Iron Man 3
A brilliant bubble-gum tent-pole spectacular.
It's not uncommon for movie series to rather run out of steam by the third installment. Even those designed from the outset to be trilogies often start fizzling out, and even in the more successful examples, few people would say that the third outing is the best. It is, then, perhaps with a slight sense of trepidation we'd approach Iron Man 3, and a gratifying sense of relief when we realise that we could make a credible case for it being the best of the franchise thus far.
Following on from the events of Avengers Assemble, there was always the possibility that not having an Earth threatening, er, threat for Robert Downey Jnr.'s Tony Stark to go up against might be a little anticlimactic, but I'm sure comic book aficionados were mollified by the news that the Big Bad of this film would be The Mandarin, apparently the rogueiest of Stark's rogues gallery. Or so I'm told, as I don't read the comics I don't rightly know. I'm no nerd, man.
Anyway, Iron Man 3 sees Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) firmly in charge of Stark Enterprises, while Tony sits in his basement and tinkers with endless new suit designs, much to Pepper's annoyance. Turns out that there's more than Stark's usual line of self absorption going on, as his battle with nuclear explosions, inter dimensional portals and revelation of advanced aliens meaning us ill will has rather knocked him for a loop. Suffering from post traumatic stress flashbacks and panic attacks, while desperately trying to up his technological game to ward off future threats to the planet and Pepper has left him with a rather fragile mental state.
As such, he's more than happy to ignore the terrorist threat to America embodied by the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), a mysterious, enigmatic menace only seen in video messages, coming across as a hybrid of Bin Laden and the Stranger from The Big Lebowski. With the government deciding that while this is a serious threat, it's not yet one that demands the attention of Marvel's mainstream superhero properties, a military manhunt is undertaken led by James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and his re-branded Iron Patriot suit, War Machine being deemed too aggressive, PR-wise.
Further complicating things are the involvement of Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian, another scientific prodigy in the Marvel universe's already oversubscribed genius club, who's hawking Extremis, a wonder drug that can regenerate and heal injured tissue. Handy stuff, but his organisation has something of a reputation for playing fast and loose with safety standards. Given the law of conservation of characters, I don't think I'm revealing too much to say that he's tied up with The Mandarin and will become another enemy for Tony Stark, for admittedly quite poorly explained reasons.
After a preemptive strike on Stark's home sees him knocked out and flown on autopilot to the other side of America, he's left dragging a battered, non-functional power suit to a small town to repair, regroup, and work out what the hell's going on. You would not thank me for discussing the plot much further, but there's as much, if not more, of Tony Stark in this film than there is Iron Man.
Spending so much time without his suit is something of a masterstroke for the film. While I've enjoyed the previous Iron Man films, the overwhelming CG-ness of the action in them makes for some rather bland set-pieces. The expressionless iron mask isn't the most sympathetic protagonist, hence the frequent use of that really awkward in-suit, HUD reflection close up of Downey Jr. used so often. Here it needs to be dug out less frequently, while still containing as many exciting and rather innovative fights and set-pieces.
Stripping Stark from his suit also makes him physically vulnerable, which when combined with the aforementioned emotional vulnerability, makes Stark a rather more well rounded character that you can at least come close to imagine might not succeed in his struggle, rather than breeze through it. Much as I enjoyed the other films, they weren't high on sense of danger. Forcing Stark to rely on his ingenuity and intelligence rather than just wheeling out another multi-billion pound prototype powered armour for much of the film makes his character much more interesting, and makes the excesses of the final set-piece much more satisfying.
Iron Man 3, then, largely addresses my major issue with the rest of the films in the series. The rest of the reasons to like the franchise are still in place, headed by the performance of Downey Jr which is as charismatic and funny as always. The supporting cast are universally solid, and Kingsley in particular is fantastic. The effects work is as solid as you've seen.
This doesn't make it the perfect summer blockbuster, if you're going to be all boring and analytical about it. The bad guy's motives, in the abstract at least, are sound enough, but the way it ties into Tony Stark is massively contrived. You don't have to look very far to see gaping plot holes, and this Extremis stuff is dangerously close to out-and-out magic in a world at least somewhat grounded in technological reality.
In fact, as a tightly plotted story, this might well be the weakest of the three. This, it turns out, doesn't matter in the slightest, because it's the most enjoyable of them by a good distance. It's odd to think that this is Shane Black's first turn in the director's chair for a film with firepower of this magnitude, indeed only his second time in the chair at all. For someone who's work has been so influential in the action genre, it's odd seeing how restrained he's been in his output.
Surely it'd have to be seen as a bit of a risk to put Shane Black on this job, but he's knocked it out of the park, taking some major risks which might infuriate comic purists, giving fresh twists on the characters, and setting up something close to a fresh start for Stark's next outing, be that his own franchise or Avengers 2.
It's a brilliant bubble-gum tent-pole spectacular, and if that's what you're in the mood for there's little reason not to love Iron Man 3.
Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts)
Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes)
Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian)
Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen)
Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan)
Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin)