Set after the events of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is struggling to come to terms with what happened to him in New York, alienating girlfriend Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) by becoming increasingly focused on his work. However, he is soon called back into the world by the presence of a terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who has succeeded in carrying out several dangerous bombings. Elsewhere, Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is now wearing a nice star-spangled Iron Patriot outfit in service of the President (William Sadler) and a new business rival for Stark appears in the form of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce)

The third film in a superhero franchise always seems to be the trickiest one to get right and it is a milestone where there have been some catastrophic disasters; Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand are probably the first ports of call when considering just how far these franchises can fall. The Iron Man franchise, part of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, started off at dizzying heights with Jon Favreau's first instalment and crashed spectacularly back down again for Iron Man 2. Then of course there is the small matter of Joss Whedon's The Avengers (sorry, I refuse to call it Avengers Assemble, it just sounds silly), one of the biggest films of all time and a smash hit across the world. So, Iron Man 3 was responsible not only for following that, but also getting Tony Stark's own franchise back on track. So does it succeed?

Thankfully yes, with yet another risky move by Marvel paying off brilliantly. Hiring a director with only one directorial credit to his name and a screenwriter for whom this is his first blockbuster credit (though first of a few according to IMDB) is not the usual practice when it comes to tentpole franchise films. However, putting Shane Black and Drew Pearce on the film proves to be one of Marvel's most inspired choices to date, and they have made many over the course of putting together their cinematic universe. The pair taken the superhero genre and mashed it up a bit, scaling back from the grandeur of The Avengers and taking Tony Stark on a more personal journey.

There has also been a great deal of effort into adding more depth and meaning into their superhero film. It is awash with familiar iconography from the war on terror that instils a certain level of trepidation in any watching. The Mandarin's canny use of media to spread his message directly recalls Bin Laden's use of the very same whilst the emphatic rebranding of Iron Patriot is a subtle criticism of the USA's bullish foreign policy, also evidenced in some of the antics that Rhodes gets up to later in the film. That's not to say it gets too serious either, far from it. In fact, it's probably the funniest Marvel film to date (yes, possibly even funnier than The Avengers). 
Black's partnership with Robert Downey Jr has already yielded one fantastic film in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a film that was instrumental in getting Downey Jr into the suit) and it seems that Black and Pearce knowing exactly how to write for the actor. 

Stark is as glib as ever, delivered with wonderful aplomb by Downey Jr even though he is very nearly upstaged by Ty Simpkins in their scenes together.  The partnership of Stark and Rhodes gets a decent amount of screen time too, offering the notch on the 'buddy' quota. However, the comedy performance of the film has to go to Paul Bettany as Jarvis. Given much more of a character to work with this time around, as well as a couple of malfunctions to contend with, Bettany's deadpan delivery works a treat with Black's screenplay and was a real highlight. 

There isn't a weak link amongst the performances either, particularly Guy Pearce as uber-businessman Aldrich Killian. Held up as a reflection to Stark in terms their different methods and approach to technology, Killian proves to be a good foil for Stark in their scenes together. Gwyneth Paltrow also gives her best performance of the franchise here and though I can't go into too much detail about her role, Pepper's character arc has been excellent across the three films and given a good finish. However, it is, as expected, Ben Kingsley who steals the film. He is simply sublime.

One of the most interesting aspects of the unfolding narrative is the way in which Black and Pearce analyse Tony's relationship with his alter-ego through some canny use of the suit itself. A big feature of the marketing, the Mark 42 doesn't disappoint, used as a symbol of Stark's fracturing hold on reality after New York and focalising his post-traumatic stress into something more tangible, both for the character and for the audience. The construction of the suit also means that, for a lot of the time, Stark isn't wearing the whole thing, maybe just an arm, or part of a leg, meaning the audience get a lot more Downey Jr, but also Stark on his own, learning to rely on his wits rather than his suit. As a result, the action sequences are thrilling and entertaining, particularly the third act battle which sees Stark use the suits as extensions of himself. It's a fascinating take on the psyche of the character and a neat piece of analysis on Stark's reliance on an external representation of his identity, the mask he wears to hide himself away.

For the most part, it's joyfully entertaining, but there are a couple of niggles that take the sheen of the red and gold paintwork ever so slightly. Rebecca Hall's role as Maya is sadly underwritten and despite getting some choice one liners, barely has anything to work with. She's a brilliant actress, most recently evidenced in the sublime Parade's End, but she feels wasted in the role, especially in comparison to the strength of Pepper's part in the wider narrative. The film also suffers slightly from the usual second act sag; whilst necessary to the developing plot, a couple of scenes lack the same zip as the first and third acts. They are small issues, but it does mean the film falls just short of a five-star rating.

An excellent start to Marvel's Phase Two and the best Iron Man film yet, it also feels like it could be the last time we see Tony Stark on his own turf, but somehow that's actually ok. The character has developed considerably since we first saw him swaggering across the Middle East and the conclusion here fits wonderfully with what has gone before. I'm sure we'll see Mr Stark, and therefore Iron Man, again, just not necessarily on his own.

P.S. If you liked Iron Man 3 and haven't seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang yet, you need to get on that right away. Like now. Go.


- Becky

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