Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Shane Black, Drew Pearce
Suffering from flashbacks and panic attacks in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion of New York, Tony Stark has holed himself away in his workshop, constructing ever more elaborate versions of the Iron Man armour. In the wider world, the mysterious and malevolent Mandarin is waging a terrorist campaign against the United States. When their paths cross, Stark must dig deeper and go further than ever before to answer the question: is he Tony Stark, or is he Iron Man?
The first Iron Man was a textbook definition of a surprise hit. A relatively obscure comic-book character, albeit a definite fan favourite, a lead actor better known for his substance abuse issues than his acting, and a director more familiar with kids films than action packed blockbusters.
Jump forward five years, and Iron Man/Tony Stark is more or less the poster child for the Marvel Comic Universe, Robert Downey Jr has racked up the plaudits and big roles, having reminded people that he can act, and Jon Favreau has…directed ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. Well, two out of three and all that.
‘Iron Man 2’ was less impressive, largely because it was more of the same, but not quite as sharp, in particular due to a flabby middle section and, arguably, being more focused on expanding the MCU to build up to the Avengers than actually creating a decent stand-alone film.
With ‘Iron Man 3’, we come to both the conclusion of the trilogy and the first part of ‘phase 2’ of the MCU; having pulled an absolute blinder with ‘The Avengers’ (or ‘Avengers Assemble’ in the UK, presumably to avoid confusion with the almost entirely different 60’s television show, and robbing the sequel of an obvious title), there was a lot to live up to, and it makes sense for Marvel Studios to rely on their most popular film character to lead the charge.
It is a strategy that has worked extremely well. The spectacle, it goes almost without saying, is excellent, and is aided immeasurably by having Downey on display more often than he is suited up. The new suit does an excellent job of looking cool, obviously its primary purpose, but the ability to disassemble it allows Downey to actually act far more than previous instalments. More to the point, he is actually given more to act with. Both ‘Iron Man’ films have shown a fair amount of depth, or at least more than you might expect, but here we get to spend far more time examining Stark’s psyche than we do seeing shiny suits of armour blowing stuff up. This would be nothing without good performances and a good script, and both are – for the most part - well up to scratch.
In terms of performance, while Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow both give good turns, the only other person to rival Downey is Sir Ben Kingsley, as the villainous Mandarin. It was a role and casting choice that was subject to a fair amount of controversy in the run up to release; as the name might suggest, there is a certain level of racial background to the Mandarin, and it can easily smack of the old ‘Yellow Peril’ rubbish of years gone by. Of course, casting a white actor (if of Indian descent) as a Chinese character, even if that character can in and of itself be seen as offensive, isn’t necessarily a wise move. It’s to the film’s credit that, by the end, it has all worked perfectly, although I know an awful lot of fans who hated the various changes made.
On the other hand though, Kingsley’s towering performance does mean that the other antagonistic characters are left rather underdeveloped. Guy Pearce does sterling work, but there’s only so much he can do with a fairly thin character. The same goes for Rebecca Hall, and as for the assorted goons…
The plot is effective, if at heart something of a rehash of the previous two films at least in thematic terms. However, the stakes are raised significantly, certainly on a personal level, and there is some surprisingly intense reflection on the relationship between war, death, and big business, at least if you squint. Of much more concern is the personal conflict Stark is undergoing, and this is easily the most engaging aspect of the film. Sure, the big action scenes are awesome, but watching Downey and Cheadle spark off each other, or the chemistry between Downey and Paltrow stays in your head a lot longer than the explosions, in no small part due to Shane Black’s cracking script. It certainly beats the rather bloated ‘Dark Knight Rises’ of last year, even though that film was a clear influence in terms of tone and emotion (and acting; leaving aside my remarks earlier, it’s hard to escape the feeling at times that Kingsley is mimicking Heath Ledger and Tom Hardy in terms of accent, although it is perfectly justified by the end).
There are, perhaps, a few too many plot points to easily accommodate. The Extremis virus, the Mandarin, Tony’s PTSD, the rise of A.I.M…it’s a lot to fit in, but while the Extremis virus is handled somewhat erratically, and Pearce and Hall don’t get much to do, it all ends up hanging together pretty well. The biggest criticism though is that a late twist can, depending on the viewer, undermine the rest of the film. It’s almost impossible to discuss without spoiling the film, although I’d imagine most reading this have already seen it…but nonetheless.
Ultimately though, in having the good sense to focus on the characters, Shane Black has crafted probably the best entry so far in the MCU, although ‘Avengers Assemble’ beats it for pure fun. It isn’t as precise a construction as Tony Stark might like, but it’s close enough. If this does turn out to be the last Iron Man stand-alone – at the time of writing, Downey had not renewed his contract – it is a more than satisfactory finale, and well worth your time and money. Even if you haven’t seen the previous films.