Hot off the heels of Joss Whedon’s enormously successful The Avengers comes the next step in the meticulously-constructed Marvel Cinematic Universe; the beginning of Phase Two, which will also see sequels to Captain America and Thor, as well as a Guardians of the Galaxy adaptation, leading into The Avengers 2 in May of 2015. It all kicks off with Marvel’s reliable poster boy, Tony Stark, facing self-doubt as well as a terrifying new threat in the beguiling Iron Man 3.
In the wake of the events in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is not his usual peppy self; clearly rattled by the physical toll of stopping Loki, he is suffering panic attacks and, in an attempt to supress the anxiety, throws himself into building a fancy cavalcade of new suits while ignoring his love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s not long, however, before Stark’s most powerful foe yet, the extremist terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), takes it upon himself to dismantle Stark in every which way possible.
There’s no mistaking the fact that Iron Man 3′s opening act is its finest; presenting a weathered Tony who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is a novel way to tie the film into what came before without needlessly nodding to it constantly (and being able to skirt around the “why don’t the Avengers show up?” question). Though it might not convince as thoroughly as, say, Bruce Wayne’s existential dread in The Dark Knight Rises, it is still perfectly functional, and comparing the two properties, even in this darkest Iron Man film, is reductive and pointless anyway.
Iron Man 3 is also the most outlandish film of the trilogy; much of the narrative deals with Tony now being able to control his suit with his mind, sending the various segments of his armour flying across the room, attaching to his body. Clever it was, then, that The Avengers dealt with aliens entering through a portal to destroy New York; it helps to create a plausible lead-in that massages two different realities into one coherent whole.
While the first act – which concludes, as you no doubt know, with The Mandarin’s spectacular assault on Stark’s beach-side home – is water-tight, full of sizzling one-liners courtesy of the inimitable Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), things get a little shakier around the 40-minute mark. As thrilling as Tony’s fall from grace is, his journey to work his way back up isn’t nearly as invigorating – it simply follows along the now-customary blockbuster arc (seen most recently in The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall), of a character having their toys and/or skills taken away, working back from nothing, and then saving the day just in time.
These touchstones might seem like relatively basic tenets of popular storytelling, but the style and tone of execution is shockingly similar in all three of these recent films (even if this is without question the lightest of the three). Ultimately, though, with Tony’s relatively dull encounters with The Mandarin’s fiery Extremis agents, it all ends up feeling like what Bruce Wayne probably got up during those 3 weeks it took him to get back to Gotham in Rises (which Nolan dutifully excised from the film).
The real problem with Iron Man 3 for me, however, is the rather dishonest mid-film left-turn that’s liable to leave some comic book fans feeling rather sour about the whole enterprise, while even casual viewers might feel as though the film’s advertising mislead them to a large degree. It’s great to be surprised, but what materialises needs to exceed what was promised, which certainly isn’t the case here. To say anymore than that would be unfair, though you’ll certainly see it for yourself when it happens.
Performances, meanwhile, are as strong across the board as one could expect; Downey Jr. and Kingsley are the clear stand-outs, the former having mastered his cocksure shtick to a fine art by now, whereas the latter’s Mandarin portrayal has him recalling an unexpected character from his repertoire, profoundly exceeding the rather tricky material set before him in the process.
As for Guy Pearce (ambitious scientist Aldrich Killian), Don Cheadle (the idealistic Col. Rhodes), Rebecca Hall (Dr. Hansen, who works for Killian) and Paltrow, they all function within the framework as reliably as you’d anticipate. Some of the other supporting characters, however, who fans will be crossing their fingers for to reveal themselves as classic comic book staples, tend to stick to the periphery, and operate entirely as rent-a-thug baddies, which is somewhat disappointing.
Once audiences are done reeling from the film’s mid-film shock-and-lull, Black manages to recover his footing for the explosive finale, though the overall feeling coming out of the film is still that it curiously lacks much import in terms of establishing Phase Two of the MCU. Rather than serving as a primer for the second act of this ambitious excursion, this Iron Man installment feels curiously standalone and closed-off, as though it could very well have been our final cinematic encounter with Tony Stark.
A frustratingly inconsistent comic book film that gives the franchise some of its best moments (in solidly effective 3D, no less) as well as plenty of its worst, Iron Man 3 is likely to polarise audiences, though will be sure to skate by on its visceral appeal and comic verve. Go for the thrilling action and hilarious Shane Black one-liners. As for a compelling story and entertaining villains? Not so much.
Iron Man 3 is in UK cinemas this Friday, and in the US on May 3rd.
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