Marvel have kicked off 'Phase 2' in fine style with Robert Downey Jr.'s fourth outing as self-styled billionaire/playboy/philanthropist, Tony Stark. With Shane Black taking the reins from Jon Favreau, the promotional campaign for Iron Man 3 has successfully wrong-footed its audience with its bleak, Nolanesque trailers, only to deliver a film that is closer to tone to the buddy-movie quipping of Black's Lethal Weapon than the Dark Knight trilogy. Potential spoilers prevent a detailed synopsis, but Iron Man 3 rejoins Tony Stark after the events of The Avengers, where he is psychologically dogged by the traumatic experience of New York and is suffering from insomnia as a result. When America comes under attack from an enigmatic terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), Tony goes on the hunt for revenge. Things are complicated by the re-emergence of Aldrich Killian, a scientist, once snubbed by Stark, who is on the verge of discovering a potentially dangerous new technology.
Shane Black was directly responsible for Downey's remarkable renaissance after a much-publicised battle with drugs, when he cast him in 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as the sardonic, wise-cracking Harry Lockhart; a part that eventually became a blue print for his portrayal of Tony Stark. Black plays to Downey's comic strengths again this time around, and Iron Man 3 is unquestionably the funniest of the Marvel films so far. Stark has always been the best on-screen company in the Marvel universe, and Downey's chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow's always excellent "Pepper" Potts is as much of a joy to watch as it was the first time round. Don Cheadle seems to enjoy a slightly more significant role as the Iron Patriot, but it is Ben Kingsley's Mandarin that steels the show with one of the most brilliantly subversive super-villains we've seen on celluloid. Sadly, it's the other newcomers who fail to impress. Rebecca Hall's character is woefully underwritten, and Guy Pearce does his best with a contrived and over-familiar character (Incredibles, anyone?) that, despite having a more prominent part to play than we'd anticipated, never really feels fully developed. The introduction of Advanced Idea Mechanics, or A.I.M. seems rushed and confused, getting a little lost in the high-octane pacing and pyrotechnics. For such a huge development in the franchise, it essentially feels like a sub-plot.
The set pieces are unsurprisingly lavish and dazzling (although the 3D is extraneous), but there is a sense that the third act is straining to supersede the cacophonous dénouement of The Avengers (a task it ultimately fails). Much effort has been made to strip Stark of his iron suit for as long as possible, so much so that he begins to have panic attacks when outside of his armoured shell. These scenes in particular are where Downey's talents are best exploited and we are able to get under the skin of the character for the first time since Favreau's original, but Iron Man 3 is never in danger of taking itself too seriously and proves that the Christopher Nolan formula is not the only road to go down. The final third may descend into a CGI circus, and the final twist may be one red herring too far, but it's nice to know that mainstream, blockbuster cinema still has the ability to surprise.
While it has its problems, Black's Iron Man 3 is smart, funny and consistently entertaining, and serves as a reminder of just how fun blockbuster cinema can be when in the right hands.