I'm not that good at making excuses... but like Lance Guest once told Mario Van Peebles in Jaws: The Revenge: when you fall off the horse, you get right back on again.
Directed by Shane Black (who co-writes with Drew Pearce), Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) still coming to terms with the otherworldly events of The Avengers. All that’s keeping him from a complete mental breakdown is an obsessive desire to perfect his Iron Man armour (he’s up to MK. 42), and the woman he loves, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But when a terrorist mastermind calling himself ‘The Mandarin’ (Ben Kingsley) surfaces and reduces Stark’s life to rubble, the vengeful billionaire is forced into action against his most dangerous adversary yet.
The immediate challenge facing Iron Man 3 is just what to do with Tony Stark. After five years of us getting to know the character, finding interesting new directions to steer him in without solely relying on Downey’s performance (still an uncanny bit of casting genius) can’t be easy. So to counter this, part three is all about getting Stark as far away from his comfort zone as possible, and seeing how he fights back (it very much harks back to his stint in a Middle Eastern cave).
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise by now, but just like in the first two films, Stark spends the very, very, very large majority of Iron Man 3 sans power armour. Okay, so your inner 13-year-old might let out a barely pubescent sigh over it, but what sets the Iron Man films apart from other summer blockbusters has always been a strong focus on story and characters over spectacular action (although there’s plenty of that to go around as well). Jon Favreau’s original film is widely considered one of the best comic book adaptations ever for this very reason, and Black continues the tradition with barnstorming results.
What’s more, Paltrow continues to rise above the clichéd damsel in distress archetype as Pepper Potts who, without giving too much away, soon finds herself in the most extraordinary of positions. Since the beginning, a core component of Iron Man has been the bond Potts and Stark share. If it weren’t for the two (and a bit) films of watching their relationship grow, then seeing it practically demolished here wouldn’t have packed nearly the same impact that gives Iron Man 3 its emotional drive.
With Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) back in action, and sporting his swanky new Iron Patriot armour, there’s a fair deal of (Iron)Man Love in the air too. Cheadle is given his meatiest role in the series to date, while the sharply scripted banter between him and Downey often feels lifted straight out of Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which, by the way, if you haven’t already seen, please make a point of doing so). I’m talking full, bickering married couple-grade bromance - AKA: The best kind.
You might have noticed that each Tony Stark adventure has steadily increased the need to suspend disbelief. We’ve gone from terrorists and Jeff Bridges in a mech suit, to automated robot drones and a sweaty, semi-naked Mickey Rourke brandishing laser whips (in a mech suit), to a full blown alien invasion of New York. Here, the opposition comes from genetically mutated mercenaries sent out by suave scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to do Mandarin’s bidding. Fuelled by the Extremis formula, these guys can emit intense heat and regenerate whole body parts, making them exceptionally hard to kill. Now, if you were to jump straight from the original film to this threequel, that shift in realism would come off as a serious case of shark-jumping. Taken as part of the overall Marvel movie continuity, however, this turn towards pure science fiction makes for some truly exciting action sequences just right for a trilogy-closing endgame.
As for the main villains, it’s hard to talk about Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of ‘The Mandarin’ (a major Iron Man baddie that many comic readers have waited an age to see in cinematic action) without getting into ruinous spoilers, but yeah... I liked what they did, I think it worked and I would even go so far as to call it a tasteful creative decision. While this ballsy move may have split viewers right down the middle, I reckon we can all at least agree that Kingsley nails it in his own inimitable style.
Plus, who doesn’t love the ongoing Guy Pearce career renaissance? I was already impressed by Pearce’s evil turn in Lawless, but watching him get his slime on while decked out in expensive suits and a slicked back beginner’s mullet (if only they’d delayed filming by a few months) was second only to the religious experience that is Lockout (pure junk, but the man is awesome in it). Pearce damn near steals the whole picture from right under Downey’s goatee, making Killian yet another strong addition to his recent acting canon. If he keeps this up, I expect The Time Machine 2 to be given the green light any day now.
I’ve made it this far without getting into the whole Shane Black factor, but it’s a biggie and can’t be ignored. The writer of such manly classics as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, his signature style is very much felt in Marvel’s latest opus. Alongside his trademark Christmas setting and that aforementioned Stark-Rhodes buddy cop interplay, you get an uptick in foul language, bumbling comedy henchmen, a third act kidnapping, and even extreme violence towards women. He may have had to wrap it all up in a PG-13 ribbon, but this is still the edgiest Iron Man yet.
Black’s involvement would also likely explain the film’s tone. This is not a superhero movie which takes itself all that seriously. For instance, there’s one supervillain moment that’s so over the top and out of left field... it’s deliberately played for laughs. In another case, this might’ve been a deadly demonstration of power, but here it’s funny as hell! Again, I want to avoid spoilers, but it is so refreshing to see this kind of approach taken in a major Hollywood franchise production, especially after the hilarious sincerity of last year’s The Dark Knight Rises (no doubt the greatest unintentional comedy of our time). Unfortunately, I know this borderline irreverent take on the Iron Man brand has only contributed to its divided critical reaction, so I guess you simply either ‘get it’ or you don’t.
That said, not everything clicks like you’d hope. For one thing, the Extremis-powered super soldiers are only ever as powerful as the film needs them to be at any given time, leading to some glaring inconsistencies with their abilities; and despite playing a notably pivotal role, Rebecca Hall feels underused (oh by the way, she’s in this). Most of all, I’d be lying if I said Iron Man 3 doesn’t have one of those plots that relies heavily on movie magic and immediately crumbles under an iota of logical thought (a la Jurassic Park or Prometheus).
So while Iron Man 3 doesn’t quite supersede Jon Favreau’s first stab at the franchise, Black nevertheless serves up a highly enjoyable trilogy capper that boasts a crowd-pleasing concoction of lovable heroes, gnarly villains, pitch perfect comedy and plenty of computer generated spectacle (Weta Digital and a multitude of studios worked their socks off on this). While it feels like a natural end to Tony Stark’s story, the film’s billion dollar box office takings means this likely won’t be the case.
Just don’t ask me where they could take it next.