Five years ago, the multiplex audience didn’t know who Iron Man was.
Comic fans might have been waiting to see him on the big screen since the ’60s, but few would have pegged him to steal the crown from Spider-Man, Superman and Batman as the biggest box-office draw of the super-renaissance.
Hitting paydirt with the origin story (2008’s Iron Man), the day job (2010’s Iron Man 2 – a weaker sequel, but still huge) and the big team-up (last year’s Avengers Assemble), Marvel had an iron-plated cash cow on their hands that they could have milked without breaking a sweat.
But if Iron Man 3 proves anything, it’s that Marvel isn’t interested in painting by numbers.
The biggest change takes place behind the camera. Jon Favreau remains supporting actor and exec producer, but vacates the director’s chair for Shane Black. The man who scribbled some of the best action movies of the ’80s/’90s’ (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight) arrives with a nod, a wink and script sharper than Tony’s suit.
Bringing British wunderkind Drew Pearce on board to co-write, Black seems determined to ensure Iron Man’s third solo flight plays fast and loose with the winning formula.
Bigger, funnier and braver than parts one and two, the only fair comparison seems to be Joss Whedon’s quip-smart, record-breaking ensembler.
Like Whedon, Black has a way with words that’s self-referential without being too arch. Check out the scene between Tony and two nameless bad guys, discussing the various pitfalls of being a movie henchman. Pure Black gold.
But what else has changed? Tony has emotional issues. He’s not exactly crying in the shower (this is still Tony Stark), but the alien attacks in New York are giving him panic attacks and sleepless nights, tainting his wisecracks with insecurity.
As ever, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr behind the mask; reunited with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Black, he looks more comfortable than ever.
He doesn’t hog the heroics anymore either, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (short-changed in Iron Man 2) and Don Cheadle’s Iron Patriot (shortchanged in Iron Man 3...) muscling in on some of the action whilst Tony recharges his batteries in Hicksville Tennessee.
Inspired by Warren Ellis’ ‘Extremis’ comics arc, IM3 opens on a flashback to a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. Tony fobs off one geneticist (Guy Pearce), cops off with another (Rebecca Hall) and completely ignores their landmark discovery that will later become a major macguffin.
Skip forward to the present day and a more mature and less arrogant Tony is semi-settled into domestic bliss with Pepper.
Enter The Mandarin. Rarely has a supervillain arrived with such a monumental bang – and it’s not even his biggest jawdropper. That comes later, in one of the greatest, cheekiest and least-expected U-turns of recent years. No spoilers for anyone still in the dark, but suffice to say that Ben Kingsley’s mid-point monologue is as much testament to his dexterity as an actor as it is to the writers’ masterful misdirection.
The opening salvo from the Mandarin’s helicopter gunship cues up a series of blistering set pieces that outclass anything we’ve seen in the series before: a Hollywood bombing, a Bond-style home invasion, a Main Street grand slam and best of all, a hurtling mid-air emergency.
But it’s not all good news. Slipping into the same trap that snared several of this summer’s biggies, the noisy, confusing, button-mashing finale looks like Black may have been directing with a gamepad.
There are other stories being told in IM3: Cheadle is flying around dispensing justice, Hall is slinking around looking for Tony and Pearce is creeping around trying to steal his girlfriend.
But until everyone comes together for the messy ending, it’s Tony’s story (as ever) that we care about. Pairing him up with a precocious kid (Ty Simpkins), Black dials things back for an extended mid-section, giving plenty of breathing space to Tony’s character recalibration.
Witty and playful where it could’ve been schmaltzy and navel-gazey, the second act underlines what’s so cool about Iron Man: he’s just as entertaining and accessible – if not more so – when he’s out of the metal gear.
The (mostly Blu) extras include a breakdown of the Air Force One set-piece (filmed for real with the Red Bull skydiving team), a chummy chat-track with Black and Drew Pearce, and deleted scene culled from what must have been hours of RDJ’s motor-mouthed ad-libs.
But the real draw has to be Marvel One Shot: Agent Carter, a rip-roaring, 007-esque mini movie that picks up Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) story directly after Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s not often you see a special feature with its own post-credit scene…
Commentary (BD) Featurettes Deleted scenes (BD) Gag reel (BD) Short (BD)