If The Avengers were the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of superhero supergroups – a mismatched and occasionally volatile bevy of talents whose whole was invariably greater than the sum of its parts – then Iron Man is Neil Young. Like Young, Tony Stark’s charisma threatens to overshadow the group, and so it seems fitting that Iron Man is the first to head out alone – just as Young did in 1970. (In this scenario, the Black Widow is probably drummer Russ Kunkel and Hawkeye is occasional touring bassist Calvin ‘Fuzzy’ Samuels, but alas I fear the folk-rock analogy is cumbersome enough.)
The Avengers earned fairly staggering $1.5billion at the box office (roughly the GDP of the Republic of San Marino, FYI), so Marvel’s first solo effort out of the gate would always have to be a big, brazen, balls-out, blustering affair, proving they could still steady that wobbly balance betwixt the commercial slaverings of their Disney overlords, the foam-mouthed expectations of the comic book fanbase, and the discerning wider audience, many of whom expect grown-up themes sewn into the childish costumes in this post-Dark Knight world.
Much of this must have been going through the mind of new director Shane Black (who gets a $200million budget for only his second film as director), and many elements from the Jon Favreau era have been appropriately culled. Gone is the moshy AC/DC soundtrack; gone, generally, is the sloppy freewheeling dialogue; and gone is Tony Stark’s sense of invincibility. The gun-ho rock-star hero is here at his most vulnerable, stricken with a surprising spate of panic attacks stemming from his near-death experience during the events of The Avengers.
Garnishing some depth upon a famously shallow character is certainly commendable, but it didn’t really work for me here. Robert Downey Jr (who, it should be said, continues to be on lightning form in the role he was born to play) spends more time out of the suit than in the previous two films, and while this acts as a vaguely interesting exploration of Stark’s motivations and fears, it makes the first hour lag, badly. Let’s not mince around – we all came here to see Iron Man wisecrack and kick substantial amounts of arse; anything less serves as a quiet disappointment.
And Tony Stark’s anxiety issues go largely unresolved. We are granted a brief wrap-up in a cute post-credits sequence with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, but should narrative strands really be limited to saddos like myself willing to sit through fifteen minutes of VFX artist credits? For all his talents as a screenwriter, Black’s script felt oddly bloated, with at least half an hour that could have trimmed, and yet somehow, plot points go unfinished or under-nourished.
The Mandarin, for example, is a character entirely squandered, with a bizarre comic twist that serves only as an anti-climax. Sir Ben Kingsley camps it up with aplomb, but not in the way you might expect, and he’s not as funny as he might think. That leaves villain duties to Guy Pearce, who delivers a straightforwardly reliable performance, but like his iron-suited adversary, the crux of the combative performances is delivered via CGI, and his ‘Extremis’ powers – breathing fire, exploding when angry – are ambiguous and sketchily outlined.
But still. Once things get going and the irreverent charms of a fun-loving millionaire superhero are given room to breathe, it’s as indulgently entertaining as the original film, and the final battle, involving forty-two AI-powered Iron Mans, is a fiery delight. The success of The Avengers as a behemothian multi-pronged franchise continues to be assured. But I’d strongly contend this is not quite the four-star triumph that the critical consensus seems to have settled on.