When Robert Downey Jr.’s opening monologue kicks in over ‘Iron Man 3’s smartly edited opening sequence, the standard is set for a tonally different Marvel Comics film adaptation. You can thank veteran action film director Shane Black for that. His previous catalogue reads like a how-to guide to crafting smart, sexy action – itself exactly what Tony Stark, Iron Man’s fleshy, vulnerable human core, is all about.
Shane Black’s work on ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ – another Robert Downey Jr. vehicle, might immediately come to mind; certainly there are some similarities – red herrings, twists, bursts of black humour lashed across ostensibly violent and frenetic action sequences. This is the stuff he does best; he did it ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘The Last Boy Scout’ and ‘The Long Kiss Good Night’ too – and he’s managed to channel this fresh, snappy pace into a comic book superhero movie.
Women are strong in Black’s movies; they’re threatening, sassy and ultimately as heroic as the male leads, who are often played as comic foils. That actually suits ‘Iron Man 3’ since Tony Stark is in some ways the bumbling, nutty professor. Three films in, Black paints him as deeply flawed, very vulnerable and extremely egotistical. Tony’s wracked with anxieties linked directly to the cataclysmic events at the end of Joss Whedon’s fantastically entertaining ‘The Avengers’. It’s affecting his relationship with business and life-partner Pepper Potts (as always, a charming and strong performance from Gywneth Paltrow) and throwing his professional image into disarray.
When a new terrorist threat emerges in the form of ‘The Mandarin’, things get personal very quickly and Tony needs to confront all kinds of demons – including one from Aussie actor Guy Pearce, who once again nails everything he touches. How does he do it? Guy Pearce is surely one of cinema’s most underrated stars.
However, Tony’s not duking it out alone, with War Machine (the always extremely sympathetic and unassuming Don Cheadle) making a return and a few familiar faces, including ex-Iron Man director Jon Favreau.
British actor Ben Kingsley is one of the best character actors in the business, spanning decades, genres and both sides of the good and evil spectrum. In this film, he hams it up more than you might expect, which could’ve been disastrous, but under Shane Black’s care, he dials it back just enough to captivate and scene-steal from Downey Jr. That’s no mean feat. They’re both charming, of course – and it certainly helps that the dialogue is generally very good. This is sharp, quippy stuff and often howlingly funny when coupled with some dead-on comedic timing.
In fact, ‘Iron Man 3’ may well be the funniest of the trilogy, despite a dark series of events at its core. That works well for the characters here, given they tend to buck the archetypes just enough to keep things surprisingly fresh three films in.
Of course, there’s also a level of familiarity to some of the gags; the robots that comprise Tony Stark’s immediate friend circle have become punch lines and little more. The AI-driven companion, Jarvis, is something of a counterpoint though – and his integration into the narrative is not only more central now, but surprisingly poignant.
There may be a glut of characters here; certainly Favreau’s inclusion could’ve been excised almost completely and saved a good 15 minutes from the two-hour-plus running time. However, this is less indulgent than it could’ve been in many ways, and sidesteps some narrative pratfalls that it easily could’ve tumbled into under a less capable director’s care.
These include some throwbacks to another forgotten action cult entry of Shane Black’s: ‘Last Action Hero’. There’s a dynamic here that is very reminiscent of the structure of that colossal box office failure. There are references to ‘Terminator 2’ and even a bit of Bill and ‘Ted’s Bogus Journey’ in here for good measure; devout film fans will have a field day picking apart the narrative cues on offer.
It’s for that reason that ‘Iron Man 3’ occasionally feels a little contrived – but then, if you’re dealing with one of the best action directors around, you can expect him to draw on the style that he knows best. You can tell the action sequences were built around the overall concept, rather than some cheap effects gimmick. This feels like a modern reinvention of the 80s-era action movie, applied to the perfect hero for that vehicle.
You’ll be entertained from the opening moments, all the way through until after the credits taper off (stick around), and it does so with surprising heart, sound storytelling and great performances. In a time when it’s harder and harder to justify the existence of so many over-sequelised film properties out there, that’s something heroic in and of itself.