The task of following up the Avengers movie was never going to be an easy one. After Marvel’s super-group shattered box offices the world over, the eyes of cinemagoers everywhere were soon trained on their next film: Iron Man 3. For the returning cast (Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle) and incoming director Shane Black, the pressure must have been immense. How do you follow up the biggest superhero blockbuster of all time?
The obvious answer is to make it personal. And that’s exactly what Iron Man 3 does, to masterful effect. The threat of Ben Kingsley as proselytising terrorist warlord The Mandarin notwithstanding, what gives Stark the most trouble in this film is his sheer inability to process his recent experiences of gods, aliens and interstellar travel. Cool detachment no longer works. Sealing himself inside a suit of armour no longer works. This isn’t a film about a hero saving the world – it’s a film about a hero trying to save himself.
That’s not to say there isn’t spectacle, because there is, and it’s as inventive as it is impressive. The set pieces run the gamut from huge multi-character CGI-fests to street-level armour-less action scenes, but crucially they all have a good reason to exist. Co-writers Black and Drew Pearce provide a barrage of genuinely hilarious jokes (Iron Man 3 is at least as funny as Avengers, if not more so) and also know that there’s no point having a fight if having a fight is the only point.
Of course, we’re here to see Iron Man as much as Tony Stark, and the film remembers that. The new Mark 42 armour is modular and can be remotely-piloted, so even when he’s not wearing the suit, it (or part of it) is still around. Without wanting to get into movie critic cliché mode, by the end of the film the Mark 42 has managed to become a character in its own right. Any time Downey Jr and the armour are in frame together, the screen drips with symbolism and pathos. It’s a fantastic device, effectively giving us access to Stark’s conscious and subconscious simultaneously.
It has often been said that a superhero is only as good as his rogue’s gallery, and if that’s the case, it goes some way to explaining why Iron Man 3 feels like the strongest Iron Man film yet. The Mandarin is as audaciously-written as he is perfectly-cast – against all expectation, they found a take on the character that doesn’t just work: it threatens to become definitive.
And as for allies? Gwyneth Paltrow gets undeniably her best material yet, thrust into the action not once but twice. Don Cheadle, while slightly under-used, is the perfect foil for Stark whenever he is on screen. And of course, there’s JARVIS, the deadpan AI who can’t resist (or rather, can’t avoid) a joke. All note-perfect.
One of the other things that helps Iron Man 3 stand out is its texture. Where Iron Man 2 took place in a world of corporate sterility, Iron Man 3 does all it can to take us to places where we’d never expect to find Tony Stark. There are scenes which feel straight out of a Lethal Weapon film, albeit with an Iron Man-style twist. The trailer reveals a lot about the film (including, bafflingly, something the movie tiptoes carefully around for the first two hours) but there’s still so much to see.
In short, it’s all great fun. Where Iron Man 2 felt like a fumble on a perfect pass, Iron Man 3 feels like a success against the odds. True, it isn’t perfect – anyone who accuses it of sagging in the middle will be hard to refute (par for the course on modern blockbusters) and the plucky kid sidekick who shows up during the middle has the potential to set teeth on edge no matter how expertly the trope is subverted. But most of the time, it’s great. Much better than Iron Man 2. Quite probably better than Iron Man 1. It’s a triumphant return to form for the franchise.
However, with Downey Jr now out of contract with Marvel, you may not be surprised to hear that it also – and this gives nothing away – feels like an ending for the character. They could make another, but they don’t have to. If Downey Jr never appears as Tony Stark again, it’ll be disappointing, but understandable. Perhaps the best praise we can give Iron Man 3 is that it makes such a prospect seem almost bearable.
After the sheer excitement that is Iron Man 3, you’d be hard pressed to say that Tony Stark hasn’t earned a rest.