The film begins in a way that's totally unlike other Marvel films. Everything from the music to the pacing to the voiceover to the overall tone is drastically different not only from the previous Iron Man films but from any of the previous Marvel movies. The idea seems to be to bring Tony's character study, which started in Iron Man and carried through The Avengers, to a close within a single film, reminding the viewer where he came from and giving him a full arc that works within just Shane Black's film.
This is, in other words, a standalone Iron Man film, or as standalone an Iron Man film as we're likely to get right now. It not only doesn't require The Avengers but it doesn't even really require the first two Iron Man films to be fulfilling (although all three of those inform the plot, so it's not as though the film exists completely in a vacuum).
The flashback that begins the film has a humor that's over-the-top, beginning the film with a sequence that feels a little too outrageous to fit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but is brief enough to be written off as Tony's memory of the events. Even in the present day, though, we revisit the slapstick comic relief of the first film; Tony's first badass moment comes after a series of brief humiliations, and is pretty short lived before entering the next one. Tonally, this movie seems to be Black's attempt to summarize Tony's story, in high-speed.
Of course, that could be said of the second film, as well. In each Iron Man movie, we've started with a version of Tony who's too bombastic and theatrical for his own good, who values the spectacle over substance to some degree. That's something that Black plays with quite a bit in Iron Man 3, as he's surrounded by others who, to varying degrees, do the same.
War Machine is rebranded Iron Patriot just to give people a sense of ease around him. The Mandarin embraces Osama bin Laden's guerilla video style, along with Anonymous's cyber-tactics and the tone and tenor of an Evangelical minister when speaking. Both Killian and Hansen want things from Tony and Pepper, but they enter the story not willing to say what. These are all people who are projecting a front, for one reason or another. The illusions they cultivate serve a particular end for each character but, at the same time, become a liability to those characters throughout the film.
Illusion, perception, reality and the interplay of the three is an essential part of Iron Man 3 and at the heart of that is Tony Stark's journey from flash-over-substance billionaire to flash-over-substance superhero to a fully realized human being. This film peeks back at Tony's earliest days, his pre-Iron Man days, but that's not really where his flaws and faults come from.
Here, they come from a version of himself that wants to just insulate himself from another experience like he had in The Avengers. His self-centeredness manifests differently in Iron Man 3 than it has in the past, in that in the early going it's more about self-preservation than self-aggrandizement. It makes him immediately more vulnerable, more sympathetic--which is good because frankly the film doesn't take long before its complex plot and fistfuls of characters start to move forward, providing less time for characterization as it builds to a totally different kind of spectacle--one that's necessary, that's substance over flash, even though there is, admittedly, quite a lot of flash.
Similarly, his egomania isn't as tied up in his wealth, his sex appeal, his accomplishments. It's all about how he (as Iron Man) was the only one able to really put the Chitauri threat to bed in The Avengers. He sees that the world is in danger, and he perceives himself as the only one who can save it. Forget the Hulks and thunder gods; it's all about him. That's a mindset that's actually justified in-film because, for the first time since the first Iron Man, Tony is alone here, without other Avengers to assist him or keep him company. But that it's a bit more of a noble motivation doesn't make him any more stable, or easy to deal with, than when he's the Tony who takes risks or the Tony who drinks too much.
Honestly, this version isn't as well-suited to Robert Downey, Jr.'s skillset. In the moments of heightened emotion that come early on in the film, it's Paltrow who really seems at home. Her attempts to keep it together despite the edge of fear and uncertainty that creeps in around the edges when her "hero" is in pain. Downey deadpans his way through the movie, his lack of emotion failing to connect with his own explanation of what he's feeling and his performance only really coming alive when the time comes to lash out at The Mandarin, when his more typically Tony Stark persona begins to kick in.
Of course, it's then that Paltrow is a fish out of water. The two actors are never really "on" at the same time, leading to a general feeling that the pair are out of sync. That's actually kind of perfect for the film, although it seems unlikely that it was done on purpose.
The rest of the cast are exactly what they need to be--no more, no less. Sir Ben Kingsley is, of course, a terrific performer but he does nothing at all with this role that he didn't do to greater effect in War, Inc. Guy Pearce is wasted in a role that could basically just say "smarmy jerk" on every page of the script. Jon Favreau has more to do in this film than he has in the previous two installments, but the whole movie could still more or less happen without Happy, and Maya Hansen is a plot device more than she is a character, with a predictable character arc. Stan Lee's cameo is...well, it's Stan Lee's cameo. It's fun and all, but in this more than any other movie it feels like it doesn't really need to be there.
The "analog Iron Man" aspect of the plot in Tennessee is one of the more appealing parts of the film--unfortunately, it's held back a bit by Harley. The kid sidekick is a kid sidekick; Ty Simpkins doesn't transcend the role, and the chemistry between Harley and Tony is never quite right. They have the same playful, combative relationship that he has with Paltrow and Cheadle--but when you apply that to a kid, it alternately makes Tony seem mean for being rude or dismissive to a kid, or a little diminished by relying so heavily on him. The kid seems mostly to serve as a delivery device for levity at a point in the film where Tony and his support network are all at a distinct low. Harley keeps the tone light while Tony, Pepper, Rhodey and Happy are all, to varying degrees, in danger and unable to share a laugh with one another.0comments
Some fans will also likely be turned off by just how much of this movie--even the big action moments--happen when Tony is out of the armor. Fans still griping that Thor doesn't wear his helmet enough or Captain America spends too much time without a mask will likely spent the next month complaining on the Internet about an Iron Man film where the armor is missing in action for about 80% of Downey's total screen time. That doesn't mean, of course, that there's an absence of Iron Man. We see plenty in an action-packed climactic battle that pits the fruits of Tony's labor against those of the villains in one of the least well-hidden twists of any Marvel film (but we won't spoil it here, in case you managed to avoid it so far). It's a widescreen battle with a lot of brutality, a few close calls and some terrific stunt work that will no doubt win back some of the audience who will inevitably feel the movie is too talky.
At the end of the day, it's the film itself--what Black has set out to do, and the ways he succeeds in making a smart movie that happens to feature dudes who shoot fire and wear suits of armor--that make it a great film. It embraces a number of the typical superhero tropes--the damsel in distress, the choice between the love interest and the character of strategic importance, the villain's big twist and the kind of mano a mano hero/villain fistfight that The Avengers forewent in favor of a more chaotic battle setting--and gives the trilogy a satisfactory ending while setting up plenty for the next filmmaker to draw on should there be another Iron Man film soon.