By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist April 23, 2013 at 10:38PM
After just about as successful a start as you could ask for (three new franchises, and one mega-franchise that kicked off with the third biggest movie of all time), the Marvel movie machine is moving into its next phase. And with it comes the risk of dilution; we're getting at least two movies a year (plus TV series "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."), and with countless other superheroes also in the marketplace, there's a chance that diminishing returns could set in; what was once a special chance to see much-loved characters on the big screen might simply become a bi-annual check in to see much of what we've seen before.
But if "Iron Man Three" (as it's spelled in the credits) is anything to go by, Marvel are aware of this; the first post-"Avengers" Phase Two Marvel movie hardly reinvents the wheel, but it's the most strongly authored film we've seen from the studio so far, and one that seemingly sees the company move into slightly different genre territory; the film is, for the most part, an 80s action movie disguised as a superhero flick. And more accurately, it's a Shane Black '80s action movie, the "Lethal Weapon" writer and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" director (returning with his first film since the latter, almost eight years ago) mostly proving to be an inspired choice to give the series a fresh lick of paint.
As the film opens, it's some time after the events of "The Avengers," and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can't sleep, his world expanded by gods, aliens and wormholes. Even his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has suffered, as he spends all night tinkering with his suits, and his mood only worsens with the coming of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearsome, Bin Laden-esque terrorist mastermind behind a series of bombings that seemingly have no explosives behind them. Is there any connection between him and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist who's approaching Pepper with some potentially game-changing technology that he calls Extremis?
Trailers and promos so far have promised a darker take on the character than the previous two films, but happily, this is no dour Nolan-aping affair; if anything, it's more committed to the action-comedy feel than the previous installments, even as Black and co-writer Drew Pearce manage to find space for some strong character work, this is the film that seems to get under Tony Stark's skin the best, and lets Downey Jr. find new notes to play. In part, it's because they've made the smart choice of putting his vulnerability front-and-center; this is a Stark who's suffering panic attacks, who's screwing up the best thing in his life, and is generally a mess, and it tempers the ever-growing arrogance of the character enough that he still remains appealing. Black also makes the smart decision to keep Stark out of his armor for several of the action sequences, which keeps the stakes much higher than in the previous films.
And those action sequences are, for the most part, cracking. Black's inexperience with a film of this scale sometimes shows -- the final showdown in particular is a little muddled, for instance. But he makes up for it with a fine sense of the beats and gags that make action set-pieces memorable. He and Pearce throw a number of inventive and fun variations on a theme at the screen, with the end result being that the film doesn't fall into the repetitive metal-man-hits-metal-man scenes of the first two movies. Indeed, it's the inventiveness of the film that's probably its best feature; there are plenty of surprises in store, smart reversals and plot twists that are a reminder that summer blockbusters don't necessarily have to stick to formula, even if they're as factory-assembled as "Iron Man Three."
Perhaps the film's most notable surprise, given the way that directors have tended to be absorbed into the Marvel machine, is that Black's voice still comes through loud and strong. From the Christmastime setting to non-sequitur gags to a surprising level of violence (the PG-13 being pushed ever further), to the obligatory scene where a tied-up hero threatens a pony-tailed henchman, there's enough of the director in the film's DNA to make it more distinctive than other stand-alone Marvel pictures. And once Stark and pal James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, getting a decent amount to do this time out) are descending on the container yard at which the film's climax is set, it's clear that Black's fit the superhero movie into the mold of the kind of actioner that he made his name with (the "A-Team"-style closing credits only hammer the point home further).
Which is not to say that the film's an unmitigated triumph. For every truly funny moment (and there are some big belly laughs here), there's a scene with some rather forced banter, or a gag that never goes off -- a cameo from the star of an ABC sitcom that nearly stops the film dead in its tracks being the biggest offender. The film flirts with real-world politics in an intriguing way, but never quite has the balls to land on a point of view. The script neglects to lay down rules over the film's Extremis adversaries -- sometimes they're indestructible, except when they're... not, and it robs the action sequences of some of their drive. And there's a slight sense of "Spider-Man 3" when it comes to the proliferation of villains (there are four or five notable ones), most of whom are pretty underdeveloped.
Which isn't to say that the cast is bad. As ever, Marvel has cast the film to the nines, and almost everyone delivers (Guy Pearce is fine, but doesn't have all that much to play beyond "reptilian," and mostly feels like a disappointing and inferior reprisal of Sam Rockwell's character from "Iron Man 2"). Ben Kingsley seemed like somewhat obvious casting as the Mandarin, but brings something new to the table that proves him to be an inspired choice. Rebecca Hall, as an old flame of Tony's who works for Killian, brings nuance to her admittedly limited screen time, while James Badge Dale brings menace and wit to his cocksure second-string bad guy. And while it's undoubtedly the Tony Stark show, Gwyneth Paltrow proves again that she's the franchise's secret weapon; she's Tony (and the film)'s beating heart, and is put to better use here than ever before.
With this being the third summer in four to feature a movie starring Tony Stark, it's not surprising that at times, the film does feel more like an episode of a particularly expensive TV show rather than a movie. But for all the film's flaws, Black brings enough to the table that it's far from a chore, and if this level of ingenuity and surprise can be maintained, there'll be no need for Tony to hang up his Iron Man helmet any time soon. [B]