‘A famous guy once said, ‘we create our own demons’’. So says Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) in the opening monologue of IRON MAN THREE, the fifth film to feature the Marvel Comics superhero (yes, I am counting Edward Norton’s HULK sequel). For the uninitiated, Stark is a billionaire inventor who at the end of IRON MAN 2 had passed the reins of his hi-tech weapons manufacturing business to his secretary, the improbable sounding Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). So she is the most powerful women entrepreneur in America, right? Featured on the front page of FORBES? Inspiring women everywhere to break that glass ceiling? Er, no. She just runs Stark Enterprises so Tony the shirker can hide out in the basement on his cliff top retreat fiddling with metal outfits and exchanging quips with his computer, Jarvis (Paul Bettany). Incidentally, why does Stark give his operating system the voice of an English butler? Either because he’s a child of STAR WARS or he wanted to create his own version of ‘Ask Jeeves’ and got peeved when someone beat him to it.
‘We create our own demons.’ One of these is a franchise that makes Downey Jr comfortably well off but does not allow him to extend his range. So what do you do when you find a part that fits you like a glove, when you can drop cold one-liners adhering to your version of an honesty box? (I actually think Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is a bit autistic.) You reach out to new audiences. You acknowledge that ten year old kids like little Harvey (Ty Simpkins) would be bowled over by a man who disappeared through a worm hole and came out again. (That worm hole - it’s called the Nineties.) You perceive that Tony Stark / Downey Jr would have a gay fan who models himself on him; he has the tattoo, the hair, moustache, goatee and everything. Both of these characters help Stark when he’s in tight spots; when the 42nd version of his armour fails him and he’s in the middle of small town America.
So what demons does Stark create? One of them is the spurned nerdy scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who you just know the next time you see him is going to be a real smoothie. (Guess what?) Others are the injured service personnel, missing arms, legs and a pension who become Killiain’s guinea pigs. They grow back their limbs and become super soldiers. (Stark didn’t create these, the war on terror did, but let’s skip over that.) There is also the small matter of Stark’s nightmares, his black hole flashbacks. I remember when films had Vietnam flashbacks. Now characters break into cold sweats remembering 2008; the unregulated financial system’s parting gift. Stark’s biggest fear is that he’ll lose Potts. But since Paltrow moved to England and took fewer parts, he need not be worried.
IRON MAN THREE is notable for the daring choice of director of Shane Black, a once hip screenwriter who created the LETHAL WEAPON franchise but whose scripts for THE LAST BOY SCOUT and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT underwhelmed audiences. For much of his career, Black stuck to a formula: pair a crazy white person (Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis or Geena Davis – well, the latter lost her memory) with a cool, slightly crocked African American (Danny Glover, Damon Wayans or Samuel L Jackson). If it ain’t broke, the hell you don’t fix it. In IRON MAN THREE, he is back in his element. The crazy white guy is Stark; the cool, slightly crocked African American is Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) otherwise known as the Iron Patriot (he takes his vitamins). Of course, I know I have overlooked Black’s genre busting KISS KISS BANG BANG – it was named after a Pauline Kael book, how could I overlook it? But it’s an exception – an entertaining one, but did not make over one hundred mill.
So back to demons: Stark ignores Killain, who becomes his nemesis. Black has stolen the plot of BATMAN FOREVER; all we need is Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Two Face. But wait, the film has its equivalent, but I won’t spoil the movie by saying who it is. (Let’s just say it is not William Sadler’s President, but someone pretty close to him.) There is also the small matter of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Afghan-looking dude who rolls his ‘r’s as he says ‘you’ll nevurrrr see me coming’. (I know screenwriting manuals say don’t write dialogue phonetically – it fails the spell check – but this review is on the internet.) He appears to be the evil mastermind who can hack into all of America’s TV networks, even PBS, all though he’s pretty considerate; he never interrupts the game, only re-runs of CHARLES IN CHARGE. (PS: I have never watched CHARLES IN CHARGE.) After Stark’s bodyguard now Head of Security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) gets seriously injured outside Graumann’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard – I blame those street performers – Stark vows revenge, giving out his home address. Then some helicopters fire rockets at his retreat. Oops.
I should also mention Stark’s ex-girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) who turns up at the house to warn him about something real important – like the fact that SHIELD is on a two week vacation. Honestly, America is being threatened, including Air Force One, and there is no sign of Nick Fury, Hawkeye or even the Norse Dude who came from the computer-generated kingdom in the sky. What is Fury doing – getting his eye patch buffed? Halfway through the film, I worked it out: you have to do something really bad that’s worth avenging, like the non-availability of tickets to see Scarlett Johansson in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. (Actually, I never tried.)
The main pleasure of the film, even if you like well-executed CGI action in 3D, and the standout ‘barrel of monkeys’ thirteen-flight-crew-thrown-off-a-plane sequence, is the justification of Kingsley’s hammy performance – spoil it? I could not possibly. I like the fact there is a reference to Croydon – Shane Black has travelled, or let one of the actors write their own dialogue.
It is inevitable that Stark must confront his demons, which he does in half-measure. He takes on the genetically modified Killain but somehow forgets his wormhole nightmares. The reason: don’t have too much exposition - the audience won’t stand for it. Oh look, he has rewarded the kid who helped him with new toys...
IRON MAN THREE is basically a silly entertainment with a few nods to 9/11, which some people might find offensive. It has gaping improbabilities but maintains pace and spectacle to keep you interested. Oh yes, there are references to DOWNTON ABBEY, but here in England we don’t think the reference – or the show – is particularly clever.