I have to admit, as a fan of the comic book incarnation of Iron Man going all the way back to the early '80s, I can't help feel a bit of a fanboy thrill at how swiftly -- and how thoroughly -- the character's filmic success has made him not only one of Marvel Comics' top-tier heroes, but also one of the most prominent characters in all of pop culture. So much so that the onset of his third solo cinematic escapade has been greeted with the kind of pomp, ballyhoo, and anticipation that would have seemed unheard of (and sort of hilarious) just a few short years ago.
As the latest salvo in the Marvel Studios movie assault that began in 2008 with the first Iron Man and culminated (well, "Phase 1," anyway) with last year's The Avengers, Iron Man 3 does an admirable job of advancing the ball for the studio's multi-tiered mega franchise, but doesn't do much more than that. The much-anticipated trilogy-capper is pulled in too many directions by a story that borders on incoherent, but it's bracketed by some truly spectactular action set pieces, and is held together by the sheer electromagnetism of star Robert Downey Jr., whose fourth turn in his now-signature role demonstrates yet again why he's worth every penny of his mammoth, Tony Stark-esque paycheck.
Directed and co-written by series newbie Shane Black (but don't worry, previous helmer Jon Favreau still has a co-starring role), the third film picks up with Stark, our resident self-described "genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist," working through a raft of insecurities after all the other-dimensional alien invasion business from last summer. Night after sleepless night, he's locked away in his underground lab, devising ever-elaborate extensions and modifications to his metal-mouthed alter ego (having worked his way up to the segmented, self-actuating Mark 42 by the time we finally join the proceedings).
Meanwhile, the world is terrorized by a mystery man calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who prompts the the US president (William Sadler) to draft Stark's friend and ally James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) into duty as the armored-and-dangerous Iron Patriot to track the villain down. Toss into the mix Guy Pearce as rival technocrat Aldrich Killian, who seems interested in poaching Stark's ladylove Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), a mysterious new technology called "Extremis," and a terror attack that leaves our emotionally wounded hero out for revenge, and you've got all the makings of a movie with a reach that may be bigger than its grasp.
Following The Avengers as it does, there was just no way to compete with the mega Marvel jam pic on scale, so the filmmakers (rightly) concluded that the way forward was to go deeper. As such, much of the 130 minute runtime is spent on the PTSD-like symptoms Stark is experiencing after his near-death experience in New York, and how it's crippled his ability to be the hero he's expected to be. There's some good stuff to mine there, but it also can't help but feel a bit like a retread of the "blood poisoning" angle that Stark had to overcome in movie two -- an arbitrary frailty concocted to tease our interest in the hero's latest struggle in lieu of an interesting antagonist (Mickey Rourke's Whiplash last time, I won't say who this time).
Perhaps this creative semi-paralysis is unavoidable given that movie one already took our erstwhile lead from carefree warmonger to responsible superhero -- a full character arc. This, in turn, necessitates the need to devise new demons with which to plague our protagonist lest it seem like he's running in place. The other issue (and one that's plagued the comics for decades as well) is the Iron Man suit itself. A modern age iteration of the bottomless magic satchel from folk stories and fairy tales, there's no real limitation to the adversity it can overcome, and thus no real drama it can create (a fact borne out by the film's heavy metal climax, which has Stark jumping in and out of an armada of automated suits with the casual ease most people reserve for loafers).
Compounding that problem is that there are simply too many plot threads laid out, only a few of which are developed to satisfaction, and most of whose payoffs feel forced and perfunctory. In particular, and this is where I try (and fail) to suppress my raging inner nerd, the final disposition of the Mandarin storyline rockets right past perfunctory and lands squarely at insulting. As a longtime fan of the books it's especially egregious, but I can't imagine that those unfamiliar with the character -- who has long been established as Iron Man's preeminent, premiere baddie -- won't be just as put off. It doesn't make me angry so much as it makes me scratch my head at the thought process that said this was the way to go.
It's no accident that huge swaths of the movie are entirely Iron Man free, focusing instead on Robert Downey inhabiting his character with practiced precision. In turn, the actor's re-teaming with director Black, who arguably launched the actor's career resuscitation with 2005's under-seen, under-appreciated Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, helps the story transcend its limitations, making this an overall more enjoyable experience than the previous Iron Man solo go. Does it reset the celluloid superhero landscape forever and always a la The Avengers? No, but then that was never a reasonable expectation. Instead, Iron Man 3 needed to keep the lights on as Marvel set about changing the scenery for "Phase 2," and on that score it succeeds satisfactorily, if not spectacularly. B+