Monday, 29 April 2013

Iron Man 3 Review

Iron Man opens to the sound of Back in Black. Iron Man 2 opens with Shoot to Thrill. It's a little jarring, then, when Iron Man 3 (or possibly "Three" according to the title card) begins with Blue (da ba dee da ba die). This is a mission statement of sorts: more than anything else, this Iron Man film is different.

This is the first Marvel movie since The Avengers, and there has been much talk of whether or not Marvel's individual heroes can still work on their own in a world where we've seen them all team up. Cleverly, this is worked into the movie itself, with Tony Stark (genius millionaire playboy philanthropist) suffering panic attacks over what happened in that film. Not because he nearly died - which is what many have assumed - but from the trauma of suddenly existing in a bigger universe, where aliens or gods could rip a hole in the sky at any moment. He's trying to make sense of his place in this new world and, in a way, so is the film.
That kind of introspection sounds slow and ponderous but, in Iron Man 3's case, it's anything but. Forcibly driven from his home by the brutal terrorist leader known as the Mandarin, Tony Stark starts moving and doesn't stop - this is self-reflection by fire. It's a crazy, chaotic film that dashes breathlessly from location to set-piece to entirely-new-location too many times to count. It even cycles through quite a large cast of sidekicks; alternately teaming Stark with Pepper Potts, Jarvis the computer, some random kid whose house he breaks into, and James "War Machine" Rhodes (now the star-spangled Iron Patriot). Throughout, though, it always keeps a grip on Tony's story.

As well as not having any AC/DC (or even Black Sabbath) in the entire film, new-to-the-series director Shane Black brings a new look and feel to the movie. It's darker, in both the literal and figurative senses, but it thankfully retains the streak of humour the series is known for - in fact, the film even has Tony Stark cracking jokes in narration and voice-over, which is another new touch. Somehow, it feels more grounded than the first two films, while also being more ridiculous. The scope is larger but the focus is narrower. Suitably for a film that draws inspiration from the comic Extremis, everything about Black's film is more extreme - from comedy to drama to violence.

The biggest difference, though, is that this isn't really an Iron Man film. It's telling that none of the posters show Iron Man with his faceplate on - this is a Tony Stark movie, he just happens to wear armour some of the time.
The first time Stark seeks out and confronts the Mandarin - in one of the movie's best scenes - he does so on his own, without the suit. Likewise, in the spectacular final battle, he spends as much time out of the suit as he does in it; maybe more. The suit in question is the prototype Mark 42 (Tony's been busy) and it's a modular system that comes together piece by piece. This means that he can wear just a glove, or the chestplate, or boots, without the rest of the armour.
The upshot of this is that Robert Downey Jr. gets to be physically, visibly, in almost all of the film - even the action scenes. There's only one sequence (a brilliant one with a dozen people freefalling from a plane) where the whole suit stays on for the duration. The inevitable downside is that Iron Man the superhero, as opposed to Tony Stark the character, never really makes much of an impact - the Mk42 just doesn't have any iconic moments to make it stick in the mind. But that's a small complaint when the film's doing so much right.

Where Iron Man 3 really gets it right - where it surpasses its predecessors, in fact - is in its villains. Both Ben Kingsley's Mandarin and Guy Pierce's sinister arms-dealer, Aldrich Killian, represent types of threat we have not seen Iron Man face before. They're a psychological and intellectual threat respectively, where Stark's previous foes (despite all being engineering geniuses) eventually came down to brute force and metal suits. Both actors are incredible in the roles - Kingsley in particular dominates every scene he's in. Which, when competing with Downey, is no mean feat.

There's still a physical threat, of course, in the form of Killian's modified henchmen. Augmented with super-strength and speed, they can stand against Iron Man without any need for armour of their own. The fact they're essentially just people opens things up for far more dynamic fight scenes - acrobatic and balletic instead of the clunky, robotic battles we're used to. There's even some martial arts!
This film boasts the series' best action scenes by a huge margin, and they're all unique, exciting and inventive. There's one in a burning building; one in an exploding building; one where Tony has no armour; one where he has all the armour; one where he's tied up; one against people; one against helicopters... The fights are brilliant, but the chases and rescue scenes (and, indeed, the Rescue scenes) are equally great. The modular armour is constantly used in unexpected ways, and nothing ever plays out quite as you'd expect.
The final showdown, in a night-time dockyard, threatens to break down into a confusing brawl as a bunch of indistinguishable protagonists face a group of equally indistinguishable bad-guys - but this quickly becomes just a backdrop for Tony's very personal fight to take place against. The camera sticks with Stark, diving and weaving through the carnage around him, making it not just Iron Man's best fight to date, but also his most personal. It's expertly judged, and it all comes to an explosive head for both Iron Man and his alter-ego.

The Iron Man series was the first superhero franchise where the second film, traditionally the point at which they peak, was weaker than the first. It's only fitting, then, that it should also be the first superhero franchise to overcome the dreaded threequel curse - delivering a third entry that does justice to the first film's potential and to the character himself. With by far the best action and strongest villains of the franchise, Iron Man 3 quickly lays to rest all doubts about surviving beyond The Avengers.
If this is what Marvel's "Phase Two" looks like, count me in!

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