This review contains some mild spoilers.
Fanboys looked at Iron Man in 2008 and said, "Aha, it is a success because finally we have a movie that gets comics." That's delusion. Iron Man sparked the Marvel Movie juggernaut that led to the third-highest grossing movie of all time, The Avengers, for one key reason: RDJ.
The moms whose first notion of comics are Archie and Jughead saw and liked Iron Man because RDJ's handsome billionaire scientist was funny and charming and the role of a humbled Icarus fighting for good touched everyone. Now, after a full sequel, a half-sequel, two Sherlock Holmes movies and ephemeral work like Due Date, the time has come to admit: I just can't take much of Robert Downey Jr.'s shtick anymore.
Downey's contrived way of throwing away lines and speaking with unnatural rhythms is almost enough to distance you from what is otherwise a terrific, albeit Roger Moore Bond-level dumb action picture. But as Tony Stark is wont to remind you, "I am Iron Man," and by now Robert Downey Jr. is interchangeable with Tony Stark.
Iron Man 3 kicks off with Stark licking his wounds from the psychological impact of the big conclusion of The Avengers. He's also thinking back to a strange encounter with two young scientists on New Year's Eve 1999 (Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce). It's a tough time for the American population, gripped in fear by a terrorist called The Mandarin.
Sir Ben Kingsley's The Mandarin is far and away the finest villain in any of the Marvel films. And with the Red Skull and Loki that's saying something. He is of vague international origin, appearing to be Arabic, but his messaging is Chinese and his accent sounds like an exaggerated version of Clint Eastwood doing John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart. Furthermore the screenplay by Shane Black and Drew Pearce goes a long way to keep his goals secretive.
We know, however, that he's tied up with A.I.M., the secretive think tank formed by Guy Pearce, leading a group of terrorist attacks that involve sleeper agents transforming into glowing lava bombs.
One such attacks injures Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), leading Stark to go bananas and dare the Mandarin to show up at his door.
Of course, it isn't just his door. He's comfortably domesticated with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's also running Stark Enterprises and is, next to Kingsley, the best thing about this picture. When the Mandarin/A.I.M.'s forces attack it is one of two daylight action sequences that are absolutely outstanding.
The other (which has been teased on ads, so no spoilers) involves Iron Man's crafty way of saving people who've been sucked out of an airplane. It's a stomach-in-throat sequence that is terrifying and exhilarating and if you don't break out into applause afterwards you may as well check yourself for a pulse.
The plane in question belongs to the President (William Sadler - or Luther Sloane of Section 31 to you Deep Space Nine fans), whom Iron Man and Don Cheadle's Rhodey (aka War Machine aka Iron Patriot) must rescue before the baddies kill him and, more importantly, kill Pepper Potts.
They want to kill them because. . .well . . .um. . .actually, it's a little vague. If Iron Man 3 has one undeniable flaw (I admit my exasperation with Downey is highly subjective), it is that the foes' master plans and motivations are a little undercooked. But that's okay because every minute Kingsley is on screen just sizzles and Pearce and his A.I.M. buddies have these cool albeit somewhat undefined powers. At one point Pearce breathes fire at Rhodey and that is just badass.
The big finish, moments which have been weak spots in the two previous Iron Man films, works quite well. When all hope appears lost, Stark summons an armada of Iron Man suits of varying shapes and sizes. They go to town on the A.I.M. warriors with their crazy fire powers and it is a tremendous amount of fun. Furthermore Pepper Potts gets an opportunity to do some ass-kicking of her own, giving us an "oh, snap!" moment that can sit alongside the Hulk whipping Loki around like a rag doll.
There's a moment in the film where the Shane Black who brought us Kiss Kiss Bang Bang really shines through, and it is indicative of what makes Iron Man 3 unique. When Stark needs to break into the A.I.M. headquarters he has none of his high-tech suits available, so he crafts weapons out of what's available to him - mainly kids toys. What it does is somewhat break from the established canon of how Stark fights, but does it in a way that is true to Stark's character.
There's a lot of Iron Man 3 that dares to step out on its own. While the final denouement may not exactly make rational sense ("why'd he do that?" a teen to my right asked aloud), it is a character moment that works. Yes, I've confessed that I'm a little fed up with RDJ, but he is Iron Man. And Iron Man is awesome.