Cast: Robert Downey, Jr, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle, James Badge Dale, Paul Bettany, Miguel Ferrer
Running time: 130 mins
The lowdown: Robert Downey, Jr dons the red and gold armour for the first time since Avengers Assemble rocked our world. The good news is the iron’s still hot as new director Shane Black takes Tony Stark away from the intergalactic threat of Joss Whedon’s epic into an espionage thriller pitting him against Bin Laden-a-like baddy The Mandarin. Ben Kingsley has bags of fun as the villain, as do Guy Pearce as a twitchy rival genius, Rebecca Hall as an old Stark flame and series regulars Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle. Black and co know when to dish out jaw-dropping action, but the explosions are matched by an ambition to expand the character in his third solo outing.
The full verdict: Here’s a controversial thought: Iron Man 2 is better than Iron Man. Whereas the original peaked midway with the F-14 encounter, Iron Man 2 better balanced action and story and set the stage for the Avengers’ arrival.
With Iron Man 3, new director Shane Black (replacing Jon Favreau, who returns as Happy Hogan) takes the best elements of the first two movies (the Middle East connection, enemies with matching powers and intellects, women with more to offer than shapely curves) for a conspiracy thriller that, as the saying has it, goes right the way to the top. Well almost.
Tony is back, but his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble has left him scarred and minus his chief super-power – unwavering self-confidence.
Insomniac, he’s tinkering with Iron Man Mk 42 a remotely operated suit, while resisting joining forces with Aldrich Killian (Pearce) a scientist with an apparently miraculous cure for physical defects (lifted from the “Extremis” comic book) and monitoring the terrorist acts of The Mandarin (Kingsley).
When one explosion strikes too close to home, Tony’s forced on the run to hunt down The Mandarin.
Being the first post-AA “superfriends” Marvel movie risked becoming a poisoned chalice for all involved. But, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s decision to keep Iron Man (slightly more) grounded proves the character still works without appearances from any of his mates (if you leave before the post-credit scene).
And in contrast to the primary-coloured fun of Avengers and the previous Iron Man movies, number three plays it dark.
In key ways, the movie echoes Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, with Iron Man left defeated following a spectacular attack on his hillside home and exiled into the middle of nowhere, forced to fight his way back for the final showdown.
Stark also plays Bruce Wayne-style detective this time around, his investigation into the terrorist acts taking him to the heartland of America for one of the film’s best sections and a nocturnal encounter with physically enhanced Extremis enemy agents a knockout set-piece.
Director Black also puts his indelible stamp on the movie: two scenes (the hillside house attack and the dockyard climax) borrow from Lethal Weapon 2, hired goons uttering killer one-liners could have come from The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Stark’s voiceover is straight out of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (even down to Downey, Jr delivering it) and his partnering with a spunky kid sidesteps mawkishness to become a screen pairing to rival Val Kilmer or Jude Law.
And it’s set at Christmas.
The rubber-spined plot, another Black trademark, twists this way and that, delivering perhaps the biggest gasp-out-loud moment of any superhero to date. You’ll know it when you see it. And allows room for the greatest English-centric joke in blockbuster history.
The only downside is a possible over-plotting, with Black setting up at least four plots running concurrently, leaving Don Cheadle again underused and Miguel Ferrer (RoboCop’s creator don’t forget) in a clearly truncated role as the Vice President.
Crucially however, all involved never forget they’re kicking off summer blockbuster season, and Iron Man delivers the goods in four knockout set-pieces, a highlight being a “barrel of monkeys” showstopper involving a downed Air Force One.
Downey, Jr has intimated he may be hanging up the helmet on these solo adventures, becoming an Avengers regular only going forward. Don’t do it, Bob. Iron Man 3 expands the character and could be RDJ’s James Bond franchise.
Even the end credits promise “Tony Stark will return”. You’d be Stark raving mad not to be excited.