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The third film of the Iron Man franchise and the first film in Marvel’s Phase 2 run (which will consist of this, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy, leading into The Avengers 2) opens with billionaire superhero Tony Stark in a dark place. Following the events of The Avengers he is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, locking himself away in his workshop, trying to perfect his Iron Man armour. When a new threat and an old acquaintance surface, Tony’s life is thrown into chaos as he finds himself alone, powerless and struggling to unravel the twin mysteries of terrorist leader The Mandarin and the Extremis virus.
First off, the best thing about this film is writer/director Shane Black. A veteran writer of films like Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the film that brought the newly revitalised Robert Downey Jr. to the attention of Marvel producers for consideration in the role of Tony Stark. It’s fitting, then, that he brings his own brand of action and wit to Stark’s third outing. It’s refreshing to see a change of pace. Jon Favreau’s previous films were full of sci-fi spectacle but, for the most part, Black grounds IM3 as a straight up action film. Stark spends probably 75% of the story without his armour and feels all the more vulnerable for it. It is odd seeing him running round with a pistol instead of blasting energy at foes, but the script plays to his ineptitudes with a firearm and makes it work.
Another thing that works is the complex villains of the Mandarin and Aldrich Killian. As a nemesis, Killian is set up well in an opening sequence in 1999, where he’s snubbed by Stark at a party. Years later, a more confident man, he’s developed Extremis; a virus which purports to open up untapped potential in humans. This pretty much means turning them into raging fire monsters that can regenerate lost limbs. So far so “token bad guy”. But it’s his relationship with The Mandarin, a man taking responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks against the US, that is the most interesting. Initially shown to be subservient, using Extremis as a weapon for his “Master”, a three quarter switcheroo flips this on its head, revealing the Mandarin to be no more than a front to hide Killian’s failed Extremis experiments. Killian is the true madman, leading to a fantastic showdown with Stark’s entire Iron Man armoury (remote piloted by AI butler, JARVIS) on an oil rig. An awesome spectacle!
Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin deserves a lot of attention. The way the character is written is a daring move by Marvel, reducing one of it’s most famous characters to a mere pawn in a madman’s game, but Kingsley plays him with such menacing gusto that you truly don’t see the switch coming. And when it does, the veteran actor switches with such ease into the role of Trevor Slattery, a down on his luck, drunken British actor who reveals to Stark that The Mandarin is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s a tremendous performance and Kingsley is clearly having a great deal of fun with both sides here. It’s understandable that many people feel cheated, but in a day where movies are pretty much showing all their cards in their trailers, it’s great to have the rug pulled out from under you so well and the film makers should be applauded. The reveal does nothing to undermine the strength of the film as a whole and puts a very firm punctuation on a character who would, honestly, have been hard to manage in future movies.
So, what doesn’t work? The biggest disappointment has to be Rebecca Hall as Mya Hansen, the scientist who’s research goes to creating Extremis. She only really appears in the movie for this reason and has a bit of a throwaway twist herself. The character could have been used a lot better but, ultimately, serves to be a bit disappointing rather than film ruining. It’s also a bit disappointing that Stark doesn’t really “armour up” much in the film, although this is kind of resolved in the finale where the only thing that can really defeat Killian is another Extremis infected individual. The coda also goes to some lengths to establish that Tony has stretched himself too thin with his engineering and the final line suggests he doesn’t truly need a suit.
Overall it’s a fitting end to the Iron Man story arc established in the Marvel films, leaving things open to bring the character back in future movies but closed enough that it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t. More stand alone than part of the bigger Phase 2 picture, it will be interesting to see what plot points (if any) are picked up on in the later films. But, alone, Iron Man 3 is a great kick off to this summers movies. Action packed, funny and full of twists – go see it! (Although, if you haven’t already, I’ve just spoiled you rotten. SORRY!)