With over a billion quid in the bank and critical notices so glowing they could have come straight outta Chernobyl, it certainly seemed like everyone and their aunt enjoyed the blockbuster action antics of Marvel’s ‘Avengers Assemble’ last year.
Everyone, it transpires, except for Tony Stark, aka tin-plated titan of justice Iron Man – who kicks off his third solo movie stuck in something of a mental tizzy, triggered by the inter-dimensional invasion which brought his last big screen outing to a conclusion.
But while Stark (who, once again, is played by Hollywood’s most rascally reformed smackhead, Robert Downey Jr) wrestles with the demons inside his perfectly coiffed cranium, the wider US populace is facing up to a new and terrifying threat in the shape of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a poison-spewing fanatic with the propaganda skills of Bin Laden and the curious diction of Bane.
The Mandarin is by no means the only new face on the scene for Iron Man 3 either. Aside from the other notable additions to the cast, of whom more will be said in a minute, there has been a change of name stenciled onto the back of the director’s chair.
Out goes the man who helmed the first two installments in the series, Jon Favreau (though he retains a producer credit and reprises his onscreen role as Stark’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan), to be replaced by Shane Black, who in his early twenties created ‘Lethal Weapon’, and in 1994 became the highest-paid screenwriter in the world when his spec script for ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ sold for $4million.
Tinseltown veteran he may be, yet ‘Iron Man 3’ is just Black’s second feature behind the camera, following on from 2005’s modestly-budgeted ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, and the reunion of him and Downey Jr., his leading man in that movie too, proves a minor masterstroke on the part of the Marvel Studios powers-that-be.
Working in tandem with his British co-writer Drew Pearce, Black keeps his star as well-supplied with witty one-liners as he does Tony Stark with different Iron Man armours. And RDJ, for his part, repays the favour via his ever-adroit deadpan delivery – a quality which means that even Stark befriending a bullied child (Ty Simpkins) spawns another avenue of mirth, rather than any cue for sentimental mush.
It’s not just Downey Jr. who deserves plaudits for his performance, mind. Kingsley(above) is every bit the outrageous scene-stealer we’ve come to know and love him as in his advancing years, while Guy Pearce plays his villainous role of Aldrich Killian with a suitable sense of mischief too.
Killian is a slicked-back shyster of a rival tycoon who can boast a dodgy method of recoding human DNA, and is nursing a grudge against Stark and a crush on Pepper Potts (the returning Gwyneth Paltrow). And while Black gives this lowlife a decent stint in the limelight, some of the other characters are not so lucky.
Another series returnee, Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), had a chunky role to play in 2010’s lame, lazy Iron Man 2, but is of limited use this time out (though his tasking with the apprehension of the Mandarin does mean he gets to suit up in the red, white and blue of the Iron Patriot). Given even shorter shrift is scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who is so underused as to be an effectively pointless presence.
If an overcrowded cast in a modern comic book movie is scarcely cause for surprise, then a far bigger trigger for eyebrow-raising is that the action in Iron Man 3 is not always entirely of the most tip-top quality.
It’s not as disappointing, admittedly, as the Avengers’ anti-climactic clash with the Chitauri – those hapless alien rubes who ultimately proved themselves as empty a threat to Earth as a soggy paper bag is to Vitali Klitschko. However the fight scenes are still often shorter on spectacle and excitement than you might expect from both the astronomical budget (a reputed $200million) and Black’s own action flick pedigree.
The finale in particular is an overlong, eventually wearying monument to lifeless flash, while a mid-section chase round a small town between Tony Stark and what looks like a radioactive refugee from a middle-management conference is less than thrilling as well.
Having said all that, Black does have plenty of fun with Stark’s new capability to remotely control his armour, finding oodles of inventive ways to put this super-skill to good use. And if the action offers a distinctly mixed bag (as with The Avengers), where the movie does succeed is in nailing the perfect blend of character and humour (as with The Avengers).
It’s a point exemplified by a major, major plot point which is turned into a monumental comedic gamble. The risk must have been clear to all concerned: that the film would topple entirely into the realm of outright spoof. But so adeptly is the sequence handled, it can only be deemed a success – which also seems a pretty fair assessment of Iron Man 3 overall.
Iron Man is released in the UK on 25 April