Following the attacks on New York, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxious and unable to sleep, he’s spending all his time developing additional Iron Man suits, including new prehensile armour that is programmed to assemble itself around him piece by piece. Meanwhile, a scientist (Pearce) Tony ignored years ago has teamed up with a mysterious terrorist known as The Mandarin (Kingsley)…
In theory, the decision to take Iron Man back to basics was just what the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist ordered. In execution, however, it’s only partially successful, as the end result is just as outlandish and over-the-top as it is stripped-back. Admittedly, Tony is separated from his full Iron Man gear for the most of the running time, and as such it’s refreshing to see him relying on his wits and knack for invention instead. But while Iron Man 3 is smart and plausible in some respects (such as Tony having PTSD after the events of The Avengers), it’s also the silliest Iron Man film in the series so far. Where the first – and best – was relatively grounded, here there are explosive, self-regenerating henchmen who feel like they’ve wandered in from the set of Heroes. In fairness, these flame-powered foes offer a change of pace after two movies that revolved around men in high-powered suits of armour. But yet they aren’t remotely convincing in the slightest, as the rules for their firey, skin-glowing abilities are changeable and blurry to say the least.
All that being true, Iron Man 3 is very much a Shane Black film. Featuring many of the writer-director’s recurring traits, it’s set at Christmas and littered with smart-ass dialogue, playing out like a wisecracking action-comedy from the early nineties. As a replacement for John Favreau (who helmed the triumphant first instalment and the disappointing second), Black is certainly an interesting choice. On one hand, he ‘only’ has one directing credit to his name (2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but on the other he’s written a few stone-cold classics in the action genre (including the first two Lethal Weapon movies). Co-written with Drew Pearce, his script boasts several decent lines (“Sir Laurence Oblivier”, for example, deserves a round of applause), and the sarcastic tone is a perfect fit for both Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark as a character. But while RDJ is entertaining as always, the film’s constant need to puncture every half-serious moment with a jokey grace-note grows extremely tiresome very quickly. Elsewhere, most of the supporting cast are either wasted (Rebecca Hall) or saddled with sketchy motivations (Guy Pearce), although Sir Ben Kingsley is typically outstanding in a tricky dual role.
Action-wise, there’s a neat sequence that sees Tony using improvised weaponry, and a thrilling air-rescue set-piece that presents him with an interesting dilemma. Namely, what do you do if it’s not possible to save everyone? Unfortunately, there’s very little danger or threat elsewhere, typified by an unexciting dockyard finale that includes a blatant deus ex machina resolution and a climactic sacrifice that carries no weight. To explain, Tony’s “clean slate” protocol (warning – spoiler ahead) sees him destroying all of his suits in a manner that’s supposed to provide a sense of closure. However, given that we know we’ll be seeing Iron Man on screen again (what with the certainty of an Avengers sequel and Iron Man 4), the moment offers absolutely no finality whatsoever. Moreover, the climax also glosses over a few major plot developments in throwaway fashion, with one character removing a defining attribute in voiceover while another gets and loses super-powers in the space of five minutes.
While Iron Man 3 is admirably stripped-down in some respects, it’s silly and outlandish in others. Downey Jr. is great as always, but the constant need to puncture every half-serious moment with a jokey grace-note is tiresome and overdone.