Iron Man, I think, is never going to be bettered, even if one day one of its sequels or spin-offs ends up being genuinely better cinema, because Iron Man had a bit of good fortune that none of them ever will: it was unexpected, and you only get to have that happen once. Just like in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, where Johnny Depp's go-for-broke, out-of-the-blue performance turned a somewhat bloated and routine popcorn movie into a small masterpiece of entertainment, Iron Man wasn't terribly special or distinctive in any way, but Robert Downey, Jr's turn as the title character was exactly the shot in the arm that the leaking superhero genre badly needed in 2008, surprising and delighting pretty much everybody. In the five years since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it likes to be called, has had its ups and downs and even wonderful little surprises along the way (that Captain America boasts a full-on Alan Menken song and dance number, I still count as among the most charmingly off-kilter additions to any popcorn movie in the last decade or so), but there's been no sense of discovery, nothing that remotely resembles that stunned moment when you realised just what, exactly, Downey planned on doing with the role.
And so it is with Iron Man 3, which is certainly a fine movie, not without its distinctive flaws; but they tend to be things that are more, "oh, I didn't like that part", rather than "GOD OH MY LIVING FUCK CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY DID THAT SUCH A BAD MOVIE". Though there is a twist wherein, if I were properly a Marvel comics fan and not just a dabbler, I'd be undoubtedly more peeved than I am about what it does to the villain of the piece. Anyway, my point is, IM3 is solid superhero moviemaking, and I at least found it a more rounded and satisfying experience than the infinitely-ballyhooed, but ultimately shallow The Avengers, but nothing about it was exciting, not the way the first Iron Man was and remains. Dare I say it, but after four movies now where he was more or less the lead, and despite Downey giving a far more alive and clever performance under the hands of director Shane Black than his last two outings with the character, Iron Man simply has nothing game-changing to show us anymore. His third and probably final solo outing is sure as hell entertaining, but it's not special. Given the state of modern blockbuster filmmaking, "entertaining" isn't anything to jeer at, Lord knows, but it takes more than that to make a classic.
The film takes place largely in December, 2012 (and it's specific enough that the "Present Day" slate that gets us there from a film-opening flashback is more than a little bit confusing), where, months after the near-death experience he had fighting aliens in New York, Tony Stark (Downey) is in a bad way: frequent anxiety attacks make it hard for him to sleep well, his romantic relationship with former assistant and current CEO of Stark Industries Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is suffering as a result, and he's all-in-all prone to making bad decisions. It is exactly the wrong time for a shadowy terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to be exploding bombs throughout the U.S., and issuing terrifyingly-edited videos to threaten the world, but if something terrible wasn't happening, there wouldn't be any cause for a movie, so as bad as it is for Tony's PTSD, the situation works out well for us. When one of the bombs sends Tony's friend and former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) into a coma, the unbalanced hero decides to make things personal, and one very noisy, very brutal setpiece later, Tony's collection of technological wonders lies in ruins and he is, himself, presumed dead.
Something I only noticed in writing that paragraph: Iron Man 3 doesn't have a very clear-cut, linear plot. It is driven rather more by character than by conflict, and for that reason alone, it would have my gratitude; there are enough superhero movies without much character at all, thank you, and the chief problem of Iron Man 2 was its undue interest in world-building over giving its characters room to breath. The bulk of the film is more concerned with Tony grappling with his demons and trying to uncover a plot, than actually fighting back against the heat-controlling mutants controlled by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist with a connection to the Mandarin, and the whole thing's just damn weird for a comic-derived story. But it is not terribly weird at all for a Shane Black story, and while with only one prior film under his belt as a director (the Downey vehicle Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), it's asking too much for him to have a recnogisable style (of which none emerges from IM3, anyway), the structure and narrative feel of IM3 is unabashedly right in line with Black's earlier work; a hefty dose of Lethal Weapon, especially in the badinage, and quite a few echoes of The Last Kiss Goodnight in its middle, and in parts of the staging of the climax, and if I'd ever seen The Last Boy Scout, I bet I'd be able to see that, too, even if I had to make it up. I'd go as far as to say that IM3 has more of a personal stamp than any other in-universe film to date, maybe outside of Joe Johnston's affection for gung-ho WWII-isms in Captain America.
That's not to say that it's necessarily better than any of them, though by virtue of concerning itself more with the inside of Tony's head and heart (the word "soul" is employed in this movie in subtle but totally unmissable places), it feels a bit more serious. I don't know if that's a good thing or not: the chief appeal of the first Iron Man has always been to me that it's a great deal of breezy fun, and the bad case of the Steely Blue Grims that has taken hold of comic book movies in the intervening half-decade only makes me enjoy its frivolity all the more. "The most sober-minded Iron Man movie yet" isn't exactly the direction I'd hoped they'd take the franchise, even though it's good that Black is able to make that stick fairly well.
Still, it gets the job of being a busy summer popcorn movie done with aplomb: the action is at least better than in the first two Iron Man movies, though the best parts are not the overblown but somewhat unimaginative finale (a mid-film plane rescue is infinitely more exciting). Where it's at its most entertaining is surely when it's witty: Downey is in terrific form, and Black and co-writer Drew Pearce feed him an unending stream of terrific lines that manage to keep the film afloat even when it should absolutely be taking on water at a fatal rate: the pointless interlude with a little science nerd kid (Ty Simpkins) leaps to mind, as does the mawkish final scene. Of the rest of the cast, only Kinglsey's hammy-menacing performance reaches any kind of level like Downey's (he deserves a far more coherent part than he was given), and the film has its share of missed opportunities: plot developments that might have worked better, themes that could have been more deeply explored (the entire subplot about Tony's friend James Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle, and the rebranding of his own mechanical suit from "War Machine" to "Iron Patriot" is played with just enough that it really sucks they didn't go into the implications of it more), and characters that don't have enough meat on their bones (Rebecca Hall, an actress I greatly admire, is given a total throwaway part). It is fun, though: not quite as much fun as Iron Man the first, as it is not nearly as fresh, but there are worse ways to welcome summer than with the low-key return of an old friend in good spirits.