I figure I’d best get this off my chest before we go any further: I think Iron Man and Iron Man 2 are awful movies. Sure, Robert Downey Jr.’s on a career high thanks to a defining role that’s carried him through three summer blockbusters to date, not to mention dotted appearances here, there and everywhere, but it’s a role that, Avengers excepted, has fallen squarely within the limits of pictures severely limited in scope and sizzle.
Jon Favreau’s two movies made bank because of the character they were built around, but it wasn’t until Joss Whedon got his hands on Tony Stark that said character, while already expertly and affably realized, found a movie worthy of his scenery-wolfing presence. With the news of Favreau’s departure and the hiring of the superb RDJ vehicle Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’s writer/director Shane Black, it finally seemed likely that we’d get a solo Stark outing worthy of the critical praise that Favreau’s films fell just short of. If Black’s involvement alone can be said to represent a treasured parcel in this battered metaphor, does Iron Man 3, deliver the goods? For a spoiler-free (Honest Injun) reaction, read on.
The best place to start is at the top, and towering above all in his ever-expanding canon is Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. After a pitiful stab at humanizing him with a flirtation with alcohol abuse in Iron Man 2, Black more than compensates by structuring the entire film around Tony’s growing insecurities. Iron Man 3 is a movie about obsession, retention and the very human and worth-exploring manner in which a scientist deals with the unexplained.
Events in The Avengers serve as a jumping-off point for where Tony’s at in this story, but avoiding the pitfalls of the typical summer threequel, Black eschews the traditional expansion of scope and instead focuses, at times claustrophobically, on the state of mind of our established genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. Stark spends the film quipping and quivering in equal measure, and just when you thought this might be the film to solidify the character’s overexposure he’s imbued with another layer, and unlike before it’s a layer that’s fully embraced and fully explored. Downey Jr. deserves the utmost credit for this but it’s the collaboration with Black that makes his every scene here that much more memorable than those of previous outings. The director wisely keeps Stark out of the suit for just enough time to make those moments when he actually IS Iron Man more worthy of the buzz. Curiously, he’s also keen to comment on the dichotomy at work which is something often afforded time in such films, if not due delicacy.
It helps, too, that he’s in such excellent company. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as the extremely likeable Pepper Potts, as does Favreau as Stark’s erstwhile bodyguard Happy Hogan. It’s the newcomers that inform the movie’s thespian standard, though, with Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce and a frankly unbelievable Ben Kingsley filling roles from Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s mid-noughties Extremis storyline. While we’re discussing Kingsley, the likes of his and Kenneth Branagh’s involvement in Marvel movies really speaks to the gradual acceptance of comic books as the last great American art form on a much larger scale, and I’m glad we’ve got to a place in space where adaptations of classic stories are regular treats on the annual cinematic landscape. Of particular note, too, is 24’s James Badge Dale, who turns a standard hench-nasty role into an unforgettable turn of converted nervous energy and makes you wonder where he was all those years. Seeing Miguel Ferrer back on the big screen is a self-contained joy as well. Eclipsing them all, though, is Ty Simpkins as a boy Stark meets while exiled in Middle America in scenes that threaten the saccharine but never deliver. Easily, Simpkins’ and Downey Jr.’s scenes are the highlight of the movie.
Technically speaking the film is wonderful, too. We’ve come to expect a certain style from Marvel Studios and while Iron Man 3 doesn’t disappoint, it has the confidence to merge it with the inherent clash and resultant shocks that fall under the umbrella of A Shane Black Film. There’s a rare shot in the movie that doesn’t look splendid, and most commendably there’s an absolute lack of the classic rock that so cheapened the first two films’ soundtracks in favour of a good-old fashioned traditional score (courtesy of Bryan Tyler, making it three for three on the composer front) and an opening-credits cut that’s sure to have a certain demographic beaming.
Now, I know I’ve listed a great deal of contributors there, and each offers some part in making this a movie built with the sorts of scenes I’ll really look forward to watching again. Honestly, after trying, there are more moments like that in Iron Man 3 than I can count. With that said, it’s at Shane Black’s door I’m laying my praise for this film. This is a movie in which you simply can’t ignore how the actors were directed, which makes for a refreshing change of prominence from the usual visual flair pushing nuance to the side. That’s not to say the film’s lacking in moments that’ll catch you off guard – I’ll admit to audibly gasping at least twice at the cinema this evening – but the pairing of character aesthetic with that bombast on which summers are built makes Iron Man 3 the rarest beast – an auteur superhero film. It’s not quite all-the-way Sin City, but it’s also free of the compromise that so often deflated The Avengers. Helps tremendously that, as predicted by our own Michael Briers, it’s set at Christmas, too.
I’ll tell you something else. I’m struggling to find something I didn’t like about it. I don’t think “that it ended” really counts. There’s one late set-piece in particular that almost had me groaning but by the time it had finished, the amount of little ideas that spun out of that one big idea and how expertly choreographed it all was had me rapt, my popcorn all but forgotten. I’m not sure it’s a perfect movie, not yet, but it seems like it’ll stand up to some heavy duty scrutiny.
Now, I get that there’s a lotta cats out there that really like those first two Iron Man movies. For them, this movie’s primed to blow minds. For those of us that felt a little left of satisfied, though, Iron Man 3 is all the more impressive. That a third movie in a series can this vastly outclass those that ran before it goes against everything we’ve learned from a hundred years of cinema. Add to that that it’s a perfectly functional singular work, rather than one third of a clearly structured trilogy, and you have a successor to The Avengers that deals just as well on the precedent-setting side of affairs as it does on the entertainment side.
Anyone expecting a film on par with Favreau’s tepid servings is due a pleasant surprise: Iron Man 3 is, bafflingly, not just a great Tony Stark film but a great film, period. Heartfelt and thorough yet lean and effortless, it's nothing short of the best Marvel Studios film to date and a triumph for Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr.