Calling Iron Man 3 a mixed bag doesn’t really do justice to the heady peaks and interminable troughs in this scrappy but overwhelmingly likeable superhero sequel. In the minus column, there’s the tedious, talky first act, the script’s uneasy attempts at psychological realism, Gwyneth Paltrow’s increasingly shrill and redundant Pepper Potts and Robert Downey Jr’s disastrously smarmy, David Gest-like facial furniture. But they’re balanced out by a handful of punchy one-liners courtesy of Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black, a loveable old-school, Joe Dante-ish small-town-USA central section, and a sprawling cast of reliable supporting players including Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, Miguel Ferrer and the great William Sadler. Towering above them all is Ben Kingsley as one of comic book cinema’s most astonishing and unlikely supervillains.
We find Tony Stark (Downey Jr) languishing in the doldrums, scarred by his experiences with the alien-battling Avengers and throwing himself into work at the expense of relationships and sleep. What’s worse, there’s a terrorist on the loose: mystery man the Mandarin (Kingsley), bent on global annihilation. After an ill-advised public throwdown followed by a helicopter attack on his plush seafront palace, Tony heads for Tennessee on the trail of a seemingly suicidal ex-soldier, and quickly learns that nothing here is at it seems…
Despite his unimpeachable screenwriting CV, this is only Black’s second film as a director (his first, 2005’s gloriously foul-mouthed crime thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starred Downey Jr) and it shows. When he’s in his element Black delivers the goods in style, as in the scenes between Downey Jr and his temporary pre-pubescent sidekick, Harley (Ty Simpkins), or a hilarious mid-film switcheroo which may prove the summer season’s most jawdroppingly memorable moment. But he seems out of his depth during the larger set pieces: the action sequences are busy and confusing, especially the misjudged, threat-free climax.
The result is a film which never settles into a comfortable groove. It tries to be an angsty Dark Knight-style game changer, an ’80’s-throwback action romp, a nudge-wink pastiche and a CG-fuelled spectacular. It’s undeniably entertaining – and worth seeing for Kingsley alone – with the misfires never fully overshadowing the moments of glory. But in the wake of the triumph of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 still feels like something of a disappointment.