26 Apr 2013

Screen Time: IRON MAN 3

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sir Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany
Director: Shane Black
Runtime: 130 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: 25th April 2013 (UK), 3rd May (US)

Stewart R: How the heck do you, as a movie studio, and an incoming director to an established franchise, follow up the third biggest grossing film of all time worldwide? The clear answer in respect of Marvel’s gigantic Avengers cash cow is to head back to the character and actor who arguably allowed that huge success to perpetuate in the first place. Robert Downey Jr’s turn as billionaire, playboy philanthropist (a phrase now lodged almost too comfortably in thousands of people’s minds) Tony Stark has been a huge driving force for Marvel’s proper push into the live action medium and it’s not unfair to say that any Iron Man sequel involving the iconic star is going to be a guaranteed hit at the box office thanks to the large faithful audience who are only too eager for more adventures involving his unique charm and gravitas.

What is important in that case, is that this near-blind faith is rewarded with an engaging plot, electrifying action and a cast and crew performing at the very top of its collective ability. Have no fear, folks: Iron Man 3 manages to fulfil all of those promises and then some.

Acting as more of an off-shoot sequel to the Avengers movie rather than direct sequel to Iron Man 2, this third solo outing follows Tony’s life in the months after the alien attack, when the big world that he was once familiar, comfortable and dominant within now seems claustrophobically smaller compared to the greater, mysterious threats that the galaxy may offer. Our world famous hero begins to show the cracks in his mental armour that have been pried apart following his near-death experience and realisation that the confidence in his inventive defences to carry himself and those he cares for through safely, day after day, may no longer be enough in a world where gods can walk amongst mortals and the sky can open up and belch death upon the land. And then the mysterious Mandarin, leader of the Ten Rings, emerges to terrorise the world and all hell breaks loose.
Director Shane Black and co-writer, Drew Pearce provide a masterful script that revels in its analytical viewpoint of Tony’s psyche, from his all too human fears and weaknesses to the strengths that mark him out as a truly exceptional being who can excel under pressure and who ultimately deserves the moniker of superhero. Where some creators may have opted to cocoon the protagonist in an ever-strengthening shield to tackle this growing cinematic, blockbuster universe, Black and Pearce’s decision to peel back the armour early on and poke at their charge over the course of much of the runtime, as he battles demons from within and without, provides the most enthralling character path of any Marvel movie so far. As if by magic, Downey Jr manages to take his already fully formed onscreen alter-ego and pull out a host of emotional threads that we hadn’t seen previously and which do the impossible: they make you like Tony Stark even more.

Black even goes as far as taking us briefly back to Tony’s hedonistic, cocky lifestyle of the late Nineties, before he ended up with an electromagnet for a chest piece. This not only helps to show how much he’s grown as a man over the course of a decade and a half (and the three preceding movies in which he's featured), but also allows for the budding shoots of the Extremis technology to be introduced and highlight how the brightest of scientific endeavours can be twisted for despicable purposes and from the smallest twists of fate. It’s here where the actual plot forms and it’s once again to Black’s compliment that he manages to keep the threat ever lurking in the shadows, matching Tony’s character development and journey step for step, offering up some genuinely refreshing peril and surprises in the new foes that he faces.

In the same way that the camera’s eye in Iron Man 3 makes us feel like we’re capturing glimpses of the hero’s life and internal crisis in close-up, many of the action set-pieces also take on a very intimate and personal aspect and it was the clear and sensible choice to go in that direction rather than get into a one upmanship game with the huge bombastic canvas of Avengers. This is about one man (and his close contingent of friends) fighting foes on his doorstep - quite literally in one standout sequence - and invading his life as opposed to aliens knocking on the sky and invading the planet. While there are still a few slight issues involving the 3D projection and frenetic action sequences to be found - punches, kicks and a flying suit can occasionally get lost in a murky stereoscopic blur and Black’s vision is potentially too close (in a good way) to get the most effective use of the medium - the incredibly varied armoured antics are terrific fun, increase the heart rate and tie themselves integrally to the rich tapestry of story that we’ve been provided with.
I’ve only mentioned the main man himself so far and that’s almost a crime as it’s hard to find a summer blockbuster when the supporting cast are delivering at such a high level. Gwyneth Paltrow pulls out her finest dramatic performance of the series - and she’s been no slouch in the previous installments - while Don Cheadle has clearly found his feet in the ‘buddy movie’ moments that Black allows his Rhodey and Tony to banter in, as well as some out-of-armour moments that belie his 48 years. Then there are the newcomers to the Iron Man show who, like Tony inside and outside of the suit, get to show very different sides to their characters. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin allows the thespian to really go at his role with delightful, if somewhat surprising, abandon; the true malevolence of the super terrorist finding its balance in well written moments. Guy Pearce on the other hand gets to display his broad range on the big screen once again in Aldrich Killian; the transformation from hobbling, bumbling science geek of the 20th Century into the smooth, confident and ethically questionable pioneer of future biotechnology that could easily bless or curse humankind. His is a superb performance and almost has me wishing that he'd been given a different and larger role in this expanding Marvel universe.

The full effect of Shane Black’s terrific grasp of peppered, snappy comedy finds a perfect young vessel from which to spill in the shape of Ty Simpkins and the chemistry and timing between his smartalec Harley and the emotionally crumbling Tony ensures that the laughs that accompany any Iron Man flick are still realised during the film’s darker second act. It just leaves me to mention Rebecca Hall. While certainly an actress of considerable talent, and reasonable in her portrayal of Maya Hanson, she’s given far too little to do (I can’t help but wonder how much of her story may have found itself on the cutting room floor?) in quite possibly the only real misstep of the two hour runtime.

And that really is saying something. One misstep - well that and the standard 3D quibbles - in 130 minutes of thrilling, absorbing, laughter-inducing cinematic pleasure that may have possibly accomplished that feat of being better than any of its Iron Man predecessors. There really is something for everyone in Iron Man 3 and in looking more closely at the man outside of his machine than we had done before, Shane Black, Robert Downey Jr and the rest of the cast and crew have possibly provided us with the most rounded Marvel movie to date. Phase 2 kicks off with a win. Exceptional 10/10

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