And so Marvel’s Phase Two begins, with a crash, a bang, a wallop and, strangely enough, the unmistakable, toe-tapping intro to Eiffel 65’s late-’90s Europop hit, “I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee, Da Ba Da).” “Iron Man 3” is Marvel Studio’s first theatrical release since their epic superhero team-up “The Avengers” kicked movie-goers’ butts in the summer of 2012 (and in doing so, raked in over $1 billion at the international box office), and it was feared that everyone's favourite man-in-a-can would crumble under the immense weight of Joss Whedon’s huge-scale juggernaut - just how would Tony Stark’s next solo outing fare without the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes tagging along for the ride?
Quite well, it turns out: co-written and directed by legendary “Lethal Weapon” scribe and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” helmer Shane Black - as should be obvious from the get-go, what with Robert Downey, Jr.'s meta-riffic opening narration and the otherwise inexplicable Christmastime setting - this first film in the build-up to 2015’s “The Avengers 2” stands sturdily and mightily on its own two feet, bursting with personality, sizzling with wicked humour, soaring with high-octane thrills and packing an almighty wallop of a plot twist that’s guaranteed to split the comic-book crowd in two - in the age of pesky internet spoilers and overly revelatory studio marketing, it’s refreshing to see a blockbuster with genuine shocks and surprises in store.
Most surprising of all though, is how mature Marvel’s latest output is - have you ever seen a superhero movie tackling the harrowing effects of PTSD? That’s what super-snarky superhero Tony Stark is having to deal with, and it’s turned his high life upside down: following his near-death experience in New York (i.e. the alien-busting finale of “The Avengers,” wherein Tony travelled through a wormhole into space), the self-described “genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist” is now an insomniac, frightened for the safety of his beloved Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), crippled by anxiety attacks and spending his nights in the basement of his ocean-view pad, obsessively building new armours to help keep his mind busy and distracted.
As it turns out, he has more to worry about than panic attacks and sleep deprivation: hooded, ethnically nondescript terrorist mastermind The Mandarin, played with chilling, scenery-chewing menace by British thesp Sir Ben Kingsley (clearly having a ball), is hijacking the American airwaves, broadcasting hyper-edited videos in which he threatens to teach the American populace a lesson or two - chiefly by bombing the US to kingdom come. Aiding the Mandarin in his reign of terror is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, “Lockout”), a slimy, devilishly handsome scientist whose science experiment Extremis is sure to get Tony hot under the collar: a biological enhancement, it either a) transforms its subject into a nigh-unstoppable, auto-repairing T-1000 crossed with a lava lamp, or b) turns its subject into a walking lava bomb, a bug the Mandarin has been using to stage untracable terror attacks.
And when a loyal friend is caught in one of these attacks and sent into a coma, Tony publicly swears revenge, a move that sees his swanky Malibu home visited by a trio of attack-choppers, blasted by missiles and sent hurtling down the side of a cliff. This is portrayed in a spectacular action set-piece - one of many - which leaves Tony armourless, homeless and stranded in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee, forced to rely on his wits rather than his fire-power to survive.
This is a development that’s crucial to the success of “Iron Man 3:” though its predecessors solved the potential problem of the Iron Man exoskeleton being an impersonal CG creation with the ingenious device of an in-helmet face-cam, “Iron Man 3” goes one step further, keeping Tony out of his metal suit for the majority of the action. This leaves Downey, Jr. to be Downey, Jr., stripped of the armour he so naturally outshines and given a few extra doses of vulnerability. Add to that the possibility of Tony’s recent mental instability meaning he could at any second be reduced to a quivering wreck, and you’ve got yourself a compelling action hero, faults and all.
Also crucial is the involvement of Black, whose dialogue (written alongside Scottish newbie Drew Pearce) fizzes with wit and who brings to the proceedings a subversive quality: constantly, expectations are defied, be it through Tony’s amusingly harsh remarks to a friendless, fatherless boy he’s just befriended (young Ty Simpkins, wonderful), or through a rug pull that catches us off-guard and instantly reshapes our entire understanding of the plot. Then, of course, there’s the buddy-cop element for which Black is most famous, and which he practically invented in 1987, here shared between loose-cannon Tony and straight-arrow Rhodes (Don Cheadle), aka War Machine, aka Iron Patriot; bantering and bickering together amidst fiery chaos, they’re like a 21st century Riggs and Murtaugh, albeit clad in weaponised metal suits.
And then, of course, there’s the grand finale, which leaps and dives through the levels of an abandoned oil rig and which damn near gives “The Avengers"' climax a run for its money (and that’s quite a hefty sum): it may not have a Hulk, but it has a Hulkbuster, along with the rest of the toys Tony’s been tinkering with in his basement, finally taken out for a spin to do battle with indestructible volcano people. It was a problem with director Jon Favreau’s previous instalments that their climaxes consisted of monotonous, “Transformers”-esque robot-bashing-robot action. This one blows the both of them out of the water, with Tony out of his armour, bloodied and bashed, and fighting like a human being - for once, an “Iron Man" movie nears its finishing line with a genuine sense of peril, and we’re gripped at every second.
It’s hinted at in the film’s final moments that this may be the final “Iron Man” movie. If this is true (and one doubts it very much), then Mr Stark has gone out on an all-time high: “Iron Man 3” is the best of the “Iron Man” movies, Black giving the clunky “Iron Man 2” a good, hard kick up the backside and tying up the trilogy in a neat and tidy bow while looking ahead to the future. It’s not perfect - Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen, an old flame of Tony’s and employee of Killian, is cruelly short-changed with minimal screen-time - but it’s difficult to imagine Phase Two getting off to a more exciting start. Put simply, Cap, Thor and the yet-to-be-unveiled Guardians of the Galaxy have their work cut out in topping Tony’s third, and possibly final, adventure. But if anyone can do it, it’s Marvel.