There’s little denying that Joss Whedon set the bar for Marvel movies, perhaps even all superhero blockbusters, when he brought together the heroes from the previous films for The Avengers. Combining a near-perfect mix of action and humour – giving at least the major characters their due as far as screen time goes – it was a blistering blockbuster that ticked a lot of boxes.
So how could Shane Black, taking over Iron Man directing duties from Jon Favreau, possibly top that Avengers triumph with the third film? The truth is he hasn’t but it pleases this reviewer greatly to say that it’s not that far off.
Picking up not long after the events of The Avengers, we follow Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as panic attacks caused by those events hinder his ability to get on with life with his now-girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). At the same time he is faced with a dangerous new foe in the form of The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), the tyrant head of an international terrorist organization wreaking havoc wherever he goes.
Much of the success of this third Iron Man outing – the series’ most ponderous, meaningful and weighty installment – is how Black and co. treat it as its own beast. Unlike Iron Man 2, which felt rather like one huge set-up to the big team up movie, this is a singular affair with a point.
It still carries things on from what’s come before, with even repeated mentions of what happened in New York and how the wormhole Tony fell through may have affected his well-being, but is very much focused on its own plots. You might wonder why he doesn’t just call on the help of his newfound super-powered buddies but that would be missing the point – this is Iron Man’s story, not The Avengers 2 (that comes later!).
The presence of Black (well-loved for the Lethal Weapon franchise and the quick-witted Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) is extremely evident on both a directorial and a script-writing front. While a serious, even solemn feature at times, his action sequences are inventive, exciting and genuinely awe-inspiring with each one there for a purpose rather than just as spectacle in the way that was detrimental to the second film. An aerial rescue just about steals the show while a fairly early sequence involving Tony’s idyllic, high-tech home getting attacked by the tyrannical Mandarin is as visually fantastic as it is genuinely threatening. Rather surprisingly you feel like Tony just might not get out of this one intact.
Speaking of which, a big theme of the film is Tony’s mental state. To paraphrase, he is a billionaire who has the perfect life keeping people safe with his super-powered suit – so why can’t he sleep? He’s a reflective, damaged hero completely out in the open, quite literally bringing danger to his own doorstep because of his showiness. Much of why the film pulls off this rather bold move is Downey Jr’s performance, who really steps it up from the first two to go beyond the simple quips and cocky charm that have become his trademark.
Nevertheless the film never forgets to have fun both with its action sequences and dialogue infused with just the right amount of humour and references (including a running gag about Downton Abbey of all things) without going overboard. Along with co-writer Drew Pearce, Black has delivered a rather brilliant superhero script that finds the right balance between a lot of things; humour and action, (soap-opera) drama and spectacle, continuing the larger story and making it feel a film all its own. Even the potentially cheesy inclusion of a boy who acts as a sort of sidekick to Tony for a chunk of the movie feels justified – on paper that shouldn’t work but it does.
The film is also pleasingly free of predictability. Even in its seemingly straight-forward villains and the inevitable twists-and-turns thereof it has the amazing ability to catch you by surprise. That’s no easy feat considering this is the third in the series and the umpteenth Marvel sequel, including the follow-up to what was the superhero movie to beat all others. It’s not the best Marvel effort but it comes a close 2nd.
Filling its supporting cast with genuinely great actors, it rarely skips on giving the characters a meaningful reason to be there. Kingsley is something of a wonder as The Mandarin, menacing and charismatic as a character prescient if not entirely realistic (but hey, who needs realism?). Superhero movies are almost always only as strong as their villain and on that front this is a rousing success.
You can just tell that Guy Pearce is having an absolute ball playing the half charming-half slimy Aldrich Killian, a rival scientist who enters the story in flashback as a weedy man trying to get Tony to help his company. Don Cheadle is a lot of fun as Colonel Rhodes-turned-War Machine (or Iron Patriot as he now likes to be called), donning a stars-and-stripes version of the Iron Man suit. Even Paltrow, relegated to light-hearted scenes with Tony in the previous films, gets a lot more to do here and the film is all the better for it. Only Rebecca Hall, playing one of Tony’s former associates, doesn’t serve as much of a purpose as you’d hope. It’s not Hall’s fault, who is fine, but rather a case of her character getting lost in the shuffle. But this is ultimately a minor quibble in an otherwise brilliantly realized superhero adventure.
Marvel continue their winning streak and stay on the Avengers high with an Iron Man installment that is as fun as it is dramatically mature. Black’s presence is felt in every aspect of the slick, polished sequel even managing to carry on the astute mix of humour and spectacle so perfectly conjured by Whedon last summer. Iron Man 3 is loud and bombastic but also measured and lean, making for a thoroughly entertaining romp with a lot of meat on the bone.
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