The trailers for "Iron Man 3" were darker in tone, showing the dramatic destruction of Tony Stark's home, and Tony himself being put in grave peril. Gone were the jokes and the snark, suggesting that this sequel was going to be a much more serious film than the others. Well, that's not the case. "Iron Man 3" is just as light-hearted and irreverent as the "Iron Man" films have ever been, though the stakes are pretty high this time out, and director Shane Black does manage to make the peril suitably impressive. However, if you're one of those fans hoping to watch Tony Stark really face his inner demons, his alcoholism, and his psychological baggage in an adult way, this is not the movie for you. And we're probably never to see that movie because Marvel is now owned Disney. However, if you're in the mood for a light, fun action movie with whole lot of shiny special effects, this one should do the trick. There's a little bit of Tony Stark facing his demons too. Not much, but enough to keep things interesting.
So when last we saw Tony Stark, played as always by Robert Downey Jr., he had just helped save the world from certain doom in "The Avengers." Now it's been a couple of months, and we find that Stark hasn't been dealing well with the aftermath. He's become a workaholic, staying up for days at a time, and has built dozens of new Iron Man suits. The latest can be controlled remotely, and the individual pieces summoned to form the full suit wherever Stark happens to be. Girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), still CEO of Stark Industries, has moved in with him, and she's worried about him. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Stark's best friend and current owner of the War Machine suit, recently rebranded by the government as the Iron Patriot, is also worried about him. Even Stark's former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), recently promoted to Head of Security of Stark Industries, is worried about him. He calls up Tony when Pepper takes a meeting with handsome scientist and think-tank founder Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), to voice his suspicions. Stark and Killian have a past, as it turns out, stemming from a bad encounter during Tony Stark's less altruistic days.
However, the more obvious threat to Tony is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an elusive terrorist who has been behind several deadly bombing incidents, and claims the credit through sinister video broadcasts that promise worse to come. Nobody can figure out how he's executing the bombings, because there's no evidence of bombs left behind. The Mandarin is a considerably better villain in conception and execution than anyone else Tony Stark has faced onscreen, though as usual he's no match for Stark himself, who will always been his own worst enemy. This time out Stark has mostly cleaned up his act and is refraining from bad behavior, but he's still battling personal doubts that have escalated to the point where he's having anxiety attacks. It's Robert Downey Jr. who sells this, and it's a notion that pretty hard to swallow given what we know about Tony Stark, but this franchise's biggest asset has always been its leading man. Despite all the fancy CGI visuals, in the end it's Downey Jr.'s performance that's the biggest attraction.
Now there are some decent twists and turns in the bigger plot, but the real fun is in the little incidental moments, when Stark is interacting with new characters and in situations that are very different than the ones we've seen him in before. At times "Iron Man 3" feels like a cop or detective movie, as Tony Stark tries to sort out his foes' big master plan with very limited resources. Some of the later scenes where he and Don Cheadle join forces have the DNA of an old buddy action caper, the kind that Shane Black is best known for. Black was a great choice to replace Jon Favreau in the director's chair this time out, because his ironic, self-aware sense of humor is a great match for the Tony Stark character, and he's not shy about taking Iron Man in some risky directions. For instance, there are a couple of scenes involving Stark and a cute kid, and I was bracing myself for all the usual clichés involving cute kids and superheroes. I shouldn't have worried. The clichés all get subverted in about ten minutes flat.
"Iron Man 3" is not anywhere near as good as the first Iron Man movie – it's third act is far too predictable, and several good characters get shortchanged – but still a vast improvement over the second. If I had my way it would be the last "Iron Man" movie, because the direction they're taking the Tony Stark character is one that's going to be difficult to maintain in any subsequent sequels. And it goes out with enough closure and on a big enough bang that it's going to be very hard to top.