Shane Black adds humour and verve to Marvel's most successful screen superhero, ensuring Iron Man 3 sees Tony Stark more acerbic and witty than ever. But while Robert Downey Jr. brings the laughs and Black supplies the thrills, the film often foregoes logic and narrative for bombast and spectacle.
In the wake of last summer's phenomenally successful The Avengers, Marvel Entertainment had a fight on their hands to deliver a worthy follow-up. This very sentiment echoes throughout Iron Man 3, as we find Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) physically drained and emotionally reeling from the "gods, aliens, and other dimensions" that he encountered in New York.
The film opens with Stark's voiceover, which sounds closer to a therapy session than coherent narration, and paints Stark as a seriously anxious man who is afraid to sleep and has retreated from public life. It gives him ample time to work on several new models of the Iron Man suit, but his condition causes Jarvis (the voice of Paul Bettany) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) significant concern.
It is only when Pepper, now head of Stark Industries, rejects a proposal from radical scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), and the malevolent terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) unleashes a bomb in Los Angeles, that Stark feels compelled to re-engage. While Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) fronts the country's official anti-terror campaign as the Iron Patriot, Stark goads The Mandarin into attacking his home, which promises to test both men to their limits.
While Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man films, stays on as executive producer as well as continuing as the character of Happy Hogan, directorial duties have been relinquished into the more than competent hands of Shane Black. While this is only the second time that the celebrated writer of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout has helmed a project, Black made such a significant impression on fans, studio bosses and Downey Jr with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that Marvel handed him the keys to their pride and joy.
Showing no sign of timidity, Black puts his stamp all over Iron Man 3, and in Downey Jr has found the perfect mouthpiece for his signature brand of witty one-liners. The film is far and away the funniest of the three films, but also gives fans the best incarnation of Tony Stark thus far. Here we see the character more damaged and vulnerable than ever, but also softer and more amiable - and as a result, more likeable. That is not to say he is beyond wasting his enemies or manipulating children, but each action is understood and feels earned. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have done a great job evolving the character further, but credit must also be given to Downey Jr, who continues to show a commendable level of interest in and understanding of the character five movies later.
Threequels appear forever destined to be burdened by too many villains, and Iron Man 3 suffers the same fate. Ben Kingsley's incarnation of The Mandarin appears at first to be a shamefully one-note and uninspired creation in Marvel's new universe, only to prove one of the film's absolute highlights. Ben Kingsley does fantastic work here, taking the character into inspired, completely unforeseeable directions that upends the audience, but also sells us on this bold reinterpretation.
Guy Pearce has had a great renaissance in the past couple of years, turning in a string of excellent performances in films as diverse as The King's Speech, Lockout and Lawless. As Aldrich Killian he is suave, successful, ruthless, has the ability to be funny, yet is also physically threatening when necessary. Sadly, the script doesn't really know what to do with him. On the one hand he is a brilliant scientist sitting on Extremis - an incredible new bio-weapon that could be used for great good or conversely unspeakable evil - but he is plagued by petty rivalries, jealousy and an inferiority complex alongside Tony Stark. It appears that Black and Co. feel this is sufficient motivation to fuel his nefarious plans, while never fully explaining how he got there or what he actually wants. The results prove an exciting catalyst for a number of the film's action set pieces, but quickly crumble under scrutiny.
On the sidelines, Rebecca Hall's botanist and James Badge Dale's Extremis-charged mercenary would have benefitted greatly from better-developed backstories, as both characters seem integral to the development of Killian's new regenerative technology, only to be largely ignored when they're not engaged in a fight or expository discussion. On the side of right, Gwyneth Paltrow continues to be perfectly adequate as Pepper, never doing enough right or wrong to delight or offend anyone, and as a result glides through the film largely unnoticed - even when third act developments take her into potentially exciting new territory.
Most surprising of all, especially considering the film was co-produced by Chinese giant DMG Entertainment, is how little evidence of that appears in the international version of the film. It has been publicised widely that the mainland Chinese release of the film will include extra sequences set in China and featuring notable homegrown stars Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing in significant roles, but in the international cut of the film they are barely even visible. It will be interesting to see what relevance these sequences have, and if any footage is sacrificed to make way.
While the first trailers suggested a dark and brooding sequel, Iron Man 3 is buoyed up by humour and levity throughout that should help it play well to fans of this increasingly successful franchise. In fact, Iron Man 3's biggest problem is that there is so much of it. At 130 minutes, the film really struggles to hold the attention, even as a blisteringly explosive climax sees Tony Stark summon a legion of suits to combat an army of seemingly indestructible soldiers. While the dialogue is as sharp as anything Shane Black has written and the visuals as exciting as Marvel's previous offerings, the narrative totally unravels in the second half, leaving little of what takes place adequately explained or accounted for. While this is unlikely to prove much of a problem for most viewers, it is a notable step down from that monumental denouement in New York last summer.