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.
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.
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.