Heroes, There Is No Such Thing – A Review Of Shane Black’s Iron Man Three

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The popular line is that there’s never been a blockbuster quite like The Avengers. In drawing together several separate franchises in to one film Joss Whedon created an almighty symphony of spectacle. But how does anyone follow such a remarkable achievement? In the wake of The Avengers Marvel have turned to the hero that kickstarted this era of the superhero movie, with Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man arguably the reason for the success of the Marvel Studios franchise as a whole. In this third instalment of that particular superhero series, scale is switched with sentimentality, while spectacle makes way for a distinct sense of sombreness.

Iron Man Three (note the use of the word, not the number) is a stripped back affair, which is essentially the only way forward after the wide sprawl of The Avengers. The transformation of Tony Stark, a B-List comic-book superhero at best, in to one of the pre-eminent Hollywood filmic icon of the post-911 era is, to use the appropriate terminology, nothing short of a marvel. Prior to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the titular character was relatively lowly regarded outside of the comic-book circuit, but through a combination of Robert Downey Jr’s light-hearted performance and a tone to match Favreau and co. struck gold. For this third film Shane Black, the writer of the Lethal Weapon films and Downey Jr’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director takes the mantle, and there’s a distinct taste of the 1980s hanging over the whole film. The general atmosphere of Black’s own unique buddy flicks is present, while Amblin also feels like a major influence, with Stark afforded a kid sidekick for a portion of the running time, and the suit itself promoted to the status of bona-fide character this time around. Cleverly incorporating the personality of JARVIS, Stark’s AI-based butler, the distinction between the man and the suit has never been more clearly defined, and indeed it plays as the pre-eminent thematic element of the movie.

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As a stylistic exercise the first two films were nothing if my workmanlike, with Jon Favreau’s reliable, unremarkable filmmaking serving the source material without an ounce of bias. Under the tutelage of filmmakers such as Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon the Marvel studios series has gradually evolved in to a series of distinct movies, each with a definitive stylistic aura when it comes to an aesthetic approach. Iron Man Three follows suit, pun intended, with Black, aka the man largely deemed responsible for the re-ignition of the career of Robert Downey Jr. thanks to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, for once bestowing a visual identity all of its own upon an Iron Man movie. Calling to mind the crowd-pleasing action flicks of the 1980s, many of which stemmed from the pen of Black, Iron Man Three is self-knowing and fun, but not to the point of irksome, nor is it insincere toward the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In keeping with the tone of the series thus far, and the Marvel imprint in general, Iron Man Three is an aesthetically light picture, and at times recalls the unlikeliest of productions. Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I and the cheeky aura of the Roger Moore Bond films (and, perhaps oddly, the 1967 Casino Royale) are just a couple of the unexpected works that are brought to mind.

Performance wise, it’s Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin that is a particular highlight. Always a problematic character in the progressive modern age, that the Mandarin has been recreated for the screen in such an inspired way is little short of remarkable. Equal parts bible-belt fanatic and Lear, the Mandarin is quite possibly the most innovative and intriguing figure in the whole Marvel series to date. The other antagonists are well carved, morally complex figures, with the uninspiring and bland villains of Iron Mans past a distant memory. There isn’t a madman with an Iron Man suit to be found for miles. Except for Stark himself that is, a man whose sanity is, in true Shane Black fashion, teetering on the edge. No analysis of an Iron Man movie needs to point out that Downey Jr. fits the role like a glove, even if the slightest cracks of complacency are beginning to sneak in.

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Somewhat inappropriately for a superhero whose being revolves around an artificial heart, it is the emotional core of Iron Man Three which impresses the most. The stripped down, back-to-basics Stark is best defined by his relationship with the long-suffering Pepper Potts, with their relationship progressing at a relatable pace, and lending a humanistic edge to the series. Thematically there are many similarities not so much to the Marvel films, but Warner Bros.’ Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, in so much as that our hero is trying to understand just what it means to be, and what it takes to be, a hero. While several shades lighter than the Nolan movies, the personal-as-operatic bent of Black’s film certainly recalls the lofty psychological intentions of the films that bookend the recent Batman movies.

A purposefully underwhelming picture by design, in the sense that the film is specifically tailored to reflect the fact that The Avengers is something of an unconquerable achievement, it would be unfair to compare Shane Black’s Iron Man Three to the Marvel Cinematic Universe film that immediately precedes it, in spite of the natural predication and temptation to do so. If one measures success as execution of intent then it’s difficult to find fault with much at all. A complex and satisfying emotional arc, coupled with a distinct sense of singularity (it feels like its own film, not an advert for The Avengers 2; the same can’t be said of Iron Man 2) makes for a satisfying if not sombre beginning to a Summer season with a task on its hands.
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