Being a superhero is a tough job.
Physically, psychologically and relationally – no part of your life is left untouched by the rigours of a calling which throws any hope of a normal life completely out the window.
Try as you might to have some semblance of a 9-to-5 life, nefarious villains and shady figures from your past are constantly conspiring to end the world and take you with it, daring you to try and stop them.
It takes it toll as Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), once unceasingly brash and confident, but now paranoid and sleep-deprived after his world-saving adventures in The Avengers all too readily attests to Pepper Potts early in the epic third instalment in the Iron Man franchise.
The film finds Tony Stark going through the motions of his devil-may-care lifestyle but beneath the bon vivant attitude and the cheesy oneliners, delivered with aplomb by an actor at the top of his game, he is a shadow of the man he once was, lost in his work and prisoner to the now 42 Iron Man suits which fill his not-so-secret underground lair.
His relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the woman who he acknowledges is the most important thing in the world to him, is teetering on the brink, one flirtatious exchange with ethically-challenged geneticist, and possible mad scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), away from failing miserably.
And much like his prototype suit #42, which hasn’t had all the kinks worked out of it yet and sputters and dies at the least appropriate times – say somewhere over Rose Hill, Tennessee in the depths of winter – his life isn’t so much zooming forward as lurching drunkenly and uncertainly from side to side.
Tony Stark is a mess.
Not a morose, introspective mess admittedly since what makes the Iron Man franchise work in part is Tony Stark’s endless need to indulge his comically cynical side and take impromptu ass-kicking action he may later regret, but a mess nonetheless, one that not even Pepper or long time friend, Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka The Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle) seems to be able to do anything about.
Ah yes but there’s the rub.
Mess or no mess, evil, in the form of a devilish team made up of Aldrich Killian and Osama bin Laden-style terrorist, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) waits for no man, damaged or not, and when they threaten to take much more from him than his ability to sleep soundly at night, Tony Stark is forced to act.
Alas his suits fail initially to fully come to the party and when, after a rash threat to take down The Mandarin singlehandedly is issued in the heat of the moment after a visit to the hospital bedside of fatally injured former bodyguard and chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who also acts as one of the movie’s producers) results in his house being destroyed, and Pepper almost being taken from him, it begins to look like he may have to do much of his super hero actioning sans the suit.
Which, in a nice nod to his ongoing “am I man or machine?” existential dilemma, he does.
True the suits do finally rise to the occasion, all 42 of them in fact appearing in the climactic scene to magnificent effect, but for much of the running time of Iron Man 3, success or otherwise comes down to Tony Stark’s ability to outthink, outwit, and at times outquip, his enemies without his self-described “cocoon”of armour.
Challenged by, and almost paralysed by, the prospect of acting without his metallic carapace, he is emboldened to act by a rather prepossessed eight year old boy, Harley (gifted child actor Ty Simpkins who is superb in the role), who helps Tony out when he crash lands in Tennessee and his suit malfunctions.
And act he does, to devastating effect righting all the wrongs eventually and emerging triumphant at the end of the film.
That is hardly a revelation since Marvel films do not routinely trade in the uncertain grey of human existence, and their endings are affirmative inspiring endings without exception, but the journey to reach that point is filled with all manner of setbacks, near misses, and enough one liners to fuel a comedy festival for decades.
While it’s true that Iron Man 3 is hardly boldly original, trading in many of the stock standard tropes of the superhero genre – trouble protagonist, menacing villain/s, end of the world beckoning – it uses them in a highly imaginative fashion, crafting an action-fueled movie that doesn’t forgo characterisation for the sake of an adrenaline-fueled narrative.
True, Tony Stark’s existential angst aside, it’s unlikely to win any plaudits for rich, deep characterisation, or intricately involved storytelling, but it is far more substantial and layered than many films of its ilk.
That is thanks largely to Tony Stark, played to perfection by Robert Downey Jr, who brings the right amount of gravitas, levity and in-your-face bravado to the role.
Comical and cheesy yes at times but the perfect man for the job and very much at home in the larger-than-life world of Iron Man.
Iron Man 3 and the entire Iron Man franchise may not carry with it the deep searing angst of the recent revitalised Christian Bale-starring Batman trilogy, or the upcoming rebooted Superman film, Man of Steel, but is nonetheless a substantial entry, with a cheeky sense of humour to boot, in the superhero canon and proof positive that intelligent blockbusters do not need to be an oxymoron.