weight of expectation rests on Iron Man 3, but like the target of a rampaging Hulkbuster suit, that weight is lifted, thrillingly and amusingly, for its 130 minute running time.
The first Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure since the face-explodingly successful The Avengers, Iron Man 3 reunites Robert Downey Jr., as Tony Stark/Iron Man, with the man most responsible for his getting the role in the first place; Shane Black. Black, who rose to fame as the writer of the first (ostensibly only) two Lethal Weapon movies, had very much come to Downey Jr.’s rescue in the mid-noughties when the actor was finally recovering from a harsh decade-plus of substance abuse and finding guest roles on Ally McBeal insufficient in revitalising his career.
The film they made together, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), a satisfying meta-noir, showed what the actor could do with his own persona when put on the right kind of leash. Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man 1 and 2, held the leash loosely on his first go around, before letting the barking dog loose for the sequel, with disastrous, rambling consequences. It wasn’t until The Avengers that we saw what good Downey Jr. could truly do with Tony Stark when a writer like Joss Whedon fed him material that was more fun than the shtick he could make up in his head. Shane Black, who Marvel have pitched this gamble on, is a similarly talented, smart and cool writer, and the result is the most satisfying Iron Man film to date.
Sometime after the Battle of New York in The Avengers, Tony Stark is struggling. He can’t sleep. He can’t stop building suit upgrades. He suffers panic attacks. He fears for the end of his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the only thing he really cares about now. Suffering from PTSD and having taken a serious ego-bruising at realising that there are beings outside his world far smarter and more powerful than he, Stark shuts himself off to his tinkering, leaving the superhero duties to James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), formerly War Machine, now jingo’d up in red, white and blue as the ‘Iron Patriot’.
But when warmongering machiavelli the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley on a healthy dose of fun pills), the (un)acceptable face of terrorism, comes to challenge Stark, revenge becomes the name of the game. A crippling first strike by the Bin Laden lookalike leaves Stark stranded, friendless and temporarily suit-less, at a time when he is needed most, to take on twisted biological weapons expert Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, finally back on form) and his band of suped-up military vets.
Bookmarked by a witty narration by Downey Jr. that plants us firmly in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang territory, Iron Man 3 kicks along at a solid pace, focusing far more on character development and interaction than exploding robots. Enough references are made to the events of Avengers to make it clear we remain in that universe, but the personal vendetta aspect (set up from the opening flashback scenes) makes it clear that this is a Stark only venture, and for good reason.
There’s a moment in Iron Man 2 where Iron Man takes out almost every villain with one laser attack, making the character all too powerful and much of the action redundant. What Iron Man 3 focuses on is how the more sophisticated Stark’s designs become, the more risks he takes, and thus the more vulnerable a character he is – Stark’s kryptonite is hubris. One of the film’s finest action sequences sees Stark suit-less, and forced to MacGyver himself a small arsenal. An aerial escape battle culminates in a finer gag than any the series (including The Avengers) has delivered thus far. The final showdown, which starts off sloppy with far too much happening on screen at once, boils down to a face-off between hero and villain that features the finest weapon-switching duel since the catfight in Crouching Tiger.
The character-building is truly commendable, although the script is not without fault. The Christmas setting, a Black staple, forces the morals home a little too heavily. The story’s link to White House intrigue feels utterly redundant and unfortunately echoes the recent G.I. Joe 2. The second act, with Stark stranded in wintry Tennessee, is too much of a diversion with too little of a payoff, although child actor Ty Simpkins deserves applause for holding his own against Downey Jr., and for not being irritating.
Back on the leash, Downey Jr. is as much fun as he’s ever been, with Paltrow and Cheadle remaining strong support. Favreau, relegated to cameo appearance, seems almost delighted to have the pressure of directing taken off his now much larger shoulders. James Badge Dale is impressively intense as a fire-powered henchman – the first such role in the MCU thus far. Rebecca Hall, as a morally concerned scientist and former Stark fling, gets the short end of the stick in a frankly underwritten and largely unnecessary role.
Brian Tyler’s decent but repetitive score begins to grate after a while, but the film looks sharp throughout, and Black’s script, co-written with rising talent Drew Pearce, makes this one of the most original blockbusters in recent memory. The Mandarin’s speech about American bastardisation of Eastern culture, using as his example the fortune cookie, is one of the finest villainous rants ever. He similarly targets Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as an Americanised evil, taking a nice little pot-shot at the studio system while also blowing up one of the few landmarks Roland Emmerich had not gotten around to yet.
The film’s ending is far more concerned with concluding an Iron Man Trilogy than with perpetuating the MCU, but there is still a lot of places these characters can go, and if audiences can adjust to this film’s more sardonic tone, a future beyond Avengers sequel appearances should be assured.
As an MCU film, sticking around until the end of the credits is a must for fans, although those excited for previews of coming attractions may be disappointed to hear the witty scene is more “shawarma” than “Thanos”, if you take my meaning.
(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)