Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)

IRON MAN 3

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While suffering from anxiety attacks, Tony Stark must defeat a terrorist who’s severely injured an old friend…

One of the most interesting things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has been its choice of directors. Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, king of the geeks Joss Whedon – these are people with form, hired to make flashy, popcorn-cinema superhero movies. There’s maybe been a change of emphasis in recent years, with Marvel now preferring directors who have either less clout or more experience of working in producer-led television. (A cynical blogger might assume the switch came after visionary director Edgar Wright quit 2015’s Ant-Man at the 11th hour due to  creative differences.)

But for Iron Man 3, the series put all its chips on Shane Black, a writer/director with both a real authorial voice and a proven record of success. Since bursting onto the Hollywood scene as the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), his career has been notable for both his smart scripts and huge salaries: $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout (1991), $1 million for rewriting Last Action Hero (1993), $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994). He then started directing his own scripts with 2005 caper movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Black’s style is idiosyncratic, postmodern and full of dark humour. His films are crime stories with vivid characters, deliberately surprising plot developments, sharply comedic dialogue, self-aware voiceovers, and sequences that build up to an archly cool moment…. only for that moment to then be undercut. He also has an obsession with setting stories at Christmas. Well, all those traits appear in Iron Man 3 (which, as well as directing, Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce).

After the events of Avengers Assemble, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is in a mess. He’s dogged by panic attacks, sleep-deprived, and suffering from flashback nightmares. He’s got PTSD, basically. It’s an instantly interesting place for a movie to position its hero. It gives an extra shading to everything that goes on and, of course, means his journey is all the more textured. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still by Tony’s side and even gets to put on the Iron Man suit in an action scene. She then becomes a damsel-in-distress and you think she’s been killed off. But Shane Black revels in subverting clichés: just as you’re wondering why the character’s been treated so shabbily, Pepper shows up alive, kicks some serious ass in a sports bra, and actually *kills the bad guy*. Go, girl power.

That bad guy is businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, good), though it’s a while into the film before we’re certain he’s behind it all. Initially, the big threat seems to be the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist with an indeterminate accent, a psycho stare and a penchant for broadcasting violent propaganda videos. When one of his attacks puts Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films and is now having a ball with his comic-relief sidekick character) in hospital (where he recuperates while watching episodes of Downton Abbey), Tony vows revenge…

As mentioned, when you’re watching a Shane Black film and a cliché is being set up, it’s so the film can then subvert it. This keeps things surprising, refreshing and unpredictable, and lifts his movies above the crowd. Black knows the rules of filmmaking, of movie logic, of genre conventions – and he knows how and when to break them. Iron Man 3 is full of examples of this kind of switcheroo storytelling, from a henchman who immediately surrenders when challenged to the Iron Man suit being destroyed at the worst possible time. The biggest, and best, is the *audacious* plot twist we get at the 72-minute mark. To reveal that the Mandarin is a stooge created by Killian as a decoy and is actually a meek, drug-addled English actor called Trevor Slattery is a bravo moment of the highest order. The gag works so well because we’re used to the theatricality of self-important superhero-movie villains. (And, let’s be honest, because of Ben Kingsley’s reputation as an actor who takes himself too seriously.) It’s pure Shane Black: introducing something you think you’ve seen before and then pulling the rug from underneath you.

If there’s one element of the movie that doesn’t fit that format it’s Rebecca Hall’s character, Maya Hansen, a scientist who gets lost in the mix and feels very functional. The actress has said that the part ended up being very different from what she’d signed on to play, which is a shame as in the finished film she makes very little impression. But overall, this is a superb piece of work. Like all great sequels, it’s more of the same… but different. It’s routinely funny; there’s an engaging story; and the action, such as the free-falling ‘barrel monkey’ sequence, is often spectacular. We also get precisely the right amount of character depth for one of these big superhero tentpoles.

As was the case in Iron Man 2, the middle act here sees Tony at rock bottom. But rather than that earlier film’s maudlin tone, Iron Man 3 has richer and more dynamic storytelling. Some critics and fans have complained about this segment of the movie, saying it’s Iron Man minus Iron Man because it sees Tony with no working suit, no fancy workshop and no huge mansion. But it’s very interesting character development. The world thinks Tony’s been killed, and on a metaphorical level he has been. He’s lost his swagger, he’s lost his support network, and he even refers to the lifeless Iron Man suit as ‘him’, as if detached from his old life. It takes a friendship with a young boy he meets to get him back on track – but again this subplot takes a surprising turn. Tony doesn’t talk down to Harley (Ty Simpkins). He treats him like an equal, which involves being rude and arrogant towards him, and Harley gives as good as he gets. Their friendship is therefore likeable and fun and interesting and entertaining and unpredictable. Just like the film as a whole. The old Tony is back.

Nine beauty-pageant judges out of 10

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Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has outed himself as the famous Iron Man – but the US military want his secret technology, while an embittered rival wants revenge…

For most of its running time, Iron Man 2 is just as enjoyable – just as zippy and slick and witty – as the first movie. There are plenty of good gags, the storytelling is often slipping information in while we’re being entertained, and director Jon Favreau is having fun with some cinéma-vérité sequences. There’s an impressive balance of plot, character and comedy, and everything is crisply edited. It’s shame that it doesn’t stack up to a better movie.

When the story starts, it’s six months since the events of the first film. Iron Man is now a superstar and we first see him skydiving into a showbiz event surrounded by fireworks and dancing girls. The whole sequence sings with razzmatazz and confidence. But you can also see the hubris: Tony is heading for a fall… We’re soon introduced to characters old and new. Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts and her scenes with Tony Stark are joyful; Paltrow and Downey Jr have terrific chemistry and a total command of overlapping dialogue. Tony’s pal Rhodey returns too (actor Terrence Howard has been replaced by Don Cheadle due to a contract dispute), as do Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). The latter two have bigger roles than in the first Iron Man adventure, because it’s now that the series story arc is powering up.

And they’re not the only SHIELD agents we meet. Initially thought to be a PA called Natalie Rushman, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is actually a spy under orders from Fury. She later puts on a skin-tight outfit and beats up bad guys. Wowzers. The film’s main antagonists, meanwhile, are Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko. The former is a Tony Stark wannabe, a flashy and cocky businessman who challenges Tony at a Senate hearing, and he’s played with energy and humour by Sam Rockwell. The latter – played by Mickey Rourke with lank hair, a toothpick in his mouth, lots of tats and a broken Russian drawl – is a former Soviet prisoner who has a grudge to settle. He first encounters Tony at a motor race. (It’s the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique – ABSOLUTELY NOT FORMULA 1, no, siree. Because they couldn’t get the rights.)

After Stark and Vanko’s fight, the film takes a darker turn. The frivolity is replaced by Tony’s maudlin mood, brought on by Vanko’s challenge and Rhodey betraying him. And here, sadly, is where the problems begin. The film has a great eye for the absurd and surreal – check out the scene of Tony driving a convertible loaded down with the scale model of the Stark Expo, or the running gag about him not liking people handing him things, or the perpetual-motion gizmo on Pepper’s desk – but is less discretionary when it comes to plain silliness. It’s a lovely moment when Tony watches some old film footage of his late father (Tony Slattery from Mad Men). But the information Howard Stark is recording for his son to watch when grown up just beggars belief. It’s something to do with an unknown chemical element, which Tony is coincidentally looking for in the present, and Howard has built the clue to its discovery into the architecture of the venue for a 1974 trade exhibition. (Couldn’t he just have written it down?)

This kind of convoluted plotting affects the shadowy character of Vanko too. He wants revenge on Tony for something Howard did to Vanko Snr, so spends a lot of time and energy building his own mechanical suit in order to go toe-to-toe with Iron Man. You wonder whether just shooting the often-at-public-events Tony Stark might not be easier. His plan also means the spine of this story is the same as the first film (rival builds his own suit to fight Iron Man). To be fair to Vanko, he does at first attempt to simply attack Tony. Tony manages to fight him off, thanks to an Iron Man suit he carries around in a suitcase, but this action sequence is oddly just one of two times the characters interact. After it, Tony thinks Vanko is dead until 88 minutes into the film, then their climactic battle is over in under two minutes. And that sums up the whole film: it promises a lot early on, but vaguely disappoints.

Seven Larry Kings out of 10

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Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire businessman Tony Stark builds an armoured mechanical suit and fights back…

This feels like a mission statement right from the word go. At face value it’s a one-off action-adventure movie, but we now know it’s actually the ‘pilot episode’ for an enormously successful film franchise. Therefore, as well as telling its own story, Iron Man is setting the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the feel of Iron Man is noticeably different from many previous comic-book films. It’s not as matinee as Superman: The Movie, not as Gothic as Tim Burton’s Batman, not as metaphor-driven as X-Men, not as serious as Batman Begins, not as immature as Fantastic Four… Instead, this film is its lead character writ large.

Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the movie itself are clever, witty and hugely confident. There’s a pre-crash, noughties swagger on show, while the music is a mix of AC/DC and a rock-heavy score. However, the in-your-face attitude is matched by oodles of comedy: having fun is the order of the day. Throughout the film, dryly funny dialogue and well-timed visual gags keep things entertainingly breezy, even if the story is actually about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is a film where the lead character asks journalists to sit on the floor with him during a press conference; where his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, decent), has to play a real-life game of Operation and reach into his part-mechanised chest; and where his AI computer (Paul Bettany) has the voice of a droll, English butler.

Note that all those examples centre on Tony. He dominates the film and Downey Jr – a former loose cannon who’s had issues with drugs, rehab and prison – is supremely smart casting. The actor gives Tony lots of off-putting attributes. He’s an arrogant, selfish womaniser who belittles his closest allies and, you know, gets disgustingly rich from producing and selling things specifically designed to kill and maim people. But he’s also charismatic, self-deprecating, and very likeable. In fact, if anything, Iron Man is too much the Tony Stark show. It’s having so much fun with him that other characters don’t get much of a look-in. Terrence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s both Tony’s best friend and a conduit to the military, has some nice moments and Pepper Potts gets stuff to play. But other than some bland, generic Afghans, the story has no real antagonist until its second half.

At least they’ve cast the bad-guy role well: Tony’s business associate Obadiah Stane is played by the reliable Jeff Bridges, and the dude does a lot with a predictable, underling-wants-to-muscle-in-on-the-boss character. It’s actually not a huge problem that it takes 70 minutes to set up Obadiah as the villain. The film has been speeding along very entertainingly, thanks to a script that tells its origin story with no fuss and some crisp, not-getting-in-the-way direction from Jon Favreau (who also plays the minor role of Tony’s bodyguard).

There was a lot resting on this movie when it was first released. It’s nearly a decade old already – Tony makes a joke about Myspace – and has been followed by 13 movies set in the same fictional universe with many more on the way. You can see the seeds of that series being sown in Iron Man with the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deliciously deadpan Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), two characters who’ll crop up again in future films. But those dozen-plus films wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had got it wrong. It got it right and an empire of superhero movies has been built on its success.

Eight Hugh Hefners out of 10

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