SPOILERS FOR IRON MAN AND BASICALLY MOST MARVEL MOVIES
Tony Stark is not a superhero. At least not in the conventional sense. Rewatching the original Iron Man what stood out to me the most was how unheroic he is. When comparing him to, say, Spider-Man, you notice that Tony never really does anything out of altruism. The movie is about him becoming a better person, but he doesn't save anybody or fight crime. The only real heroics he does is when he saves a small village from the 10 Rings, but that's not done because he just wanted to save people. It was done out of revenge and clearing Tony's own conscience (the weapons used in the attack were built by Stark Industries). Spider-Man will sacrifice his scholarship, job, and identity to go save some folks (in Spider-Man 2 he literally does this, taking a detour from delivering pizzas to stop some robbers), but to Iron Man, saving people is an incidental plus to his own goals. The Tony Stark from Iron Man would never sacrifice himself just to help others.
The Avengers, however, is a different story. Tony is probably the primary protagonist of that film and the only hero to be changed by his experiences. He starts out the same as he was in Iron Man, but due to a dead Coulson, a missile, and a wormhole, he discovers his heroic side, the part of him willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. It's an interesting build, as most superhero movies would have established that fact before the end credits of their first outing, while it took 3 movies to do so with Iron Man. As I've mentioned before, major Hollywood franchises are becoming more like television in how they are built. You can really consider all the Marvel movies, starting with Iron Man and going up to The Avengers, as Season 1. They introduce everybody with their own movies before throwing them all together for the big season finale. With this in mind, Iron Man 3 is supposedly the beginning of Season 2.
The problem is that Iron Man 3 clearly doesn't want to be this. It wants to be a stand alone movie, not part of a greater whole. But because the Marvel universe is now established it can't be, it needs to be a component of this world. This may explain why the movie feels so disorienting, and why even though it's certainly not a bad movie by any means it's definitely disappointing.
Iron Man 3 begins with a flashback to Tony Stark of the past (played once again by Robert Downey Jr., who continues to be the standout of the series) on New Years 1999. He meets a young woman named Maya Hansen (Rebbecca Hall), inventor of a new experimental treatment for cripples and amputees called Extremis, which has got to be the worst name since Unobtainium. He blows off nerdy young scientist Aldrich Killiam (Guy Pearce) to hook up with Hall. Jump to present day, where Tony is suffering from PTSD ever since the Avengers incident. A mysterious man known only as the Mandarian (Ben Kingsly) is setting off explosions around the country, using people as human bombs. When one of these explosions hurt ex-bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Tony vows war on the Mandarian. Also, CEO of Stark Industries Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow) is meeting with Aldrich, who has magically turned into somebody who looks like Guy Pearce, to talk about financing his think tank, AIM, which has begun developing Extremis.
This movie was pretty good. If you saw and liked the other Marvel movies you will probably at least enjoy this. Yet in a way it's more frustrating to watch then the inferior Captain America and Iron Man 2 movies. It does a lot right. It's probably the funniest movie of the series and honestly Robert Downy Jr. has so much natural charisma that he can carry the weaker parts of the film. The reveal of the Mandarian just being an actor was perfect, a brilliant and hilarious way to side-step the fact that Iron Man's most iconic villain is completely ridiculous. Ben Kingsly as the Dudley Moore-like drunken theater actor is so funny, and the scene where he and Tony meet is by far the highlight of the film. Similarly, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes is used much better here then in Iron Man 2 and his interplay with Downey Jr. is reminiscent of director Shane Black's most famous screenplay, Lethal Weapon.
The movie gets a lot of the details right, but the big picture is weak. My whole spiel in the intro about the Marvel cinematic universe is to illustrate the crippling problem with this film, which is how it's forced to be part of the collective Marvel franchise. This movie should have been a lot smaller. I'm not talking about in length, though I'm sure another round in the editing bay wouldn't have hurt. My screenwriting professor put forth a theory that every story revolves around either the worst or the best day in a person's life. I don't know if this is necessarily true, but it is pretty much the reason every sequel has to be "bigger" then the previous movies. Yet with all this extra baggage from both the previous Iron Mans and The Avengers, it's starting to get hard for Tony to have worse days. Iron Man 3 is a movie that both wants you to ignore everything that happened in The Avengers. But it can't, the movies are tied together in the way that all Marvel movies are.
In The Avengers, by proving he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of other people, Tony essentially completed his story arc. In Iron Man 3, Shane Black and Marvel are tasked with coming up with a new arc for the character so that by the time Avengers 2 rolls around he'll have something new to go on other then his selfishness. That's the reason Tony is given PTSD, so he has a new internal conflict to fight against. But at the same time the movie has a different idea of what Tony is supposed to discover about himself, the idea that his actions have consequences that affect you years down the line, an idea more closely tied to the original Iron Man. In order for this point to be driven home, Tony still needs to be a self-absorbed narcissist so that he can realize the world isn't just about him.
Either of these ideas could work in a vacuum. If the movie had ignored Avengers completely and just gone with "actions have consequences" it could work. If the movie focused more on the PTSD it could have also worked. Instead it tries to have it all, and as a result both ideas come off as pretty limp. This movie is overstuffed. There are a lot of big fights and only two were really impressive and engaging, and even then one of those fights went on for way too long. The first is when Tony, without a suit and armed only with makeshift weapons from a hardware store, raids the Mandarian compound. It's fun and breezy, with lots of comedy mixing in with cool action. The second is the finale, where Tony is flying out from suit to suit in an attempt to beat a powered up Aldrich. It's really fun at first but gets repetitive the longer it goes on. Before all this there's a huge helicopter blowout, a gunfight in the snow, more gunfights, Air Force One blowing up, more gunfights, a gigantic explosion on an oil rig, and more gunfights.
There's a a lot of weird superfluous characters too. Rebbecca Hall does absolutely nothing of value before dying. The ultimate supervillian plan involves not only the President but the Vice President too. Aldrich has a bunch of recurring underlings I'm supposed to keep track of. Even Happy doesn't really do much except get hurt. Oh and there's also a precocious kid who, while he does produce some great Tony moments, is pretty worthless. It feels padded and doesn't have a strong enough underlying theme to justify all these scenes, setpieces, and characters it places into the movie.
The experience of watching Iron Man 3 reminded me a lot of when I saw Prometheus. As I was watching it I was nodding my head along, laughing at the right moments, pretty content with the experience. Then as I was driving home I thought about it a little and the whole thing just unraveled. If a big movie wants to be smart I am all for that. But if it's going to try that it needs to have a strong thesis to build upon. Iron Man was great because it was simple but at the same time very clever. Iron Man 3 has the clever part down, but is too sprawling and messy. On the Wicker Scale, Nick Cage and Christopher Lee lie seductively in bed as Ben Kingsly walks in.