Iron Man 3 is pretty unique in blockbuster terms. The film is not only a direct follow-up to Iron Man 2 but it also plays as a pseudo-sequel to The Avengers, with Tony Stark explaining that "Nothing has been the same since New York." And it’s a very different Stark that we meet in this movie. Not the arrogant playboy philanthropist that we’ve come to know and love over the course of three films, but rather a shadow of that guy, struggling to deal with the fact that he has encountered 'gods', aliens and a Hulk, and plagued by nightmares, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
His situation quickly worsens as, via voiceover and flashback, we are transported to Berne, Switzerland on millennium eve, a night when Tony unwittingly created demons that more than a decade on would come back to haunt him. We meet Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a brilliant and beautiful scientist who wants to cure all human beings of illness by creating the next iteration of human evolution. And Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), another scientist with a brilliant mind but multiple physical disabilities. Stark being Stark sleeps with the former and ignores the latter, and we are soon back in the present day, where the fallout from that decision comes back to bite Tony rather aggressively on the behind.
There’s also the small matter of The Mandarin finally appearing on the scene. Iron Man’s best-known antagonist from the comics appears here as the head of sinister organisation The Ten Rings. A terrorist whose attacks are as seemingly random as they are deadly, he also specialises in spreading fear by stealing iconography and symbolism from countless different cultures and packaging them up in the kind of chilling video messages that appear on the news all-too-often.
When one of his plots puts Happy Hogan (now head of security for Stark Industries) in hospital, the stakes are raised and the battle between the two men escalates, with The Mandarin endeavouring to take everything that Tony holds most dear away from him.
What follows is very much a ‘back-to-basics’ Iron Man story with Stark soon suit-less, homeless and hell-bent on revenge. It’s also the first Iron Man movie that Jon Favreau hasn’t directed, with Shane Black taking over both scripting (together with Drew Pearce) and directing duties. And the guy behind Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang injects a healthy dose of fun into proceedings, as well as a fair few twists and turns, though one senses at times he'd like to ignore the New York events altogether to concentrate on his own story. But the Marvel characters now dwell in a post-Avengers universe, so expect these at times clumsy acknowledgments to become a feature of 'Phase Two' films.
The plot itself revolves around Extremis, a serum which comes from the comics but here concerns a process by which humans can be biologically enhanced by tapping into their DNA, resulting in hugely entertaining sequences that we won't spoil here, but which owe a more than a passing debt to both Terminator 2 and Westworld.
As for the story arc of The Mandarin, it’s certainly an interesting take on the character, and one that most likely won’t appeal to all fans of the comics. But it works quite brilliantly in the context of this story. And Ben Kinsgley is marvellous in the role, stealing the majority of the scenes that he is in and clearly having a blast playing this larger-than-life character.
Robert Downey Jr gives him a run for his money, however, leaving behind the constant smirking and mugging that somewhat tainted his work in part two, and instead delivering a thoughtful, multi-layered performance as a superhero in free-fall, trying to do what’s right for himself, his loved ones and his country. He also shares several excellent scenes with a young boy that Stark befriends, this passage also giving Black the opportunity to throw some of the buddy movie back-and-forth that he is best known for into proceedings.
Special mention should also go to Guy Pearce, who is just about believable as the unfortunate Killian in the film’s early scenes, and then absolutely spellbinding as the character becomes more refined and ambiguous later on in proceedings. Don Cheadle also comes into his own as James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes in this instalment, his friendship with Tony finally ringing true, and his work as War Machine (or Iron Patriot as he is re-christened this time around) giving the impression that the character might now be worthy of his own spin-off.
As for the women, Rebecca Hall struggles with a poorly-drawn character who appears in some of the film’s weakest scenes, but Gwyneth Paltrow fares better, this time participating in some of the film’s most spectacular action sequences.
And on this front, Iron Man delivers in spades. An all-out attack on Stark’s estate is jaw-dropping, with the utilisation of Tony’s brand-new prehensile suit (which flies and latches onto him in separate pieces) ingenious. But that’s topped by a sequence later in the film involving an airborne rescue that defies belief, especially when you know that it’s largely the work of a parachuting stunt team rather than green screen. Like nothing yet scene onscreen, the rest of the summer blockbusters will have to go some way to top it.
And you could say that about Iron Man 3 all-over, a superhero flick with smarts, depth and a marvellously mischievous sense of fun.
When Shane Black was first announced as writer-director, there were doubts from fans due to his perceived lack of experience in the genre. But once again Marvel has been proved right, their left-field choice resulting in a comic-book movie that expertly melds action, comedy and drama to become the finest Iron Man movie yet.
A sequel that rights the wrongs of Iron Man 2. Here's hoping that Shane Black has more superhero movies in him.