Film review: Iron Man 3

IN MARVEL’S efforts to set up last year’s Avengers Assemble, Iron Man ended up being the biggest casualty.
Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Picture: ContributedBen Kingsley as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Picture: Contributed
Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Picture: Contributed

Iron Man 3 (12A)

Directed By: Shane Black

Rating: Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Ben Kingsley, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce


The success of the first film may have defined what the Marvel Universe would look like on the big screen, but its bigger-not-better sequel felt like an extended trailer for the studio’s future superhero slate, with Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark seemingly sidelined, even before his own movie was over. Joss Whedon’s subsequent crossover film addressed this a little, but even so, the prognosis didn’t look good for another solo instalment.

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Iron Man 3, though, quite literally makes a virtue out of the bad shape the character was left in by the whole Avengers initiative. Picking up (sort of) where Avengers Assemble left off, the film finds Stark (once again played by Robert Downey Jr) a nervy, jittery, sleep-deprived and anxiety ridden wreck. The “thing in New York” – where Stark tussled with “gods, aliens, other dimensions” – has shaken him more than he’s willing to admit, and now that he’s part of a world in which superheroes with actual superpowers exist, his own status as a “man in a can” has him doubting his newfound purpose in life as a defender of the Earth.

Which sounds like heavy going. Mercifully writer/director Shane Black, reteaming with Downey after Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, establishes such a breezy tone from the off that Stark’s post-traumatic stress feeds the fun without diminishing the dramatic momentum of what the character is being put through. Even more than Whedon’s film, this is comic book filmmaking with the emphasis very much on the “comic” – and further proof that it’s possible to tell a meaty story full of high stakes action without getting weighed down by fanboy-courting descents into darkness.

It helps that Black reclaims and deconstructs Iron Man with meta gags, smart-aleck dialogue and a structure that allows the film to play its cards close to its chest without shutting us out of the action. Even at his most infuriating, Stark is someone you want to spend time with – and the film comes up with an ingenious solution to the problem of how to keep him out of the Iron Man suit without losing the Iron Man suit from the equation.

It also provides him with worthy foes, something lacking in the previous outings. With a flair for the theatrical, Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is work of barmy brilliance: an enigmatic, American-hating terrorist of indiscriminate racial origin who uses the cover of mass media to instil fear in the public while a small but dedicated army of genetically modified soldiers home in on the symbols of American imperialism. Oil companies, Hollywood and the president of the United States are among the targets, and while motivations remain deliberately murky, the film avoids making heavy-handed political parallels by using this plotline to slyly reinforce its true thematic concern: the price of enhancing the human body.

That’s a good superhero issue and one that’s close to Stark’s heart – again, quite literally: he continues to be kept alive by the suit-powering electromagnet embedded in his chest. The toll this is taking on him, the way it might be diminishing what makes him fundamentally human, is something he confronts over the course of the film’s Christmas setting, particularly as he’s given glimpses of his life through the prism of long-term squeeze Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), old flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and a ten-year-old kid called Harley (Ty Simkins) whom he unexpectedly finds himself partnering up with after things get a little too hot to handle on the home front. This last character is generally the sort of sequel addition that sets alarm bells ringing, but Black is too savvy to get sentimental and Stark’s repartee with the kid is established with the same kind of merciless put-downs that made Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang such a fresh and funny spin on the mismatched buddy formula.

Action-wise, Black also proves adept a delivering spectacle without losing sight of the characters (a daring sky-diving rescue sequence is the highlight) and, while visually speaking things are very much in keeping with the bright and poppy aesthetic of the other Marvel films, the writing and performances are what really make this stand out. Flat-out funny for much of its running time, the relentless gags help make ideas and themes resonate that would otherwise be too corny or too heavy to work in such an unashamedly pulpy universe. Indeed, it’s the most frivolous-seeming joke that ends up feeling like the most symbolic. As Stark runs into a fanboy who has modelled his entire appearance on his distinctive looks, the film not only scores a big laugh, it demonstrates the way in which the hitherto desperate-to-be-taken-seriously superhero genre may finally have come of age: it’s secure enough now to laugh at itself.