REVIEW: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Tony Stark returns to kick-off the summer movie season with a bang. Is it really the best of the trilogy? 

Kicking off Phase Two of Marvel’s interconnected series of superhero adventures, Iron Man 3 is a raging success, a comic book movie with depth, smarts and a marvellous sense of fun. The director of the first two Iron Man pictures, Jon Favreau, did not return to helm this third instalment, and his replacement was Shane Black, a filmmaker who’s been writing screenplays since the 1980s and who helped to reboot Robert Downey Jr.’s career with his superlative directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black was an inspired choice for the picture, retaining his penchant for red herrings, black humour, snappy dialogue and intense action scenes. It’s a change of pace for both the Iron Man series and the Marvel franchise in general, yet that’s precisely why Iron Man 3 works. It’s pure ecstasy.

Severely traumatised following the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) finds himself unable to sleep properly and consistently suffering from anxiety attacks that affect his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as well as his public image. A new threat soon emerges in the form of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist leader who takes responsibility for a number of bombings on American soil. When one bombing leaves Happy Hogan (Favreau) in hospital, the situation becomes personal, with Tony setting out on a mission of revenge against the Mandarin.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black script. Playful narration opens the picture which evokes memories of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and things only get better from there. Black was actually a dialogue consultant on 2008’s Iron Man; he was called upon whenever a snappy one-liner was needed, making him a logical choice to fill the director’s chair in Favreau’s absence. It’s hardly surprising, then, that an entire script by Black (co-written by Drew Pearce) is a home run. Witty dialogue and comedy abounds, yet Black perfectly balances the humour with drama and genuine stakes. Iron Man 3 is exceedingly dark – the darkest Marvel movie so far – and it incorporates a number of Black’s distinctive idiosyncrasies. It’s set at Christmastime for starters, and a number of narrative developments and lines of dialogue wouldn’t feel out of place in a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sequel. However, the Black influence is an ideal fit for this series after the enjoyable but safe second film, and this new direction works as long as you’re willing to accept that this is a different type of Marvel adventure. And there are no earmarks of studio interference; it appears that Black was never asked to dilute his vision.

As good as it was, the first Iron Man was hampered by its generic “origin story” structure, making it feel like Spider-Man with the names changed. Likewise, Iron Man 2 felt like a formulaic follow-up, ticking the proverbial superhero sequel boxes. But Iron Man 3 plots its own course; all bets are off here, with a story that’s unconventional and unpredictable. Being unfamiliar with the comics, I cannot comment on the quality of the adaptation, but Iron Man 3 plays out beautifully on its own terms. In particular, the story arc of the Mandarin is unique and unexpected. Fans of the comics may get up in arms about the changes to the source material, but in the context of this story it works brilliantly. Iron Man 3 is a blast from start to finish, and it’s easy to give into the picture’s mischievous charm and delirious sense of pure fun.

Black has dabbled in R-rated territory for most of his career, having scripted such movies as Lethal WeaponThe Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. It appears that Black tried to transfer as many of his R-rated tendencies as possible to this flick; the action scenes are incredibly vicious and brutal, and the human body count is astonishing for a Marvel film. If you come to Iron Man 3 seeking some spectacular blockbuster action, it delivers in spades. The bar is set high early into the film with a breathtaking assault on Stark’s estate that will have you on the edge of your seat. But Black tops himself in the film’s latter half, beginning with a jaw-dropping airborne rescue that’s so exciting because it was largely the work of a parachuting stunt team as opposed to green screen. The climax, meanwhile, is almost as good as The Avengers, packing emotional power and an enormous amount of multiplex-rocking action. The quality of the special effects is consistently mind-blowing, and the mise-en-scène of the set-pieces is incredible. Iron Man 3 is the first Iron Man film to be presented in 3D, but the extra-dimensional effects are underwhelming. Converted to 3D as opposed to being shot in the format, it adds nothing to the experience; the fact that the film’s predecessors worked just fine without 3D is proof that 2D is a preferable option.

Downey Jr. continues to demonstrate here that he can carry this franchise, and he proves once again to be an ideal mouthpiece for Black’s razor-sharp dialogue. The beauty of Downey’s performance is how multifaceted it is; conveying misery and anxiety whenever it’s called for, and displaying spot-on comic timing and delivery at other times. He embodies the role of Tony Stark, and it’s impossible to imagine any other performer playing the character. Downey also shines in a number of scenes with a young boy who’s befriended by Stark, giving Black the chance to insert his trademark buddy movie back-and-forth banter into the proceedings. Meanwhile, as Captain Rhodes, Don Cheadle is just as good here as he was in the second movie, and his chemistry with Downey is outstanding. Special mention also goes to Guy Pearce, who’s spot-on as Aldrich Killian. Pearce makes Killian believably dorky in the film’s early scenes before becoming a spellbinding and menacing presence. Then there’s Kingsley, who’s pitch-perfect as the Mandarin and who handles the various aspects of his role with finesse. Paltrow also impresses once again as Pepper, while Favreau looks to have had a ball here.

Surprisingly, outside of Paltrow and Paul Bettany (who voices Jarvis), no Avengers cast members appear here, though there’s a surprise cameo which cannot be spoiled. The lack of Avengers tie-ins is a wise choice, though, since Iron Man 2 was so much an extended trailer for The Avengers and spent too much time setting up the Joss Whedon blockbuster. Fortunately, Iron Man 3 is its own film with its own story to tell, and the rest of the Avengers team have no relevance here.

It’s an obvious recommendation at this point in the Marvel franchise, but be sure to stay until the end of the credits for an additional scene. It’s an unexpected type of post-credits scene that fans may find odd, but it brings the narrative full circle, and it’s a perfect way to cap off the experience. It’s nearly impossible to walk away feeling dissatisfied with Iron Man 3. Armed with a fresh vision, it’s arguably the best of the Iron Man trilogy, and it’s a valiant follow-up to Whedon’s wildly successful The Avengers. Black’s film entertains from the very first frame, packing heart, sound storytelling, superb comedy and top-flight performances. It keeps getting harder and harder to justify sequels since they’re everywhere these days, hence it’s miraculous to witness a part three as solid as this.

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