Certainly the best Iron Man movie and the best Marvel solo outing - and arguably better even than Joss Whedon's impressive, unprecedented, ensemble superhero blockbuster Avengers - writer/director Shane Black knocks it out of the park with this stunning next chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cementing the fact that "bigger" seldom guarantees "better" in terms of sequels, Black reminds the Studios of the importance of getting a good, dedicated filmmaker on board; somebody who actually cares about character development; emotional investment and delivering what audiences really want in terms of action with impact.
After their superb work together on Black's underrated directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Robert Downey Jr. also reminds us why it was working with Black that enabled his Hollywood comeback in the first place. And whilst it's the Iron Man franchise which made him the superstar he is today, he has simply never been as good as when working with a Shane Black script. Combine the two together and you get a glimpse of what all Marvel superhero movies wish they could be.
For those who have seen all the previous Marvel movies, or at least most of them, this is an indisputable Big Screen must-see, so you probably don't need much more persuasion. Worried that it would be like Iron Man 2? Worry no more. Just go and see it.
In fact the biggest disappointment comes not from the movie but from the excessive promotional campaign; trailers which give far too much away. One might wonder why, with a franchise this popular, they even needed such an aggressive campaign, but I guess everybody was worried about how they could possibly return to single-superhero stories after the epic game-changing events of Avengers. Well you didn't really need the trailer to convince you: Shane Black's name alone should have sealed the deal.
His film history speaks for itself, writing the scripts for the likes of Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. And if you were worried about him knowing his way around a sequel, have you seen Lethal Weapon 2?! Indeed Black, like Whedon before him, reminds us that blockbusters don't need action directors like Michael Bay to front them - the action is the easy part - they need directors who care about the little things, like story, script, and character development.
Black delivers them all, in spades, with a story that sees Tony Stark challenged by a new enemy, The Mandarin - a terrorist who has his sights set on crippling America and assassinating its President. Of course if he wants to stand a chance of doing this, he has to take care of Iron Man first, and we see Stark stripped of everything and forced to go back to basics in order to fight back. If that weren't enough, there's a group of assassins on the loose who appear to have the ability to regenerate damaged cells, based on a technology called Extremis; something which Stark himself was involved with long before he became Iron Man. Can Stark, who is himself still suffering from the events in New York, pull himself together and get to the bottom of it all?
"Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?" was the question posed to Stark in Avengers, and whilst his witty retort - "Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist." - pretty-much answered the question, Shane Black explores this notion more deeply by very literally stripping him of his armour and forcing him to prove himself without it. After his near-death experience in Avengers - battling a demi-god and his invading alien horde before taking a nuclear bomb through an intergalactic portal to destroy their mothership - Stark is shown becoming increasingly obsessive; developing more and more advanced suits in an effort to protect himself and Pepper, but failing to realise that the demon is actually within; the shell-shocked nightmares which have left him unable to sleep now also threatening to throw him off when he's under attack.
"Nothing's been the same since New York. You experience things, and then they're over. I can't sleep, and when I do, I have nightmares. Honestly, there's a hundred people who want to kill me. But things are different now. I have to protect the one thing that I can't live without."
Whilst a part of me will always be curious as to what it might have been like to have Tony's alcoholism becoming an issue as a direct result of what happened to him in Avengers - Shane Black's first draft was based on the acclaimed Demon in the Bottle story arc in the graphic novels, and was vetoed by concerned Studio execs (ironic that Disney think it better to cover up a character's problems with alcohol, rather than green-light a story which dealt with them) - the PTSD / panic attack substitute works pretty well here, with Black dealing with the subject cleverly, and using his trademark humour to keep it fresh and original, rather than trite and clichéd.
Indeed that's the name of the game for this tale - fresh and original - and however much the trailers may have given away, there are still plenty of surprises in store as Black takes us on one of his typically atypical action-adventure rides. Expect action sequences with significance; well-integrated exposition, and against-type character design which will often throw you a complete curveball when it comes to your expectations. Expect references to numerous other Shane Black features – being tied up and tortured (Lethal Weapon); a stunning helicopter assault (Lethal Weapon 2); lots of witty buddy-buddy banter; and plenty of Christmas decorations (both of which can be found in every single Black-scripted film) as well as loads more that only give this further re-watch value – and action sequences which defy expectations, aiming to be not just big but also bold in the direction they take.
And why complain about the lack of 'Demon in a Bottle' coverage when, instead, Warren Ellis's seminal Extremis story arc is returned to, after having been heavily plundered for the first Iron Man film. Whilst fans of the original comic character, and indeed that specific graphic novel, may be concerned about how they go about translating the Extremis concept itself for the Big Screen, Black has done a pretty impressive job of incorporating the nanotechnology 'virus' as a much more visual part of the proceedings, leaving Iron Man 3's Extremis-infected characters as relentless killers in the same vein as the T-1000 from Terminator 2. At the same time, of course, returning to the source novel for the first Iron Man movie enables Black to pitch this in such a way as to almost be coming full-circle. Whist never conceived as a trilogy (and it seems unlikely, given their success, that we're not going to see more Iron Man films), Black has brought some sort of closure to this character and rounded off his larger-scheme character arc in a very satisfying way.
In fact the attention that Black shows towards thoughtful character development is only further evidence of his respect for audiences: he wants to entertain us, no doubt, but he doesn't feel the need to insult our intelligence in order to do so. No, his characters - both old and new - are far from shallow stereotypes and, just like his story and his dialogue, they seek to excite, provoke and surprise us at every turn.
In terms of new, Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, Sexy Beast) and Guy Pearce (Memento, Prometheus) lead the way in the villain department, and do so with aplomb; Pearce cementing his recent stint of largely effective bad-guy roles, and Kingsley playing a part which arguably only someone of Kingsley's lauded stature could pull off. Credit also to 24's James Badge Dale, who does a great job as an Extremis-infected assassin who proves to be suitably unstoppable! It's probably only Rebecca Hall (The Town) who feels a little wasted in her glorified cameo, although it’s nice to see her in a mainstream film for a change.
As much as the new characters are given good development though, Black goes above and beyond to allow all of the older veterans to have their moment of glory, whether it be Stark's former bodyguard, Happy (Iron Man 1 & 2 director Jon Favreau) - who gets his own little detective mission, which has far more significance than the pointless fight sequence in Iron Man 2 - or Don Cheadle (Crash), who returns as Stark's military buddy and fighting partner Colonel Rhodes (aka War Machine), and who thankfully, like Stark himself, spends more time out of his suit than in it this time around.
Perhaps the most welcome development comes with respect to Stark's love interest, Pepper Potts, played once again by the seemingly ageless Gwyneth Paltrow. Ever gorgeous, for once Paltrow gets something to do beyond just flirt and flee; her smart heroine treated with genuine respect and - even for the briefest period of time - given the kind of refreshingly strong sequences that prove that she is more than just a mere pretty face.
However, at the end of the day, Iron Man is and will always be Robert Downey Jr's baby. The notion of him getting replaced if he refuses to do any other solo Iron Man movies is simply inconceivable. For as much as was disappointing with the second movie, Downey Jr was still reliable as ever in the role; effortlessly charming and arrogant in equal parts, as if he were born to play Stark (who is, in many ways, Marvel's colourful equivalent to DC Comics' Batman). Unfortunately Downey Jr spent an inordinate amount of time in the suit for that movie, leaving us with 'face-acting', whilst the effects teams deliver the goods for the rest of his body. Black absolutely did the right thing by stripping him of his suit, and now we get a much more physical Downey Jr, and considerably more impact to the often suit-less action sequences.
Of course it's the action department that Black is arguably less familiar with - well, certainly on a blockbuster scale – but he proves that you certainly don’t need to be a known action director to shoot epic-scale sequences with everything blowing up; indeed he shows that there’s a great benefit to letting the explosions go off in the background whilst your characters can take centre stage without the interference of obtrusive effects. Early-on in the production Black said that he didn’t want to do an Iron Man movie with just two guys in robot suits fighting, and in sticking to that principle he’s left us with a much more resonant Iron Man film; one which will endure repeat viewings (like all of Black’s films) and stay with us far longer than the two that preceded it; one which stands out from the Marvel crowd and becomes the definition of the very best kind of popcorn Summer Blockbuster you could ever hope to have. And it’s not even Summer yet.
Perhaps most importantly Black lets us get to know this character once again, reminding us why we fell in love with him in the first place; why he was the reason that we were prepared to actually invest in the arduous six-film trek that was Phase 1; why Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man was the reason Avengers even exists. Whilst going full-circle, Black leaves things open with a future of endless possibilities, teasing us with a final coda that sums up his intention behind this third-movie-to-end-all-third-movies: Tony Stark will return. And, even after three movies, I can’t wait.
Iron Man 3 trumps Avengers; Shane Black bests Whedon.
Phase 2 of Marvel's unstoppable Avengers juggernaut kick-starts in much the same way as Phase 1 did: with a spectacular Iron Man movie. If you wondered where they'd go after the grandstanding ensemble epic fun of Avengers then worry no more; they went straight to Shane "Lethal Weapon" Black's doorstep. It's the only way you could have possibly topped Whedon, and Black delivers exactly what you'd expect from him; a popcorn superhero (pre-)Summer blockbuster action movie, only with heart and soul; characters you care about; snappy, memorable dialogue; and action driven by a story rather than the other way around. It's not just the best Iron Man movie, it's the best Marvel superhero vehicle we've seen so far, and it sets the bar pretty high for the rest of Phase 2. Highly recommended.