Iron Man Three finds its eponymous superhero at something of a crossroads with his own identity. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who once iterated that he wasn't the "hero type," has now seen battle, and the events of the climax of 2012's The Avengers have inspired a stress disorder. Even the mention of aliens, a wormhole, or New York City is enough to send him into a severe anxiety attack. This is an idea with some potential - to examine Tony in uncharted territory. It is strange, then, how co-writer/director Shane Black seems not to have a solid idea how to treat this phenomenon in Tony's life.
In the scene that introduces us to his PTSD, he is sitting at a restaurant table with his pal/sidekick Rhodey (Don Cheadle), aka Iron Patriot (temporarily rebranded from "War Machine" by a Presidential administration that wanted to make his alter ego more nationalist), when a couple of kids wanting Iron Man's autograph come up to him with their hand-drawn interpretations of the attack in New York for him to sign. Tony imagines one of those kids an inch away from his ear asking about that attack. Black does something strange with the tone of this scene.
The reason for the scene is something rather dire (a posttraumatic stress disorder exhibited, as usual, by raised blood pressure, heightened aggression, and a racing heartbeat), but the way Black establishes the scene is by regarding the condition as an absurd thing worthy of a few embarrassed chuckles. Later, when an investigation into the central plot thread of the movie brings him to Nowhere, USA, he encounters a precocious kid inventor named Harley (Ty Simpkins), whose personality mirrors the hero's, in that he purposely pushes Tony's buttons and triggers his disorder. Until a sudden turn toward sincerity (and a strange "cure" for Tony's anxiety), these scenes are also played for sly comedy.
It's nothing much more than an identity crisis, shared by the rest of Black's screenplay (co-written with Drew Pearce). The plot this time has Tony facing down two threats: The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a bin Laden clone who has been staging and executing deadly explosions around America, and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an old admirer of Tony's entrepreneurial ventures who was jilted by Tony 15 years earlier and now wants to capitalize on his own invention. The former wants to teach America and, in particular, its current President (played by William Sadler) a series of lessons. The latter just wants the recognition he feels he was due.
This, of course, means we get the requisite action sequences, and it is when Black puts the pedal to the metal in these scenes that the film is at its best: an escape from Tony's lavish residence as it is torpedoed into the ocean, a high-flying rescue from a downed Air Force One, and the climax, which might be set on a factory barge but uses Tony's various Iron Man suits (Iron Men?), powered by his artificially intelligent assistant JARVIS (voice of Paul Bettany), to clever, often comic effect. It is here, too, when the film's sly sense of humor isn't a distraction, particularly when the conflicts merge in an unexpected way and, in the process, say something particularly pointed about the concept of a hero/villain dynamic. What Iron Man Three lacks - and what its superior predecessors did not - is an awareness that Tony is much more interesting outside the suit than he is when he dons it to fight some bad guys.
Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian), Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen), Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes/Iron Patriot), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), James Badge Dale (Savin).
Directed by Shane Black and written by Black and Drew Pearce.
Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action/violence throughout, brief suggestive content).
Released on May 3, 2013.