Back in 2008, Marvel Studios restored some pride and integrity back into the “Marvel superhero” genre with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Favreau’s feature showed that a great combination of engaging writing and characters, with exhilarating set-pieces and action, could create a highly successful and highly regarded blockbuster. 5 years later, Shane Black’s addition to the Iron Man franchise has to rectify the issues instigated by Iron Man 2 and manage to complement last year’s impressive The Avengers.
After his near-death experience during events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from the mental anguish and subsequent anxiety attacks as his relationship with Pepper and his persona as the “Iron Man” is put under the test. Meanwhile the terrorist leader known as The Mandarin, is organising the destruction of the US through a series of bombings using Aldrich Killian’s unstable “Extremis” serum.
Like its predecessor, Iron Man 3 suffers from fundamental problems in its writing, especially in its mishandling of characters. In hindsight it’s a real shame as Black and Drew Pearce have clearly tried to set a darker tone that attempts to balance the entertaining action with “human” drama. Rebecca Hall’s Maya Jansen, is a perfect example of the film’s unfortunate lapses in character development. Immediately introduced in the film’s opening, she’s given a context to the “Extremis” formula, the foundations of a charming personality and a “minor” romance with Tony Stark. She’s then completely forgotten about, managing to reappear midway through the second act for absolutely no reason or explanation, to then be rendered completely pointless. Similarly Don Cheadle only proves to serve as Tony or the President’s lackey for the majority of his scenes. Thus the fan-hype surrounding the Iron Patriot is defused into yet another suit with a paint-job that’s utterly redundant.
Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is a genuinely interesting character whose threatening menace is shown through his flamboyant appearance, ruthless actions and “unique” accent. Kingsley really relishes the freedom offered by the role and thrives with it. Yet some horrendous writing during the third act undoes everything he’s crafted and built into the character, merely reducing him into an insulting mess of insignificance. Even the lead protagonist doesn’t survive the rather problematic nature of the film’s script. Tony Stark’s “debilitating” mental anguish is conveniently solved by the philosophical reasoning of a child, rather than using this narrative element as a persistent source of tension and threat to the character, which would have been far more interesting. Add the tiresome use of cheap pratfalls and slapstick humour, and the screenplay is a bit of a shambles that doesn’t have the intrigue or consistency of the first Iron Man.
However even with the gaping flaws surrounding the characters and their intentions, the excellent cast manages to overcome some of the issues. Robert Downey Jr offers his same charismatic and enjoyable performance that flourishes under the name of Tony Stark. His romantic relationship with Pepper is far more prominent than in the previous instalments, and still maintains the charm and chemistry. Paltrow’s performance is an impressive one that shows the strengths and faults of her character’s bond with Tony. However I still feel that the couple faired better in The Avengers, even with their limited screen-time, and managed to form a cohesive and poignant relationship without the need for the “damsel in distress” methodology that unfortunately overpowers Iron Man 3’s last act. Supporting cast wise, the likes of Guy Pearce and James Badge Dale offer some intense and sinister moments even when their characters are deflated by the script in humorous ways.
So what does Iron Man 3 do right? Simply put, its action and visuals. With a great mixture of small-scale brawls and large explosive fights, Black persists in the intensity and energy we’ve come to expect from the series and from Marvel’s blockbusters. The final fight is a fan’s wet dream as 30 Iron Men face off against the Extremis test subjects in a frantic “Battle Royale”. Even with some minor blips in the visual effects Iron Man 3 looks fantastic. From the snow-covered communities of Tennessee to Tony's accommodation in Malibu, the film has a stunning contrast of colours, tones and designs that really bring the look together. The sense of weight and speed to each confrontation is gloriously mapped onto the character models and the amount of detail on Tony’s battle-damaged armour is astonishing. By the end, watching him jumping between different suits is an exhilarating flux of fluid animation and meticulous arrangement.
Iron Man 3, like its predecessors, has the scale and action befitting a superhero film. And while that and Robert Downey Jr. may be the sole reasons for people to flood their local cinemas, Black and Pearce have attempted to add something darker and human. Yet even with its intense set-pieces and impressive visual effects, the film can’t escape the problematic nature of its writing. Whether its the ill-structured narrative or the throw-away attitude to its characters, Iron Man 3 left a disappointing end to an initially promising trilogy.