Following The Avengers on stage must be, for the attending Marvel pack, a little like going on after Jimi Hendrix. After you. No, no, after you. Whatever you thought about that film, you'd have to admit it was a genuine phenomenon. Only Avatar and Titanic have made more at the worldwide box office. Joss Whedon's zippy ensemble adventure confirmed the continuing Marvel saga as a cinema staple for at least a decade to come.
First out of the trap is Shane Black's third film in the Iron Man sequence. The script slyly confirms that the Avengers' recent conflagration looms large in the minds of the writers and characters. Every now and then, after a shudder, somebody will refer to "what happened in New York" and move queasily on to the current crisis. Don't mention The Avengers . I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.
They need not have worried. Shorter and less self-regarding than most Marvel movies, Iron Man 3 is every bit as zippy as we might expect from the creator of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang . Robert Downey Jr, back as Tony Stark and alter ego Iron Man, has the stammering rhythms down perfectly. Ben Kingsley offers the best villain we have yet encountered in the Marvel Universe. The inevitable final conflagration does not outstay its welcome.
One warning should be issued. Just as The Dark Knight Rises didn't have all that much to do with Batman, Iron Man 3 only allows Tony Stark occasional opportunities to don the robotic suit. We should not be altogether surprised. RDJ is the series' greatest asset. Why allow him to sleep in while a computer-generated cyborg does all the work?
We begin – wonderfully strangely – with the opening notes of Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 (wrack your brains, folks). It is Millennium Eve and Tony Stark's gang are partying in some vulgar skyscraper. Tony has not yet cleaned himself up and, when a young, archetypal nerd named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) asks for a chat, he sends the poor fellow to the roof and then forgets to follow him up.
A decade or so later, now neat, suave and chiselled, Killian turns up to offer Stark Industries another crack at his biochemical wonder. Acting chief Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is impressed, but, worried that the scheme has weapons potential, sends Killian away to foster inevitable plans for world domination.
Meanwhile, The Mandarin (Kingsley), a sonorous pastiche of Osama Bin Laden, is breaking into the world’s airwaves and issuing all kinds of appalling threats. As the two menaces come together, Stark finds himself cast into middle-America with one malfunctioning suit. Yes, it’s that superhero plot: the long climb back from defeat and humiliation.
The current gimmick of allowing the suit to break into scores of individual units and swarm towards its creator makes for some delicious special effects shots. A final assault by massed Iron Men ups the ante effectively. But Iron Man 3 succeeds by virtue of its nicely worked rivalries, affections and hatreds. For all the digital wizardry on display, this remains a character piece and is all the more endurable for that.
Stark's weariness has reached such heights that a change in casting seems possible before The Avengers 2 (if contracts allow). Pepper Potts is belatedly allowed a degree of nuance. But Iron Man 3 belongs to Ben Kingsley. The Spoiler Police have forbidden us from explaining exactly why. But we can say that he does the best John Huston pastiche this side of There Will Be Blood. He does more.
We’ve said too much already.