Can it top Avengers Assemble? Our definitive verdict on 2013's first big superhero blockbuster...
Sometimes, it's incredible to look back on where the superhero film genre was five years ago. In 2008, a budding film starring Robert Downey Jr as a little-known Armored Avenger burst into cinemas, and with that the Iron Man franchise and subsequently the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. From there, we've had The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and the rather spectacular Avengers Assemble, and now half a decade later, the wheel has come full circle and Iron Man 3 is here. Naturally, though, the question immediately arises- is it the best of the lot?
Sufficed to say, as an action blockbuster opening the Summer Of Film 2013, Iron Man 3 does not disappoint. It's testament to the overwhelming quality of the visual effects on offer here that our audience noticed a moment when the entirety of the auditorium's 60-inch screen was encased by visual artist names whilst sitting through the credits. Perhaps even moreso than Avengers Assemble, the SFX team here have truly done justice to themselves both in terms of the comic-book adaptation genre and the wider action-adventure genre as a whole. You'll gaze in awe amongst the stunning action setpieces at just how life-like the various Iron Man models put into action seem, and even to an extent how plausible those infected by the Extremis virus become in its later stages.
No worthy blockbuster is without a layered and intelligent narrative, though, and Iron Man 3 manages to come packing in this respect too. Classic Iron Man comic-book storyline arcs such as that of Extremis and the character's archnemesis the Mandarin are integrated into the franchise lore in meaningful and realistic ways, with both Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce on top form as the layered antagonists the Mandarin and Aldrich Killian respectively. There's a surprisingly emotional character arc for Tony Stark himself to undergo after the events of the Battle Of New York as well, and Robert Downey Jr masters the role like never before in the subtler moments, the moments where a man is forced to face the reality of his mortality and indeed the parts of him which threaten to make him more of a machine than the man he once was.
Much debate was made of the matter of Marvel Studios' appointment of Shane Black to the role of the director here, yet it's hard to see what all the worrying was about. Black's vision for the film's main setpieces is both innovative and awe-inspiring, with one particular moment of the final series of confrontations standing out for this reviewer in terms of the sleekness and visual fidelity with which it was so skilfully handled. The balance of humour, emotion and action seems to be dead on here for the most part, the former obviously a trademark element of the Iron Man films which Black does an efficient job of punctuating without detracting from the quieter and reflective sequences.
If Iron Man 3 falters at times, it's by no means for want of trying, for any lack of ambition. Indeed, an argument could be made for the viewpoint that had Black and the production team attempted to hone in and emphasise the subtleties and dramatic impact of Tony's PTSD anxieties, and his gradual arc of overcoming them and realising his legacy a little more, then perhaps the film would have had a better chance of topping last year's superb ensemble masterpiece. Instead, we're left with a somewhat disappointing turn from Rebecca Hall as the once-ambiguous scientist Maya Hansen, one or two moments dotted in the film's second and third acts that are played a little too heavily for comic effect, and a tone that seems a little uncertain once we move past a particularly inspired plot twist at around the movie's halfway point.
All the same, it's difficult to imagine a more effective opening to the second phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe (i.e. Avengers) film franchise. Where Iron Man 3 occasionally stumbles in tonal missteps or mishandled characters- Maya, Pepper and Rhodes falling into that category- it more than compensates for harkening back to those good ol' days of an unashamed action blockbuster which just wants its audience to have a helluva good time. After a suitably comedic post-credits sequence, we're told that 'Tony Stark Will Return', and given the hot filmic form the comic-book character is on right now, that's undoubtedly a reassuring final sentiment. It's been five years since the original Iron Man graced our cinemas and revolutionised the superhero genre, and while it's neither perfect nor a bonafida Avengers crown-stealer, Iron Man 3 is a fitting representation of how far the genre has come, providing intelligent thrills and shocks aplenty in what has turned out to be the greatest entry in the trilogy by far.