You can't go bigger than "The Avengers," so Marvel follows up that superhero team-up movie with a surprisingly introspective third outing in the "Iron Man" series. The change of writer/director from Jon Favreau to Shane Black yields a different tone, one that takes some big risks with the material that doesn't always pay off. It is also more of an 'auteur film' with a personal voice than pretty much any other Marvel movie thus far, so you can expect a quite varied response.
The first "Iron Man" is, and remains, the most widely appealing and well-constructed of the series. Even with some clunky third act issues, there's still a lot to both admire and like about that movie which offered a bit of whimsy at a time when superheroes seemed to harp on about going 'dark'. The second film remains a mess, an awkwardly paced tale jammed with far too much exposition, too many characters, and little development of the characters we do care about.
Many of the same complaints can be levelled at this film, albeit to a lesser extent. The pacing is uneven, and there is no shortage of plot holes and inconsistencies that likely spring from the hour or so of material Black reportedly cut from the early edit. Both the opening and closing 20-30 minutes are certainly overstuffed yet undercooked, leading to a rushed coda.
However, in terms of sheer entertainment, the film is arguably equal to the first and one of Marvel's best yet. There are some truly spectacular action set pieces, but the real enjoyment here comes when Shane Black's sensibilities take over during the middle hour. Many of his signature touches - the Christmas setting, the deliciously cynical quick fire dialogue, a mid-film character reversal that's a truly genuine surprise, add a pleasant dash of spice compared with Favreau's more polished yet anonymous directing style.
After sometimes trying a bit too hard to come off as nonchalant, Robert Downey Jr. seems more relaxed in this entry's low-key turn. His arrogance grew so large as to make the character unappealing in the second film, so the smart choice has been made to show Stark trying (and often failing) to deal with the post-traumatic stress of events in "The Avengers". Denying him access to a working suit throughout much of the film is also a clever move, giving the film an almost minor reboot feel.
Other performances are equally strong. Ben Kingsley is the performance that many will be talking about long after the movie, and it's a spectacular turn which he milks beautifully. Admittedly though, hardcore fans of the comic will likely take great umbrage with what has been done to the character. Gwyneth Paltrow once again shows why she is the best 'love interest' role any of the current superhero franchises has had, although her character is under served.
Don Cheadle far more comfortably slips into the role of Col. Rhodes this time out, while James Badge Dale leaves a good impression as a henchman toughie. Guy Pearce is fine in a secondary villain role, on the flip side Rebecca Hall is criminally wasted and her final scenes poorly handled. Same goes for Miguel Ferrer and Bill Sadler as the Vice President and U.S. President respectively, subplots involving their characters seems to be the ones that have suffered the biggest cuts.
It is pretty much the darkest entry in the series so far, with the hero far more vulnerable than he has been, but it is far from morose. From a minor continuation of the celebrity look-a-like game from "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," to scenes such as the amusing meeting with a campy news cameraman and a face-off with a pony-tailed henchman, the laughs aren't just frequent - they actually contain a welcome bite and a fine sense of the ridiculous.
The film coasts on that charm, and the strong performances, to shore up some shaky fundamentals. Logically the film has more than a few issues, most visible in the way the very nature of Extremis seems to change from scene to scene - seemingly immortal killing machines can explode and reconstitute in one scene, yet are suddenly killed by a punch in another. There's some great ideas on offer here, but more than a few feel underdeveloped.
Production values and tech credits are solid across the board, aside from the odd ropey CG shot. The destruction of Stark's home and an elaborate mid-air rescue are superbly realised and filmed action sequences, whereas some of the other sequences like a mid-film bar fight and the multi-suit face-off at the end aren't as skilfully done.
With films based on Marvel properties, I've often found myself enjoying those slightly clunky films with a welcome energy and verve at their heart better than some of their more well-crafted, yet less involving features. "Iron Man 3" slips into that category, alongside the likes of "X-Men First Class" and "Thor", as films that I find myself enjoying and re-watching more than I expected.