It was Iron Man that launched the official ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ in 2008, a potentially risky move that would culminate in The Avengers destroying worldwide box offices last year. Barely pausing for breath, Marvel pressed ahead with a new Iron Man feature immediately. However, they already did that after the welcome reception the first film received, meaning that the film kicking off Marvel’s ‘phase two’ isn’t Iron Man 2, but Iron Man 3. Yes, while his fellow avengers have either one or no solo films to their name, Tony Stark now has three.
The first Iron Man was a decent enough film but was also a pretty generic superhero origin story, and lacked a decent villain. The whole thing was certainly elevated by the spot-on casting of Robert Downey Jr. though, and successfully performed the task of ‘tone-setting’ the cinematic universe. Of the Marvel studios films so far though, Iron Man 2 is undoubtedly the weakest, perhaps due them rushing it out before Thor or Captain America had a chance. Original director Jon Favreau has decided to step down now (though he still acts and produces), and the pressure of delivering the follow-up to The Avengers has fallen to a new director. As before, Marvel have gone with an unexpected choice.
It’s Shane Black who gets to take the reins now, formerly known as the writer of several 80’s and 90’s action comedies (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout). He’s certainly a fitting option, as it was he who really kicked off Downey Jr.’s big comeback with the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, which surely played a part in him securing the Iron Man role.
The Avengers-fuelled anticipation for Iron Man is at a record high now, but can it overcome the problems that so continually trouble threequals? Getting a new creative team on board didn’t help Batman Forever, and Spider-Man 3 resulted from sticking with the same one. Only The Dark Knight Rises has pulled it off so far. That Iron Man dropped the ball on film two does give Black some easier room for improvement though, and does he manage? Absolutely. Iron Man 3 emerges as the best Iron Man (solo) film so far.
In taking on a big franchise property, Black hasn’t lost his own voice either, his love of Christmas shows no signs of diminishing – the whole film takes place over a Christmas period, and his snarky dialogue fits Stark like a glove, though it left me wanting more of the brief but winning banter between Tony and Rhodes (Don Cheadle).
Iron Man 3 resists the urge to cash in on The Avengers phenomenon with cameos from other superheroes, and focuses firmly on Tony Stark, and I mean Tony, not Iron Man. While the Avengers don’t appear, they haven’t been forgotten about, the incident, referred to here as ‘New York’, has left Tony with clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, causing him to have panic attacks when people mention it.
To make matters worse, America is suffering from a series of bombings by a mysterious terrorist calling himself ‘The Mandarin’ (Ben Kingsley). The media hounds Tony to help and, giving in to his ego, he directly threatens The Mandarin, inviting an attack on his residence.
Abandoning a battered hero to take a dark, brooding existential look at their life might work well for Batman, but it’s not what we want from Iron Man, and as the film seems to be going down this route, it thankfully never loses its sense of humour. It walks a fine line when adding in a child sidekick (in the one overly convenient plot point), who manages to remain just on the right side of irritating.
Stark’s other primary foe is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist and the creator of the Extremis virus (taken from an acclaimed Warren Ellis-penned comics arc), which can cure disability and regenerate limbs. He is given a backstory that bares a curious similarity to Jim Carrey’s The Riddler in Batman Forever, he begins as a lank-haired scientist pitching a new idea to the billionaire investor/superhero, is rebuffed, and emerges later as an enemy with a suit and a haircut. Pearce is a terrifically underrated actor but doesn’t give us a villain for the ages here, at least he avoids prancing around in green spandex though. ‘The Mandarin’, on the other hand, gets one of the best moments of the film.
Black, like most of Marvel’s choices for director, was unproven at big action sequences, but come the climax creates a huge set-piece for a showdown, utilising the gigantic budget thrown at him, and gives Cheadle’s Rhodes (who’s been rebranded ‘The Iron Patriot’, something the film knowingly comments on) a chance to be at the centre of the action too.
It stood little chance of topping it, but Iron Man 3 certainly manages to be a worthy and satisfying next-step after The Avengers, and a rare part 3 that bests both its predecessors.