The last time we saw Tony Stark he was flying nuclear missile into space to save Manhattan, and maybe even the entire human race, from extinction. If The Avengers’ spectacular conclusion ended Phase One of Marvel’s grand vision, Iron Man 3 suggests the next stage could reach even greater heights.
After the comic book giant broadened the scope of their cinematic universe so dramatically – and successfully – with their last offering, this latest release marks a return to solo outings, though Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is still suffering in the aftermath of those events in New York. Once you’ve fought off aliens with a Norse god, a genetically modified super soldier and a gigantic green monster, life doesn’t just go back to normal. Unfortunately for Stark, haunting flashbacks, sleepless nights and anxiety attacks are the very least of his problems once the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) begins to wreak havoc.
Iron Man’s traditional arch-nemesis, the Mandarin is a terrorist shrouded in mystery, causing devastation across America before taking over television sets with chilling al-Qaeda-style broadcasts. When one of his attacks hospitalise our hero’s bodyguard (Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man films) the stakes become personal and before long the Mandarin sets his sights on everything Tony Stark holds dear – in an early set-piece, Stark’s cliff-top home is bombarded with an aerial onslaught that literally reduces the expansive property to rubble.
Stark is left stranded with no home, no gadgets and for the first time since he was held in that Afghan cave, no armour. From that point on, the film excels. Stark remains suit-less for a significant portion of the film, but the film does not suffer as a result, largely due to the work of director Shane Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce.
Black’s last film, 2005’s superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starred Robert Downey Jr. and toyed with the conventions of the crime genre with tongue very firmly in cheek. He and his star continue that form here. Thanks to the sharp, self-aware writing, the time spent out of the armour is as enjoyable as the big action scenes, and he has the perfect leading man to deliver those killer lines with just the right blend of cynicism and humour.
Downey Jr., suiting up for the fourth time, continues to add interesting shades to his portrait of an extravagant billionaire/superhero and it’s in those stranded scenes where he shines brightest. We haven’t seen Stark have to rely too heavily on his famed intellect since his inaugural film; it makes for a refreshing change of pace. In a standout scene he attempts to talk his way out of captivity, with hilarious results.
He also befriends a local kid (impressive 11-year-old Ty Simpkins) in his attempts to repair the armour and as you prepare to groan and roll your eyes, the performances and witty dialogue create some of the film’s best moments.
Alongside Downey Jr., Guy Pearce brings a devilish charm to his rival scientist who isn’t quite what he seems, Favreau earns plenty of laughs as the over eager bodyguard, Don Cheadle’s Rhodey slightly reworked here as Stark’s partner in crime and their scenes together have an enjoyable buddy cop feel, while Gywneth Paltrow makes the most of her biggest role in the series to date.
However, it is Sir Ben Kingsley who undoubtedly steals the film as the Mandarin, a role that plays with our very real fears of terrorism and our expectations of what a super-villain must be. No doubt some devoted fans will be angered by the film’s alterations to the character, but without giving away too much, Black, Pearce and Kingsley himself all deserve immense credit for crafting the rare blockbuster that manages to genuinely surprise.
Black is well known for his writing, but he handles the action scenes with aplomb. A breath-taking sequence that sees Iron Man attempt to save eleven people who have been flung from Air Force One before they hit the ground is worth the IMAX price alone.
The third Iron Man film also marks the first time this series has had an ending worthy of what precedes it; the first had to introduce the character as well as his origin story and crammed in a bad guy almost as an afterthought, the second did much of the heavy lifting for later films and felt like an extended Avengers trailer. Both ended with Iron Man facing an underwritten villain in a bigger robot suit. It’s a shame that the trailers have spoiled part of the surprise, but the climax here rivals anything Marvel has done to date, both in terms of scale and sheer spectacle.
The 130 minute running time flies by, though a few plot threads feel as if necessary exposition was left on the cutting room floor, particularly scenes involving the Vice President. The Mandarin’s goons also have explosive powers that are a slightly awkward fit in this quasi-realistic world and neither the origin of these abilities or their motivations are explained satisfactorily. Another strange absence is any mention of the other Avengers, and you can’t help but wonder why Tony doesn’t just call one of his bros when he’s stranded with no armour.
That being said, these are minor flaws in an ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable film. Marvel, now seven films into their oeuvre, again reap the rewards of the calculated risks they have taken in selecting directors and stars. If, as has been speculated, this is Downey Jr’s last time in the armour (in a stand-alone Iron Man film, at least), then it would be a fitting send-off.