Marvel are in a pretty strong, if unusual position these days. The release of The Avengers was the culmination of years of careful, costly work bringing some of the company's best known characters to the big screen in separate films, then bringing them all together for one epic adventure. It was an unprecedented endeavour, and one which could have fallen apart spectacularly if too many of the films failed, but it wound up delivering a film that was a critical and commercial triumph that took even the most ardent Marvel fans by surprise. The only problem now is that they have to follow The Avengers with more standalone movies, and it's a tough transition to go from something so grandiose to something relatively small, because any success will pale by comparison: even Wish You Were Here looks puny compared to Dark Side of the Moon.
What's interesting about Iron Man 3 is that it takes these external concerns and works them into its own narrative, presenting itself as not just a post-Avengers story in a purely chronological sense, but also narratively and thematically. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is seemingly in a great place in his life; he's in a stable, loving relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his company is doing great business even after extricating itself from the weapons trade, and he is one of the most famous and feted men on the planet. Yet everything is far from fine. Ever since his near-death experience in New York, he's been suffering from panic attacks and insomnia. He's secluded himself in his home and spends his days and nights constantly making new variations on his Iron Man armour. He's clearly wrestling with some trauma and trying to deal with his internal damage by fixing and improving his exterior shell. Tony Stark is still a billionaire playboy philanthropist, but he's also a wreck.
As I said, Iron Man 3 posits itself as not just a post-Avengers film because it comes after The Avengers, but because its story is rooted in the events of the previous film. Even though most of the film's events are standalone and don't have anything to do with The Avengers, Stark's bruised psyche obviously results from his earlier experiences, and there are frequent - but brief - references to the prior film peppered throughout. Interestingly, most of the time when someone brings up the events in New York or tries to talk about Thor or The Hulk, Stark shuts down and either refuses to engage, or becomes incredibly anxious, which is both a relatively clean way of pushing aside any questions about where the rest of his super friends are while also shining a light on how badly the whole thing messed Stark up.
I also wondered if it might be writer-director Shane Black, who takes over from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau, expressing his own anxiety about having to take over a huge franchise directly after the previous film made an unseemly amount of money. The opening half an hour certainly seemed to suggest some jitters on behalf of Black, a man whose only prior directorial effort was the very fun, very clever crime film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which also boasted a great central performance from Robert Downey, Jr. but was decidedly light on CGI battles. (Although getting a good performance out of Val Kilmer, as Black did in that film, probably counts as a special effect of some kind at this point.) The film begins with some interrupted voiceover (very reminiscent of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, actually) then moves into a funny prologue in which a pre-Iron Man Tony meets, then slights, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant scientist who wants to work with Stark, and beds Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a similarly brilliant scientist whose work on regeneration has a few kinks that she hopes Stark will be able to help her work out.
The prologue is very good, and very Shane Black; it's sharp, the dialogue is funny and breakneck in its pacing, and it quickly sets up a number of plot threads which will come to fruition later in the film, but which don't seem that important in the moment. As in his best work, it melds the joy of fun, in-the-moment dialogue with plot construction that promises big payoffs to these relatively minor pleasures. Those minor pleasures are a slight issue, though, since it makes the beginning of the film feel a little underwhelming, albeit in a way which is intentional. It all feels like place setting, and while it's very funny place setting, there is a sense that Black is too concerned in getting everything set up and not concerned enough about momentary enjoyment.
The first act is greatly enlivened by the appearances of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist - though he prefers to be called a teacher - who has been staging a series of unusual attacks across America. Through a combination of cyber attacks that allow him to broadcast his messages to the world and sudden, powerful explosions, The Mandarin has made himself one of the most feared men on the planet. When one attack hits close to home, Stark issues a challenge to The Mandarin which is duly answered. After the debris clears, Stark is left for dead, stranded in the middle of nowhere with a malfunctioning suit, and driven by a powerful desire to figure out just what is going on.
It's at this point that the film really starts to deliver, largely because it addresses a key question that Tony himself asks: if you live in a world of gods and super-soldiers, what good is a man in a can? By taking him out of the can and forcing him to do some improvisation and detective work, Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce show that it really is the man who makes the clothes in the case of Tony Stark. Without his arsenal and gadgets, he's still a brilliant, charming and resourceful man who more than holds his own against The Mandarin's forces, even though they seem to completely outmatch him. Even though the idea of making an Iron Man movie that keeps Stark out of his suit for almost half the running time might seem counter-intuitive, it actually proves to be pretty revitalising for the series since it nudges it away from just spectacle to something like a character study, albeit one with tons of cannily staged, exciting action scenes.
As ever, Robert Downey, Jr. is key to whole enterprise, arguably more so than in the first two films since his actual physical form being visible is so central to the story. After three films playing the same character, who seems to be an extension of his own personality at this point, he's got the quips (which, coming from Black and Pearce, are faster and quicker than ever before), quirks and mannerisms down to a tee, but here he gets to play Stark as a troubled, uncertain figure for the first time since the opening reel of the first film. Tony Stark has always been a man beset by questions of conscience and doubt, but here he seems in genuine danger of letting his demons, be they real or just the product of his psyche, destroy him and everyone he loves. It's probably Downey, Jr.'s funniest turn as Stark, but also his darkest and saddest, which shows that over 25 years after writing the first Lethal Weapon, Shane Black remains a great writer of broken, brilliant masculinity.
Once the middle hour of the film is over, and once Stark gets back in his suit, the film loses some of that distinct flavour as it moves into the typical big superhero battle finale, though Black does keep things moving at a dizzying pace and strikes the right balance between crowd-pleasing spectacle and character resolution. It makes for a slightly too conventional ending to a film which takes a lot of risks, more than you would ever expect from the third film is a huge franchise, and which spends so much of its time blending plot and character so well. Still, even when it jettisons its individuality for whizz-bangery, Iron Man 3 is some high-quality popcorn fodder that benefits from the surprising wit and nuance of its writing and lead performance. Much as the story proves that the suit is only as good as the man inside it, Iron Man 3 demonstrates that the franchise is only as great as the people who guide it.