Robert Downey Jr. is back in suitably charismatic form as billionaire genius and playboy Tony Stark, in the entertaining third installment in the Iron Man franchise. Director/co-writer Shane Black, responsible for awesome noir throwback Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and buddy cop classic Lethal Weapon, has taken the reins from Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 and 2), who sticks around with an amusing cameo, crafting a film with surprising social relevance and heart. He has successfully fused comic book sensibilities, thrilling high-stakes action, guffaw-worthy humour and compelling character drama into a top class visual effects bonanza that fits nicely into the current Marvel canon.
Following the events of The Avengers in Manhattan, Tony has been struggling to sleep and suffers from anxiety attacks whenever reminded of the ordeal. He busies himself tinkering with his suits, giving individual elements their own exclusive power, which allows the suit to remotely fit together on his person from disparate pieces. While Tony has been trying to put his mind at rest, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), has been approached by Aldich Killian (Guy Pearce), a rival businessman who was involved in a fleeting but important moment from Tony’s past. He requests Stark Industries’ allegiance with his company, which is operating an Extremis Program involving the experimental treatment of crippling injury. Meanwhile, an antagonistic and sadistic terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been responsible for a series of bombings on U.S soil. When Tony threatens him, he retaliates by targeting everything that Tony has come to hold dear.
Black has tapped into the Stark character in unexpected ways, despite him already featuring in three films. Not only is he an aerial acrobat – as revealed in another heart-pounding rescue - he is a human being with emotions. Black has created a thrilling superhero genre film (which fits nicely into the mould of politically-driven espionage thrillers) while attentive to the human story at the core.
RDJ is such a charismatic screen presence, and he has been gifted with terrific dialogue. While he maintains his identifiable brash arrogance and rarely does a conversation pass without a sarcastic quip being thrown in, he’s a flawed hero. Watching him as he rebuilds himself, forced to rely on inventions scooped from a hardware store, is a lot of fun.
Pearce has eaten similar roles for breakfast recently, and as charming as he is here, it wasn’t the most inspired casting. Sir Ben Kingsley is always a class act, and again shows off his incredible range. In somewhat self-parody he is involved in a surprise curveball that turns the story significantly. Don Cheadle reprises his role as James Rhodes and gruels it out on ground level with Tony in the finale.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Rebecca Hall, who stars as a mysterious ex-flame of Tony working for Killian, are asked to make tough decisions along the way, but Pepper’s involvement in the action wasn’t one of Black’s best decisions.
Some of the elements of the final act didn’t work as well as the rest of the film. It was a cleverly choreographed dock set piece with impressive stunts and effects and a suitably epic showdown, but some convenient extensions of Stark’s mechanical repertoire and further examination of the primary villain’s ‘grudge motivation’ left a few cringe-worthy moments that were disappointing considering the strength of the rest of the film. Even the often-cheesy tropes – the intuitive child sidekick, high-ranking Government in peril, for example – are handled with genuine sincerity and believability.
The tie-ins to The Avengers and the Marvel Universe add a layer to the story’s context and hero, but Iron Man 3 remains a competent stand-alone adventure. Black has ensured that there is an arresting personal story amongst the spectacle, while offering up some surprises and making it feel not at all like a ‘Superhero Film’ from the production line. Following the subpar first sequel, RDJ has returned in form with an entertaining new installment in a franchise that will understandably leave fans pining for future returns of Tony Stark.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22