When the original Iron Man was released in 2008, it was the first Marvel film to have been produced and created by the comic book leviathan independently from other studios. It must seem unthinkable to fans now that it could have been anything but a success, but at the time it represented a big financial outlay on, if we’re honest, one of the lesser comic book characters, with an unproven leading man and director. Fast forward 5 years and Marvel films have a release schedule in ‘Phases,’ Robert Downey Jr. is a bonafide A-lister and the super friends release, The Avengers is one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Step forward Shane Black, the writer of Lethal Weapon and director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to take over from Jon Favreau in launching phase 2 and the long road to The Avengers 2 with Iron Man 3.
Following the events of New York, billionaire philanthropist playboy Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping and has thrown himself into tinkering with his Iron Man suits, the latest being Mark 42. As his concern for the safety of Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) reaches dangerous levels, a new terrorist threat emerges in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), whose indiscriminate bombings draw the attention of the President (William Sadler), the newly christened Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle) and eventually Tony Stark himself.
The build-up to Iron Man 3 gave the impression of a deeply dramatic and dark film, but those expecting a Nolan-style drama will find themselves very disappointed. Any moments of dark self-reflection on behalf of the characters is quickly dissipated with some light-hearted comedy. In this regard Iron Man 3 excels, providing more laughs than The Avengers and with Downey Jr. in probably his finest form as Ol’ shellhead.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Black brings his trademark wit to the fore and he seems a great match with the one-line dispensing Downey Jr.. Sadly, as Favreau discovered Iron Man also has to fight. The action scenes in Iron Man 3 are an improvement over the previous two films, including a breath-taking Stark mansion assault, but with so much strength in dialogue, the action does jar. It’s been the real problem with the franchise, finding a director who can make the action as lively as the dialogue and the same is true with Iron Man 3. At least this time the interactions are so witty and memorable, that the rather impersonal sensation of robots hitting other robots seems less of a problem.
Like the original film, the middle portion of Iron Man 3 is a personal journey for Tony Stark as he tries to come to terms with the events of New York in The Avengers. It is disappointing then that this is the part that drags the most. Unlike his time in the Afghanistan cave, this seems like a stunted journey that ultimately is not needed. But aware of the conventions of the franchise Black seems intent on giving fans the same basic narrative structure as the previous films, although it’s a refreshing change to have the tone so much lighter than the majority of big comic book blockbusters.
It is in the supporting cast and the comedy where the film really cuts loose. Guy Pearce’s confident scenery-chewing scientist brings sheer physical presence and toothy delivery creating a thoroughly threatening character. Don Cheadle gamely plays Murtagh to Downey Jr.’s Riggs, while Rebecca Hall brings some class to Tony’s ex-lover and ‘botanist’ Maya Hansen. The show though, is stolen entirely by Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin who might just be the smartest comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker, but for different reasons and his performance provide Iron Man 3‘s most memorable scenes.
It does struggle at times to marry the ‘epic’ dramatic moments to the comedy, but the finale is stronger than either of the previous two films. Shane Black’s buddy cop credentials pay dividends between Downey Jr. and a host of secondary characters, while the villain is stronger than any in the franchise so far. There is the vague feeling that Black might be toying with comic book film conventions like he did with pulp fiction in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but this is a marquee Marvel release, so he is kept in line for the most part.
In a world where Marvel appear to be cornering the market in huge commercial and critically successful franchises, it’s encouraging to see so much effort and time given to making each major character his their own style and appeal. This isn’t Shakespearean Thor, or honourable Captain America. This is wise-cracking Iron Man, with his unpredictability being his greatest weapon. Iron Man 3‘s greatest weapon though, is Shane Black, whose actor-driven directing categorically washes away the disappointment of its immediate predecessor and sets up Marvel’s Phase 2 with a bang.