The third Iron Man film and the seventh entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most fascinating of the Marvel Studios franchise. Iron Man 3 was first in the MCU to be released post-Avengers Assemble and benefited greatly from that film’s incredibly greater-than-expected box office success. Iron Man 3 made its way to cinemas with a new director in charge in the shape of Shane Black, albeit one well suited to Robert Downey Jr’s voice having worked with him before, becoming the highest grossing solo Iron Man film by a quite considerable margin, while being greeted with, for the most part, positive reviews.
Time can be an interesting thing. Mention the film now and it almost seems to be greeted with negativity or even hostility in some parts. Upon its debut, one would have thought it might have ended up being placed highly within the pantheon of Marvel Studio’s output. Instead it sometimes seems to be looked at indifferently by some, including the fanbase, most likely because of one key plot element.
It was Shane Black’s first film after a break of eight years. Black was a superstar screenwriter in the 80s, amassing record-breaking fees after making his name writing a spec script by the name of Lethal Weapon. He became famous for his ability to craft mainstream action films with a humorously hard-boiled voice that owed a debt to the works of detective fiction and film noir from the 40s or 50s, usually with some sort of mismatched partnership at the centre of it. He was known for films such as The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, where he first worked with Robert Downey Jr and was a commercial failure, but gained universally good reviews and was a big factor in Downey Jr’s comeback.
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Black was, in fact, a suggestion that Downey Jr made to Kevin Feige when Jon Favreau opted to step down as director of Iron Man 3. Although Favreau stuck around as Tony Stark’s right-hand man, Happy Hogan, whose injuries in the earlier stages of the film sets in motion the plot to follow.
With this being a Black co-scripted and directed film, there are many factors and elements to it that feel very much like a typical Shane Black film, albeit one within the confines of a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Amazingly they ended up working creatively well, much better in fact compared to the recent reaction that was greeted to Black’s work The Predator.
Iron Man 3 contains much in the way of large scale action, although thankfully it never swamps the film with much of the action spaced throughout the runtime nicely. It continues to play within the political confines that the first two films set up, even more so since we get the first mention and appearance within a Marvel film from a US President (William Sadler) as well as a brilliant show-stealing action sequence set on Air Force One.
Then we get to the villain of the piece where the reaction to the film lives or dies. Undeniably one of the most iconic villains from the comic books, The Mandarin appears courtesy of Ben Kingsley. Much of the trailers for the film made the most of Kingsley’s brilliantly chilling monotone line delivery, while a large chunk of the film plays the character as the central villain, hacking into television networks and delivering terrorist manifestos and killing people on live television as if he’s Osama Bin Laden with a Hollywood budget.
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Then we find out he is, in fact, Trevor Slattery from Croydon, supposedly with questionable bowel movements and in the employ of the actual villain of the piece, Killian (Guy Pearce). The moment we find out that The Mandarin is in fact Trevor occurs when Stark breaks into the Mandarin’s mansion only to be greeted by Kingsley walking out of a bathroom telling the various scantily clad women around him in a somewhat exaggerated English accent that they should “stay out of there for twenty minutes”. Depending how you feel about this, it marks the point where Iron Man 3 nukes the fridge, or it just makes the film even better. I prefer the latter.
While the film is called Iron Man 3, it really ought to be called Tony Stark. Like The Dark Knight Rises the previous summer, another take on a famed billionaire comic book character with a cool costume, Iron Man 3 wants to give the audience what they want but to go about it in a way they don’t expect. It wants to be unpredictable and brilliant while it does so. The problem with that approach is that while some might appreciate the film for doing that and making it work, it means that those with a deep love and appreciation of the comics will cry foul when it deviates from the source; Bane potentially being a child of Ra’s Al Ghul and in the employ or The League of Shadows, or as was the case here, The Mandarin being a decoy for the real villain and plot, in this case, one that is a loose interpretation of Warren Ellis’ Extremis story arc.
It’s a brave notion to take a comic book character and set up such as this and do somewhat subversive notions with it in a time of social media when fans can take to the likes of Twitter and voice their frustrations in an incredibly vocal and ugly way. Even better, the film takes the stance that it’s not the suit that maketh the man, but the person within it. As such it spends more screen time with Stark out of the suit than in it, although when the film presents us with the suit it really makes it count with great action sequences, such as the aforementioned Air Force One scene and the final set piece which takes the clichéd setting of a dock filled with freighters and turns it into high octane comic book action gold.
Some scoffed at the idea of Stark being able to remote control the suit without being in it, but it works incredibly well and ends up delivering one of the film’s funniest jokes in the aftermath of the spectacular “barrel of monkeys” sequence.
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With Tony Stark suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his world-saving antics in Avengers Assemble and prone to panic attacks, it allows Downey Jr to portray something than just a series of wise-cracking antics that the previous movies had done. While the messy Iron Man 2 did present a more complex characterisation, it did feel like it nearly came with making the character a touch too unsympathetic. Iron Man 3 throws in complexities but keeps the charm and likability that won everyone over the first time around. With this being written and directed by Black, we get a mismatched partnership with the majority of Stark’s scenes being shared with Ty Simkins character Harley, an eight-year-old.
Initially it feels like both he and Downey Jr are about to share scenes that have been put together to let the film play like gangbusters to the younger members of the audience, but this being a Shane Black film means the scenes are played with witty, borderline antagonistic banter that plays loose and fun, but with a touch of begrudging admiration.
Certainly, seeing the film with my seven-year-old younger brother (his first MCU film on the big screen after having procured by own Blu-Ray collection that had previously gone missing several times) meant those scenes did play well, but they do so in a way that is never cloying or sentimental. Set in a small snowy town (this is a Shane Black film so Christmas isn’t too far away), one gets the impression the film is going to go all Frank Capra-esque, but instead ends up being more like an 80s family-friendly fantasy comedy about a kid becoming friends with a guy and his cool robotic suit, albeit scripted by Raymond Chandler and produced by Steven Spielberg.
The end product ends up being one of Marvel’s riskiest and would mark the beginning of a period where it actually would genuinely take some risks before settling into a more formulaic groove once the end point of its second phase was upon it with Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.
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While Thor: The Dark World would play it very safe and become regarded as one of the lesser Marvel Studios’ works, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy would see the studio play loosely with game-changing plot twists and riskier proposition with which to centre a film around.
A third Iron Man 3 could have gotten away with playing it easy and just coasting along with a story that played by the usual tunes. It certainly would have grossed a lot of money for sure, it was virtually assured that after the success of Avengers Assemble, but instead it took genuine risks and allowed itself to be both a great Marvel film and a great Shane Black film.
It gets the best of both worlds beautifully and has ended up being, contradictorily, one of the highest grossing films of the franchise and yet one of its most creatively under-appreciated. Risky, funny, with genuine stakes, some of the best dialogue and a final stretch that is both action-packed and deeply poignant to the point that it could almost have been a great exit point for both character and actor, for this reviewer it remains a firm personal favourite from the franchise.