It’s no secret that superhero threequels have a bad rap. The roll of shame doesn’t need to be recited yet again, but ever since Superman faced off with Richard Pryor back in 1983 spandex-centric second sequels have sent shudders down the spines of fanboys and casual cinemagoers alike, being responsible for some of the biggest cinematic atrocities this side of Van Helsing.
Regardless of this, hopes have been cautiously elevated for Iron Man 3. Those clever sausages at Marvel Studios have shown their worth once again, presumably planning ahead for the traditional tribulations of a cinematic trinity by getting in their misstep in early with 2010’s disappointing Iron Man 2 – in addition to putting Tony Stark front and centre of last year’s Avengers Assemble. Joss’s jewel was technically the third Iron Man flick, completing the traditional heroes journey from selfish shmuck to selfless saviour. Iron Man 3 introduces us to a Stark haunted by those heroics, suffering from PTSD following his world-saving actions against an extra-terrestrial threat he could barely comprehend. “Gods, aliens, other dimensions … I’m just a man in a can”, he bemoans to an increasingly frustrated Pepper Potts.
It’s this fragile humanity that defines Iron Man 3. We were promised that this entry would take the franchise in some dark directions, and there is no doubt that the focus of the flick is on the decidedly non-superpowered Tony Stark. However while events in the millionaire martyr’s life do take a swing toward the sombre this time around, we’re spared a clichéd gradient into gloom by the presence of Shane Black behind the camera. An inspired selection for director from day one (anyone who has seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and there’s really excuse to be one of the many who haven’t – will know that Black’s words in the mouth of Downey Jnr are pure dynamite), the fingerprints of the action cinema legend are all over this franchise flick. Iron Man 3 is not Shane Black directing a comic book movie; it’s a Shane Black movie that happens to have a comic book character at its core.
That’s not to say that Iron Man 3 swerves off-piste and loses its connection to the first two pictures in the franchise. Jon Favreau remains a presence on both sides of the camera, acting as an executive producer and reprising his role as Happy Hogan in an increasingly hilarious extended cameo, and tonally Black pitches the movie perfectly (alebit with slightly edgier dialogue that we grew to expect from Marvel’s Phase One movies). Rather, all the elements of a Shane Black movie are present and correct – an opening and closing voiceover, a yuletide setting, slick and sarcastic henchmen that steal the scene before meeting a violent end, and lashings and lashings of buddy banter. Bringing elements of Joe Hallenback and Martin Riggs to Tony Stark makes the character even more engaging, with Black’s trademark spiky script (co-written with Brit scribe Drew Pearce) offering Downey plenty of opportunity to varyingly trade barbs with Hogan, Potts, the least annoying child sidekick in recent cinema history, and Don Cheadle’s returning Rhodey (now rebranded as Iron Patriot, working on the side of the angels unlike his comic book counterpart).
Outside of the character study of an increasingly broken Tony Stark, Iron Man 3’s plot takes its inspiration from Warren Ellis’ celebrated Extremis arc (artist Adi Granov also assisted with production design of the various new suits for the picture), albeit with greatly expanded roles for some of the characters. Extremis is a military nanotechnology serum, an attempt to help regrow damaged tissue and lost limbs, being worked on by Stark’s business rivals. Naturally things don’t go entirely smoothly, leaving Iron Man with some investigating to do; an investigation complicated by the introduction of four-colour nemesis The Mandarin.
Ordinarily portrayed as the Eastern mystic ying to Stark’s Western technology yang, this movie Mandarin is a very different portrayal. Terrifying the USA by hijacking the media with cryptic judgments, threats of terrorist action, detonating bombs in public and generally being a dick, the arrival of The Mandarin onto the scene forces the armoured Avenger into action – albeit working alone. Rhodey describes The Mandarin as “American business, not superhero business”, which neatly explains away the absence of Stark’s superfriends – Marvel have evidently learned from the mistakes of the prededing flick. Not that the events of the rest of stable of movies are ignored, however – as one character explains during a particularly fantastical scene, “subtlety has kinda gone out of the window since that guy with a hammer fell out of the sky”.
Sir Ben Kingsley’s performance casts one heck of a shadow over the picture, and will definitely linger long in the memory, but everyone in the Iron Man 3 cast gets their chance to shine. Downey has his character nailed by now, but still manages to bring new beats to the party. Gwyneth Paltrow finally gets to kick some ass as Pepper Potts; Favreau draws belly-laughs aplenty in the opening third of the flick as Happy Hogan; Insidious star Ty Simpkins dials down the creep factor as Harley, the precocious child mentioned earlier who provides a surprisingly effective foil for Stark; and Guy Pearce finally gets the genre role that his talent deserves.
Aside from the cast and the dialogue, Black has evidently learned a few new tricks since 2005; Iron Man 3 never skimps on the set piece spectacle. An attack on Stark’s home may have made up the bulk of the trailer but there is plenty more to see; almost the entire final third of the film is a breathless sequence of special effects. Pleasingly these are never to the detriment of the story, though – jaws are dropped by the script as often as the CGI, and the titanium titan finally meets a worthy foe in a memorable final battle that doesn’t descend into a sub-Transformers blur of robotic clanking. All this backed by a fabulously triumphant musical score from Brian Tyler, a bombastic slice of orchestra that finally gives Stark his own signature sonic sting.
However, amidst all this fulsome praise it should be noted that Iron Man 3 is not quite perfect. A couple of key characters seem to be short-changed in terms of screen time, including Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen, suggesting their sub-plots were trimmed to keep the running the running time punchy at just over two hours. The 3D post-conversion also adds nothing to proceedings aside from an annoying film of darkness over the events on screen – if given the option of a 2D screening on a larger screen, grasp it with both hands.
That’s yer lot in terms of gripes, though. A Bond-like text announcement after the credits roll (yep, the obligatory post-credits scene is present and correct) promises us that Tony Stark will return. What shape he will appear in remains to be seen; Iron Man 3 marks Downey Jnr’s fifth and final contractual appearance as the character, with negotiations ongoing on a new deal as we write. It’s borderline unthinkable that another actor could be wearing the armour of Iron Man for Avengers Assemble 2 in 2015 (expect an introductory cameo shoe-horned into the impending Guardians of the Galaxy if there is), but if Downey does bow out now he can do so with his head held high. Iron Man 3 is undoubtedly ol’ shellhead’s finest solo flight to date, and will have some beating for the title of Blockbuster of the Year.