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You know, it's times like these when I realize what a superhero I am.


Iron Man Three
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Is it Iron Man 3 or Iron Man Three? All of the posters indicate the former, but the film itself (and the certification) states the latter. The use of letters seems like a rather arbitrary means to suggest the film is different from other sequels (three-quels); certainly, most of the audience will be expecting more of the same, and the self-assured presence of Robert Downey Jr. is virtually a guarantee. But it proves appropriate. Superficially, this is just another Tony Stark movie, the sequel to a by-the-numbers second installment and an ensemble movie where he clearly ruled the roost. But in content it plows a highly individual furrow, making consistently distinctive and daring choices. And, most of all, it surprises by being, really, really good.


I say surprises, but I admit to relatively high expectations going in based on the pedigree of the man calling the shots. This is easily the most enjoyable and satisfying of the Marvel Phase movies (as opposed to the properties owned by other studios), topping Avengers because, well, Shane Black tops Joss Whedon. Both as a screenplay writer and now as a director. And they’re both in whole different class to Jon Favreau. Iron Man Three is pure Shane Black, to the extent that at times you could mistake it for a less violent, less sweary, sci-fi sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang .

The occasional (highly impressive) set piece aside, Black never seems especially interested in resting on the laurels of superhero movie status. Indeed, he and co-writer Drew Pearce relish every opportunity they can find to put their hero in genuine peril, thus requiring him (and the plot) to tool up with that rarest of qualities to be found in the genre; ingenuity. Downey Jr's rarely in the suit, and when he is, or partially is, it is more often than not used to inventive ends, both narratively and comedically.


Black the director more than rises to the challenge, since the scale here is incomparably greater than that of his debut. Marvel has shown a surprising willingness to chance relatively inexperienced hands on their properties. In a business sense, it’s shrewd (they come cheap) but creativity with the pen, or success in another genre, is no guarantee of mastery with spectacle. Favreau (first time out), Whedon and Black all paid off. Ironically the dividends have been less conspicuous with tried-and-tested hands (Joe Johnston’s Captain America was a fairly flaccid experience).

Here, the action sequences are confident and coherent and, most importantly, involving. Black ensures there are clear stakes and intentions in each instance. The Air Force One rescue has featured extensively in trailers. Black’s masterstroke requires Stark to overcome a logistical conundrum if he’s to save all of the ex-passengers. That’s great plotting, but it all falls down if visual side fails to convey this. Let’s just say skydiving stuntwork has come a long way since Moonraker. The extended action of the showdown is more run-of-the-mill, to the extent that it is one prolonged melee and we expect to that kind of thing. But Black keeps it focused, directing his protagonists to achieve incremental smaller targets on the way to the major showdown. It may not have the global event scale of Avengers, or its air-punching character beats, but the level of craftsmanship on display may well exceed it.


Stark is rarely in the suit, as mentioned, but this is the opposite of the approach we have seen in some of the Batman and Spider-man movies where there appeared to be an unease over keeping the star’s face concealed. After all, Favreau came up with the helmet interior view, so you can see Tony any time. The choice might not work if you had a lead character unsuited to channelling Downey Jr.’s effortless charisma. Certainly, the alter-egos of the aforementioned superheroes couldn’t support a film on their own. Making Stark unprotected and vulnerable allows him to display the side that created the suit in the first place; the most interesting side. I’d have happily watched an entire movie where he uses his brain to outwit the muscle (as he does in the mid-section, culminating in a wonderfully MacGyver-ish piece of action as he takes out a troop of bad guys armed only with items bought from a local hardware store).


A thematically rich seam is mined throughout; Stark is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the climactic Avengers event, and we kick off the film seeing him only really comfortable when he is cocooned within his suit. By the climax, he has divested himself of the last fragments of his artificial support, ready to fully commit to Pepper and the “iron man” within. That through-line of self-acceptance is nothing very astonishing in itself, but it takes on greater resonance as a reflection of the accepted tropes of the superhero genre. If the hero no longer has a yen to be super, you no longer have stories to tell (there’s a finality to this installment that makes the likelihood that Downey Jr. will return in Avengers 2 a little disappointing; this feels like a good place to say goodbye). And you run the risk of pissing of the fans. I’ve never read an Iron Man comic, so the changes to lore that Black and Pearce have indulged in are of no consequence to me, but I can see that some of the choices here may undercut their expectations of what constitutes a satisfying entry in the genre. Not only does Stark no longer need his suits but they have no need of him. All three major special effects sequences in the film revolve around his absence from the suit, the failings of the suit and/or the autonomy of the suit(s).


Downey Jr. is masterful, of course. If one were cynical, one might suggest his clout was instrumental in ensuring that the suit was excised for much of the movie. Except that I’m dubious that Black didn’t independently think this was a really good idea and would only enhance the story and the character development. The actor has an easy chemistry with pretty much all his co-stars, not least the kid Harley (Ty Simpkins), whom he teams up with during the mid-section. We all know how horribly movies featuring smart-mouthed moppets turn out. Black more than most, since Last Action Hero floundered the most in that very area. So he’s playing with fire by even countenancing the adventures of Tony Stark and child. That the kid gets many of the best lines in the movie, and is cleverly used to facilitate discussion of Stark’s PTSD and the celebrity cult that surrounds him (and by extension Downey Jr., amusingly focused on in a scene with a local TV news journalist) would be to no avail if Simpkins’ delivery wasn’t so perfect. He manages that rare feat of being bright and energetic without becoming irritatingly precocious.


All the more impressive then, that Iron Man Three is stolen by Ben Kingsley. Whenever he’s on screen he is utterly magnificent; as memorable, for entirely different reasons, as he was in Sexy Beast. He’s clearly enjoying himself immensely; uncouth, ribald and joyously debauched. The characterisation of the Mandarin has ignited no small amount of fan outrage. There are those who consider remolding the super villain as a puppet terrorist talking head played by a slumming it British actor to be sacrilegious. I guess that’s fair, if you’re really attached to the mythology, but my understanding is that there was great doubt over whether he would feature in the films at all, since he comes with undesirable racist connotations. The compromise here seems perfect, and forms a neat little commentary on media manipulation. Whilst I was unaware of the specifics of the Mandarin’s identity, I had heard that there were some disgruntled reactions to him from some quarters. As such, the shot of his throne in a makeshift TV studio tipped off his true status long before it was actually revealed.


The series regulars are all well catered for. Gwynie seems to provoke bile from some quarters, but I’ve always enjoyed her work. I’m not sure I’d follow her dietary regimen, but she looks like she’s in robust health. Pepper Potts isn’t the most gratifying of roles for an Oscar winner, but Paltrow has consistently made it seem a more substantial and memorable one than it is on paper. Pepper’s is a stronger part in this outing and, again, there appears to be a natural resolution for her (such that Paltrow’s comments on further appearances seem basic commonsense). One might quibble that her kick-ass skills when she becomes infused with the Extremis virus are a bit unlikely and Buffy-derivative. And that Stark’s wrap-up monologue on curing her (and himself) is a slightlu pat. But at least Black is consistent; they both become “normal” people leading “normal” lives, rather than Tony continuing as a superhero while Pepper is disempowered (as a good, supportive wife – just look at the end of Last Boy Scout for a toe-curling restoration of the patriarchal family unit).


The ever-expanding Jon Favreau just has the one role this time out, but Happy Hogan delivers some great comedy moments during his limited screen time.  Rhodes has always come across as a character included in service to the comics rather than because he is essential to the screen version. That feeling doesn’t go away here, but at least Don Cheadle teams up with Downey Jr. to amusing effect in the later stages.

In terms of the villains, the super soldiers are a bit derivative. They recall X-Files or Fringe covert military programmes and scientific advances gone awry, but it's just a godsend not to put Stark up against another guy in a suit. James Badge Dale is impressively malevolent, despite having relatively few lines. Stephanie Szostak too. Guy Pearce relishes the chance to chew the scenery, and nerd it up in the prologue; at least he’s better cast here than in Prometheus. Rebecca Hall’s scientist is less well defined, but I expect she’s happy enough as it will have raised her profile in the US.


The motivation of the bad guys is on the murky side too. More damagingly, the film conveys an assumed subtext of physical aberration=evil. We’re well familiar with such a trope from Bond movies but it is an even more overt signifier here, as it is embedded in the actions of all the antagonists. Pearce’s Aldrich Killian seems driven by a petulant desire to payback the world for his rejection when he was nerdy and disabled. We’re informed that he had a rooftop revelation following Stark’s superficial rejection of him; Stark’s kind of positioned as the bad guy here, pulling the kind of trick a schoolyard bully would. And, of course, this was back when he was a capitalist douche, couched in a voice-over reminiscence that reflects on how past misdeeds come back to haunt one. But you can’t help thinking that Tony’s misbehavior needed more substance to justify Killian’s nerd-rage. If there’s an intentional mirroring of Tony’s physical impairment being a Road to Damascus epiphany that reforms his motives, whereas Killian’s restored vitality resolves his malice, it’s a little weak. And further weakened by the general disposition of the super soldiers for whom, apparently, moral or ethical qualms dissolve when confronted by the restoration of their limbs. Still, at least the movie further underlines the first film’s claim that arms dealers=bad people.


In contrast to this under-motivation, I just love the way Black gives henchmen who only appear for a couple of minutes memorable character beats. Even if he's riffing on Last Boy Scout when he does so, with the hero telling the bad guys how he's going to kill them imminently. So, a mention for Mike Massa and Mark Kubr (as “Ponytail Express”) making the most of some delicious dialogue.

Elsewhere, there’s a slight feeling of truncation. A subplot involving Miguel Ferrer’s Vice-President suddenly makes itself known as if earlier scene-setting went missing. Nice to see William Sadler as another of this year’s big screen presidents, but a shame that he has nothing to get his teeth into.


Brian Tyler’s score is memorable, much more so than the previous entries for the trilogy (Favreau’s penchant for Rawk! on his soundtracks is not missed, whereas here Black’s predilection for a Christmas setting is much wittier).   The 3D experience is fairly inessential, and occasionally distracting during talking heads scenes.

This does seem like a suitable end to the series, since Stark is given decisive closure, but I’m sure it won’t be long before there’s an announcement that Downey Jr's signed up for Avengers 2. Joss Whedon will surely find renewed motivation for him going forward. It seems unlikely, amusing though it is, that the post-credits scene would be the last we see of Downey Jr. as Tony Stark.

****1/2

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