Christmas, 2012. Following the Avengers’ planet-saving victory in New York, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has returned to his life of ease in Malibu. But a series of panic attacks and escalating threats from a maniac called the Mandarin (Kingsley) threaten to tip him over the edge.
Three signs you’re watching a Shane Black movie: it’s Christmas, there’s a meta voiceover, and some of the best lines are dispensed by designer-suited henchmen. Pleasingly, Iron Man 3 ticks every box. Just as Joss Whedon pepped up Avengers Assemble with his unique brand of jocosity, here, despite the sci-fi trimmings and goliath budget, it feels like Black’s been given carte blanche by Marvel to do his thing. The result is a swinging caper with wit, balls, heart and exploding baubles. It’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with a lot of extra bang. And, by some distance, the Man In The Can’s best solo outing so far.
Together with co-writer Drew Pearce, Black sets out to dismantle Iron Man’s armour piece by piece. Like Bond in Skyfall, Tony Stark loses his flash car and big house. He is also, for a sizeable stretch of the movie, deprived of his super-suits. This is a new, vulnerable side to the playboy-philanthropist: he’s on the run, in the corner, pausing between quips to suffer breathless anxiety attacks.
Part of the problem is PTSD, brought on by his near-fatal tangle with that Chitauri wormhole in New York. But his more pressing concern is a very bad man who goes by the monicker The Mandarin. A shadowy, ethnically indeterminate figure with the didactic menace of Colonel Kurtz and the attack-chopper access of Colonel Kilgore, this terrorist overlord is regularly forcing his way onto US airwaves to threaten dire “lessons”. No-one knows his identity, his location or where he’s buying his extraordinarily nifty video-editing software.
This may all sound like the fixings for another brooding threequel: The Stark Knight Rises. Happily, that’s not how it pans out. Keeping the dial firmly on ‘fun’, the film hustles from one set-piece to the next, leavening the gloom with a lot of big laughs.
As well as the customary Downey Jr wisecracks, there are sight gags, bits of slapstick, Downton Abbey references and a genius beat involving a suit of armour turning its head. The ominous introduction of a boy sidekick in the second act turns out to yield some of the sparkiest repartee. And Don Cheadle’s Rhodes, a character who barely made an impression in the other films, is skilfully tweaked, becoming the amusingly square Murtaugh to Tony’s Riggs. Wait until you hear his password.
The series’ villains have always been an issue. Thor gets Loki. Captain America gets the Red Skull. So far, Iron Man has faced a bald Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and a cockatoo. While this outing is an improvement — credit to Black and Pearce for creating antagonists who aren’t just more angry blokes in metal suits — it’s still the film’s weak point. Drawing on the comic-book’s Extremis storyline (a 2005-’06 run by Warren Ellis), Iron Man 3 pits Stark against a squad of T-1000-like super-soldiers who can regenerate body parts and survive astounding damage. They’re visually interesting — glowing like human lava lamps as they try to smelt Tony’s face off — but their motivation is murky and unconvincing.
Far more successful is the aforementioned Mandarin, who in the Iron Man comics is a super-powered martial artist with magic rings. While a close-up shot reveals that his fingers are adorned by rings, there are surprises beneath the character’s sinister hood which we won’t spoil. Suffice to say that people will be talking about Ben Kingsley’s performance for ages to come — it’s a tricky, delicate role, handled beautifully.
Not every performance hits the mark — scanty screentime for Rebecca Hall, as Tony’s botanist ex, and Miguel Ferrer, as the Vice-President, suggests the existence of a longer cut. These are minor niggles, though, in a satisfying blockbuster that mixes up political conspiracy, sleuth-work, MacGyver-ish DIY weaponisation and outstanding eye-candy. The Iron Man suits — and there are now 42 of them — are used ingeniously (watch out for Stark giving himself a literal hand in a tight spot), not least in the action highlight, the spectacular ‘barrel of monkeys’ sequence. This sees Air Force One under assault and its passengers forced to disembark thousands of feet above the Florida coast, not helping what is proving to be a heinous cinematic summer for POTUS.
As for why the other Avengers aren’t getting off their invincible butts to help, it’s explained away, a little unconvincingly, with the line: “This isn’t superhero business. It’s American business.” Iron Man 3’s greatest achievement is that they’re not missed.
Black proves the perfect blacksmith, forging smart new tech and scenarios for the swaggering super-genius. If this does turn out to be Downey Jr.’s final solo outing, it’s a very strong exit.