MOVIE REVIEW: Iron Man 3

iron man 3

Movie: Iron Man 3
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Drew Pearce
Studio:Marvel Studios, DMG Entertainment

You can stop saying “Stark Knight Rises” now. This expression has been doing the rounds since the very first trailer landed for Iron Man 3, implying that Tony Stark’s third outing would be some kind of serious, redemptive meditation on Marvel’s original [cinematic] superhero and his attempts to adjust to a post-Avengers universe. Well, that isn’t quite the case. It should have been clear from the moment Shane Black was announced as co-writer and director but Iron Man 3 is nothing like any superhero movie you’ve seen before. It’s brash, it’s bold, it’s colourful and wild, it’s black as pitch in humour. It is entirely a Shane Black Iron Man movie and it is fundamentally, terrifically, blindingly good. This is easily the finest of Tony Stark’s three cinematic outings thus far and all but matches the brilliance of last year’s nerdvana juggernaut The Avengers. It’s difficult to imagine what else anyone could want from this film – far from the gritty, harrowing character study the teasers suggested, it barely takes itself seriously at all. There’s a supreme cleverness to its construction and its characterisation that masks the heart on its sleeve, allowing it to at once embrace the ridiculousness of its universe while advancing the humanity of its characters. It is, in short, stupendous.

Set after Loki and the Chitauri took the proverbial hatchet to New York in The Avengers, Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) struggling to adjust to his newfound knowledge about the universe. Never a man stuck for a slick comeback, his pioneering brain is dealing with the revelation of aliens, gods, and other dimensions by embarking on a kind of creative mania. He’s holed up in his mansion, building and testing endless versions of the Iron Man suit and various other pieces of weaponry. He isn’t sleeping, feels paranoid and withdrawn following his near-death experience in New York, and has the house on veritable lockdown in case of attack. Parallel to this is the rise of a mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Appearing only in choppy video footage broadcast over hijacked TV networks, he boasts of having perpetrated devastating terror attacks against American interests across the world and warns of an impending catastrophe on the mainland. Meanwhile, at Stark Industries, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is visited by an old friend named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). He is seeking a buyer for a revolutionary medical technology he has developed, dubbing it the Extremis programme.

This sounds convoluted, and it kind of is. Iron Man 3 is executed in a seemingly relentless series of exhilarating action vignettes, all delivered with a pace so manic that it comes damn near close to imploding on itself. What’s fascinating is that Black uses this madness to present a soaring evolution of Stark’s character. He humanises and intensifies him, exposing the chinks in his unflappable demeanour and rebuilding them from scratch. The film opens with a trademark internal monologue before flashing back to Stark as a younger man; contrasting the predatory, flirtatious Casanova we know from the original film with the jittery, nervous recluse he has become. The distance is underlined by frequent references to the Avengers and the new worlds and information to which Stark has become privy – as he says, everything changed when the big blonde guy with the hammer fell out of the sky. His world has always been secure and recognisable. Even when he was captured and imprisoned by a terrorist cell, he was able to use his brain to fight his way out. Now, all that is destabilised and for the first time he is presented with an image of a power he can neither match nor explain. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce wisely use this opportunity to send Stark back to basics. After an attack on his Malibu home, he finds himself stranded in rural Tennessee with a broken suit and no immediate means of fighting his way back. He goes in search of answers on the Extremis programme, relying once again on his intellect and resourcefulness as he is stripped of his creature comforts and technology. It allows for an interesting dynamic to develop in his character as he is forced to re-imagine his sense of purpose and confidence in himself, finding a way to be the hero he must be without the gadgetry he has hidden behind for so long.

Yet, even with this more introspective outlook, this is less self-aware and infinitely more frivolous than your average superhero movie. Marvel’s cache of greats aren’t known for gritty realism (at least not onscreen), but even the more emotive aspects of this film are rendered with a very light touch. There’s no room for sanctimony and the writers have fun playing with the tropes and clichés of resurgence stories. Even better, you can feel how much fun Black had playing around with a character as delicious as Stark. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that no one, not even Robert Downey Jr. himself, knows where the character ends and the actor begins. It seems fitting then that Downey Jr.’s performance in Black’s last film (2005’s criminally underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) should have paved the way for his being hired as Iron Man. He is superb in the role, a complete and unfettered interpretation of a personality that has become as familiar and loveable as his own. The film requires him to inhabit a more vulnerable and wary incarnation of Stark, illustrating his sudden insecurity in the face of an unparalleled foe, and he is more than worthy of the task. His scenes with Pepper are particularly charged. She actually feels a little under-utilised in this film compared to the others, but that has more to do with her physical distance from him for much of it than any underwriting. She remains an extremely important aspect both of the world itself and Tony’s grasp upon it and this is steadily reinforced, particularly in the final act. Equally prominent are his interactions with Colonel James Rhodes, aka War Machine and lately Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle), who is among the first to notice how obsessive and withdrawn he’s become. In the final arc, it is Rhodes’ presence that reminds him of his strengths as Stark turns to the genius of his inventions while the Colonel relies upon military brawn and strategy.

On the other hand, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) is entirely short-changed by the script. Clumsily introduced early on and fobbed off somewhere in the middle, she’s an extremely intriguing presence (not least because her research has made all of the villains’ schemes possible) but we never gain a full understanding of her motivations, traits, and sympathies. It’s a pity as she’s far more compelling than the characters she actually works for. Both Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce are ever watchable and the Mandarin and Killian do make for very memorable antagonists, but a fair part of this is down to the clever structuring of the film. It shapeshifts and surprises you and this allows them both to project more menace than they actually represent. The Mandarin’s arc in particular takes a completely different turn to what was expected. That said, this is not actually a bad thing. It preserves a level of suspense and intrigue and his and Killian’s dastardly schemes are part of what makes the film so much glorious fun. With a veritable army of super-conditioned soldiers (a none-too-subtle reminder to Tony of Steve Rogers’ superior abilities) as their foot, the story at times feels as though it’s ribbing on Terminator or even X-Men. Black’s supreme achievement here has been in sculpting a very hardened, meaningful depiction of the evolution of a superhero around a persistently wild and reckless plot. That he can wrangle together the jaw-dropping action sequences with an intimate take on Stark’s mind and abilities is all the more impressive when one considers it’s his first film in eight years. It walks a fine line between uproariously entertaining and absolutely ridiculous yet it never loses its iron grasp (pun intended) on either your attention or affection.

If this is what Marvel are aiming for with Phase Two, it’s quite the piece of terrific. Admittedly, this is the only property already on its third film as opposed to its second so it can take a few more liberties, but there’s a lot to be said for its warmth, its grandeur, its reckless abandon, and its playfulness. The others might not all get Shane Black’s Midas touch but they can certainly learn from the sheer sense of glee he’s imparted to this. See Iron Man 3 as soon as you can, see it repeatedly, and bask in the glory.

SCORE: A

Review written by Grace Duffy

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