Robert Downey Jr returns as Tony Stark and reunites with director Shane Black for an overdue tilt at Iron Man’s greatest comics foe, The Mandarin.
Black playfully opens with an extended flashback to
Downey Jr Tony at the height of his partying. In Switzerland for New Year’s Eve 1999, he plays a cruel prank on crippled scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and seduces brilliant scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). Christmas 2012, however, finds Tony suffering anxiety attacks about The Avengers, his chauffer promoted to head of security Happy (Jon Favreau) harassing everyone about authorisation badges, and his girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) turning down a business proposal from a now able-bodied Killian that seems to incorporate Hansen’s Extremis research into limb regeneration in plants. Killian’s shady associate Eric (James Badge Dale) arouses Happy’s suspicions, but Tony just obsessively tinkers on new versions of his suit; until a media-hijacking terror campaign by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) literally jolts him out of his comfort zone into fighting for survival.
Black provided Downey Jr with the definitive iteration of his persona in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but his script with Drew Pearce only intermittently reaches such heights. Black returns Tony to essential characterisation: a genius inventor who needs to invent quickly, without resources, to save his skin. Tony’s PTSD, after some initial sombreness, is largely played for laughs; especially in scenes with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a helpful kid he meets in small-town Tennessee while following up a clue Happy found. The Tennessee sequences feature fantastic moments as Black pushes the envelope on Tony’s abrasiveness. Once Tony returns to the fray in Miami Black punctuates the escalating action with hilarious undercutting, and one spectacular scene straight out of his customary playbook. But these are touches invigorating a formulaic script (which features an outrageously obvious climactic twist) rather than a page-one subversive deconstruction of superhero cliches.
Dale is very menacing as an Extremis supervillain – combining regenerative powers with super-heating abilities. Dale’s henchman outshines his boss, as Pearce’s part begins ridiculously and never gains either true menace or grandiosity, despite delivering an unexpected shock. Pearce is dwarfed by a Fassbendering Kingsley, who finds very surprising comedy in The Mandarin, despite having a traumatising scene where he tests the President (William Sadlier) live on TV. Hall is sadly underused and Don Cheadle’s Colonel Rhodes is misplaced by the script for most of the second act, but Paul Bettany has fun as malfunctioning computer Jarvis and Paltrow belies her status as America’s most hated celebrity with another charming turn as a Pepper tougher than hitherto. The standout aerial sequence is very exciting, but, once again, the frenetic finale degenerates into wall-to-wall CGI mayhem that defeats emotional engagement.
Downey Jr and Black don’t deliver as much fun as hoped for, but this is an entertaining instalment of Marvel Studio’s only indispensable franchise.