Where do you go after The Avengers? Last summer, Joss Whedon delivered a thrill-ride of geek nirvana, pleasing both comic-book and film fans alike. With Phase One successfully complete, Marvel has wasted no time in kicking off with Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and first out of the gate; rather fittingly, it’s the man who kicked it all off, Tony Stark. The first Iron Man was incredibly successful at establishing Robert Downey Jnr. in arguably his career defining role, as well as planting the seeds for what was to come. Iron Man 2 remains a missed opportunity and a wholly empty experience, weighed down but the obligatory responsibility of introducing more elements for The Avengers, being the only hero in the phase who already had his origins taken care of. Iron Man 3 has been presented with the chance to work as a strong stand alone installment whilst also remaining fully ingrained within the Marvel Universe. With Shane Black replacing Jon Favreau at the helm, and the trailers promising to bring Stark to his knees, Iron Man 3 was shaping up to be a darker, more character driven approach to the character. And while there are elements of that promise, Iron Man 3 is a film packed full of surprises, and is not quite the film the trailers would have you believe.
Tony is dealing with some anxiety issues following his near death experience and battles with extra-terrestrial beings in New York, which has led to him becoming absolutely work obsessed, putting a strain on his relationship with Pepper (Gweneth Paltrow). To make matters worse, the US comes under attack by a mysterious terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who has been behind numerous bombings across the country. When one attack places Tony’s bodyguard Happy (Favreau) in the hospital, Tony challenges The Mandarin to a showdown. When his bluff is called, Tony is left alone, suit-less and desperate to discover the truth behind the bombings and The Mandarin in a hope to put to rest his anxieties and come to terms with who he truly is. His investigations lead him to suspect the involvement of one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a man from his past who has developed a new experimental treatment called Extremis, which has some lethal and dangerous side-effects.
MAJOR SPOILERS AFOOT.
I’VE WARNED YOU.
YOU SHALL NOT PASS IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM.
Right. Now that you’re here, lets continue…
Iron Man 3 is a much different beast to its previous first two installments. The first two did strive for a more grounded tone, but now that The Avengers has opened the door to a much wider universe, it would seem Shane Black has used this excuse to make Iron Man 3 a much more elaborate and simply ridiculous installment. The story takes many twist and turns along its way, and certainly makes good on the promise of bringing Stark down to his knees. Much of the film barely has Stark in his suit, but it is all the better for it. Downey Jnr. has always been entertaining in this role, and armed with Black’s and Drew Pearce’s sharp and supremely witty script, he has never been better in the role. The character’s ingenuity and resourcefulness are on full display here, with the clever script making full use of the self-proclaimed genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropists skills, as he must come to terms with being in isolation; back in the cave if you will.
What has been a problem with the previous two Iron Man movies has been its lack of a strong central villain. The third one was certainly showing promise by having arguably the metal-heads greatest foe in his comic book history present in the form of The Mandarin. And with Sir Ben Kingsley playing the role, all was shaping up to see the character brought to the screen in great fashion. Well, not quite. Shane Black turns in a very trademark script; an action superhero spectacle that is very aware of what genre it is operating in. It adheres to genre expectations, whilst almost subverting them to provide its audience with a superhero movie that isn’t afraid to give its well tested formula a shake. It arguably does that with The Mandarin, as The Mandarin does not turn out to be the feared terrorist leader that the news has painted him to be. He is in fact a drugged up, booze fueled character actor by the name of Trevor, who believes he is merely being paid a lot of money to turn in a performance; an accessory to a much larger plot. The twist is incredibly unexpected (kudos to the marketing team), as the reveal builds as a sequence in which we’d expect the first confrontation to take place between hero and villain, but instead we are have such a curve-ball thrown at us that we begin lose a sense of security in the genre conventions. Which allows for a thrilling build up to the final act.
What Black has done with such a fan favourite has my film fan and comic-book fan tastes at battle with each other. It is undoubtedly a clever piece of genre writing, completely playing with fan expectation and delivering something entirely unexpected and in keeping with the more grounded tone of the first one installment. But at the same time, The Mandarin is a character who deserves much, much more. He is by far Iron Man’s greatest adversary, and his filmic translation turns him into a pantomime. It is somewhat disrespectful to the material and the fans to not give such a major villain the cinematic glory that he deserves. But due to the clever writing and the wonderful performance from Kingsley, it almost feels right, and does mark a significant change in the superhero genre. This is a superhero movie, part of a branded universe, that is not afraid to twist what fans are expecting from it. At the end of the day, it is an adaptation and does have the freedom to reinterpret characters to serve the story as it so wishes. Then there s the inclusion of Extremis. The Extremis soldiers were always going to be hard to portray convincingly on screen, and while they are certainly creepy; the technology behind the program and the bright orange style is somewhat over-the-top. Mind you, this is hardly a genre known for its subtlety. Thankfully Guy Pearce is suitably sniveling as Aldrich Killian, the real evil mastermind of the piece, despite being landed with a clunky demise.
The issues with the villains would have bothered me much more, as would have Pepper’s more intense involvement, if the film did not have enough redeemable factors. Thankfully, it has them by the bucket load. The action is exceptional. Set piece after set piece comes rolling at you, with Black proving a deft hand at effects heavy spectacle. The attack on Tony’s house is exhilarating, the free-fall from an exploding Air Force One is breathtaking, and the final act is all kinds of bad-ass, with plenty of punch your fist in the air moments. Black also allows for the detective work to flow and his unique voice to sing through the characters and action. Tony’s team-up with a 10 year-old boy could have been utterly cringe-worthy in other hands, but Black’s dry sarcastic wit keeps it from ever becoming too cutesy and makes for some of the more memorable scenes in the film. Stark and Rhodey’s (a very comfortable Don Cheadle) camaraderie evokes memories of Riggs and Murtaugh, while many of the snappy exchanges between henchmen would fit very nicely in the world of The Last Boy Scout. Many scenes and sequences evoke memories of fun and spirited 80’s action movies (Tony sneaking in to the villain’s mansion being a particular example), and it is refreshing to see a big Hollywood superhero movie take this more old-fashioned and laid back attitude to the proceedings.
Much of this installment feels as though it is the swansong of Tony Stark. We have a more personal storyline, a voice-over framework, and a symbolic ending, which very much seems to see the character coming somewhat full circle. There is no doubt that we shall see RDJ return for The Avengers 2, but whether we shall see an Iron Man 4 is a question that I don’t think even Marvel has the answer to right now. If this is indeed the last solo outing for the Invincible Iron Man, then there are certainly worse ways to say farewell. Iron Man 3 certainly redeems Iron Man 2, and in some respects it is better than the first. Funnier, faster and with more style and panache, it is an incredibly exciting and promising start to a summer that is filled with highly anticipated titles. And while I am sure there are going to be better films this summer season, Iron Man 3 sets a considerably high benchmark in terms of action movie spectacle this summer. To think it all started in a cave. With a box of scraps.