In a twist bewildering long-term geeks and nerds the world over, we now live in a post-Avengers world - not only is a movie about four superheroes teaming up one of the most successful films of all time, it's also been celebrated for being...y'know...good. What's more, after its clash of four separate stories, it's lain groundwork for a grandiose second act that bears nothing but promise. First up? Iron Man 3 (or Three...or 'the Third', or whatever the hell you like).
After the sheer scope of the Avengers' hoedown, it's surprisingly pleasant to skim back down to just the one primary hero in shot, and being reminded that Tony Stark will have problems of his own. Particularly after Stark's 'sacrifice play', which - we are informed at the beginning of the movie - has inflicted post-traumatic stress disorder on our hero, and he can't sleep. Couple that with a series of increasingly devastating bomb attacks overseen by a terrorist calling himself 'The Mandarin', as well as a shadowy figure returning from his past, Mr Stark has quite probably seen happier times. As you may have gathered, a dark tone has been set - words like 'shadowy' and 'traumatic' are being thrown about. It's that intense.
Snarkery aside, the story is cleverly structured and carefully paced, neatly balancing the newly introduced darker themes - pride coming before the fall, terrorism, industrial espionage, the whole PTSD thang - with the action-comedy tone of what came before. Most intriguing, however, is a mostly armour-free middle act that could've been a complete drag, even going so far as to have a mission where Stark's only tools are the contents of a local hardware store. It carries this coup off with aplomb, however - the emphasis on improvisation, adaptation and some good-old soul-searching brilliantly showcasing our hero's actual superpower. This also allows for a slow reveal of the Mandarin as both more and less than what he appears - genuinely, this is one of the biggest joys of the film: a most ingenious interpretation of a classic Marvel villain that subverts, twists, combines and stretches, but somehow fits perfectly within their new cinematic canon.
New director and co-writer Shane Black's fingerprints appear throughout - touchstones seemingly lifted directly from the cutting room floor of Black and Downey Jr's previous collaboration, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The dialogue has taken a silver-tongued turn towards Black's personal brand of quirk - to which Downey Jr is perfectly suited, let it be known - and he also retains his proven stylistic pretensions, giving the darker aspects of the story a deliciously noire-ish feel. This is particularly evident in its development of Pepper Potts from damsel in distress (in heels), to femme fatale (in track pants), with Black coaxing a fierce performance from Paltrow that surprises and thrills (and as evidenced by my choice of poster at the top, might be my favourite thing in it).
Elsewhere, Downey Jr is Tony Stark - if they intend to replace him at any point, they're going to have their work more than cut out. There would be more to say if he had put a foot wrong - but even with a slightly grimmer character to grapple with, his performance effortlessly adapts. Ben Kingsley is...eh...in the film. To say more about his performance is to spoil quite what makes it so good, so we'll move on. Guy Pearce is wondefully sly as industrialist Aldrich Killian, 'before' and 'after' aspects of the character juxtaposing mouse against snake. The transition is believable, and he does his fair share of service to the plot. Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau are very much plot fodder, though they all do better than relatively under-written roles warrant. Best of the rest is James Badge Dale as First Henchman™, lip-lickingly evil and very much the deserving recipient of a comeuppance.
Come the end of it. the very best thing about the film - as I've been hinting at - is the way that it doesn't quite play out how you think it might've. The narrative heads roughly down the expected path, but there's a couple of surprising turns come the end of the second and third acts that really speak volumes about quite how bold they're being with this whole thing. And it works - it's a great sequel, both to The Avengers, and to Iron Man 2, and an exciting, darkly humourous ride in its own right. Plus I was late seeing it, so if you haven't seen it at this point...what exactly have you been doing with yourself? See it. Again, if you have to.