The third Iron Man could have been one of two movies. It could have gone on a light and self-referential victory lap of the Ocean’s Thirteen variety. Or it could have decided that after two outings—one great, the other basically good enough—we had enough foundation with the characters to really dig in. Either might have worked, but it tried to be both. And didn't quite pull it off.
Some spoilers ahead, obviously.
Let's just make one thing clear: Iron Man 3 is incredibly entertaining. It knows exactly the beats it wants to hit, and generally, crams in all the raw materials of a genuine action opus. But it never quite builds up to itself. Too many of its parts aren't connected to anything; many plot points seem to have been discarded entirely (there's a whole excursion to Tennessee that leaves you feeling like 20 minutes is missing), while others are brought up, and only returned to once, briefly, as an afterthought, in the final act or epilogue. It has the effect of making the movie seem somehow both too long and in a hurry.
Some of those pacing changes might stem from who's behind the camera; while the first two Iron Man movies were directed by John Favreau, Iron Man 3 has Shane Black at the helm. Black made his name writing action movies like the Lethal Weapon series and Last Action Hero, and his impact can be felt in not just the structure but also the tone. There’s noticeable shift in how the movie’s humour works, even when it’s telling the same jokes as the first two. It’s a different movie, and in more ways than just, “Shane Black writes haha-funny.”
The plot of this Iron Man will be vaguely familiar to anyone who kept up with the "Extremis" or Ezekiel Stane storylines from the comics; Tony has to face down an international terrorist threat in the form of a group using a highly volatile biological injections to bomb the world.
The charm of the first two Iron Man movies (and the first more than the second) is that they were working on their own schedule. They were action movies, for sure, but part of what made them work is that they were really telling relatively small stories—by superhero standards—on a grand and explode-y scale. Look back at those plots. Not much happens, really, but they moved so methodically from scene to scene that you always knew what was happening, and why. Here, you often get the sense that the action moves from scene to scene because Shane Black wrote a good joke for Tony’s workshop, and hey, shouldn’t we have an early scene in there anyway?
To Black's credit, this doesn't amount to much of a negative. Iron Man 3 is still fun.
The performances are what you expect from the cast by now. Robert Downey Jr. totally, absolutely, symbiotically is Tony Stark, and two hours of him chewing on scenery as the character would be more than enough reason see this movie. The supporting cast is on point, as well; while some scenes that start out with a very “I’m getting too old for this shit” vibe, Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow and others actually manage to achieve genuine emotion and affection before the film dips back into schtick.
And oh, what schtick there is. While the first two films largely let Downey quip his way through scenes, this one takes out whole blocks to tell one joke, which itself is often not much more than a riff on jokes from the first two movies. Iron Man 3 is at its best, though, when it’s zipping around, streamlined, sprinkling zingers through its actually fairly compelling plot instead of slamming on the breaks for a punchline.
There’s smart here, too. At the very least, the movie has an intelligent take on the modern movie bad guy. Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin is totally convincing as a global terrorist, but we see so little of him through the first two-thirds of the film that by the time we get real time with Kingsley—who, again, is a delight—he feels secondary. The real shame, though, is that he and Guy Pearce, the other villain, never really has a chance to step into what should be meaty role.
One of the reasons that the first film worked so well was that the actual tension was between Tony Stark and his past, not some random drummed-up bad guy; the actual villain plot was didn't matter nearly as much as Stark's internal struggles. IM2 didn’t pull quite the same trick, but it gave Mickey Rourke plenty of time to do nothing but sit in a room and build his character, to help make us care. Here, despite a clever twist, the villains never seem driven by much more than wanting money or power. That's fine, but it's also stale in a way that Iron Man shouldn't be.
Ultimately, Iron Man 3 amounts to a very good buddy copy movie with excellent—but not awe-inspiring—visuals. The stakes and even the location seem off from what you’re used to from the series. The last scenes from the first movies had plenty of problems, but they were basically everyday conflicts (a corporate power struggle, an old business rivalry) played out on a gigantic and futuristic stage. It gave them meaning, even if the action mostly fell flat. Here, you’ve got a grand plot (Look, it’s the President!), but the principles of the infinitely better staged action are empty suits and faceless superpowered grunts. The movie is much more concerned with its cast as humans than its predecessors, especially in the fight scenes, but somehow loses track of their humanity in the process. Even when it builds to its emotional kicker in the final scene—a riff lifted straight from a Lethal Weapon final act, mind you—Iron Man 3 doesn’t stop to take a beat to let it set it. It’s just right back to robot fights.
That final scene, teased in the trailers with every Iron Man suit in existence showing up on command, serves as a pretty good glance at the film as a whole. Fun, elaborately and expertly choreographed, with all the objectively exciting bits—in this case, all that armour—added to excess, but adding up to something that's ultimately disposable.