'Iron Man 3' Review: What's Under the Shell?

Iron Man 3

If first acts counted for everything, then Iron Man 3 would be a flawless five-star extravaganza of comic book fun: A sequel that starts off by accentuating its franchise's ruthlessly charming star, a fleet-footed action flick that drives the viewer around the world and sets up the stakes before the first 10 minutes have elapsed, and a tightly scripted, quip-laden techno-farce with loads of physical comedy, no shortage of off-handedly funny pop culture references, and even a little thought-provoking subtext in the bargain.

Unfortunately, the thing about perfect first acts is that they raise expectations for everything that follows, and that's where Iron Man 3 stumbles and eventually falls down. Once director Shane Black (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce) gets our titular hero (again played with nimbly wisecracking dexterity by Robert Downey, Jr.) all wound up, it becomes painfully apparent that he doesn't really know where to go. In spite of some killer set pieces and some genuinely funny moments, the whole thing feels awfully hollow in the end.

But first things first. A brief, spoiler-free outline: Following the events of The Avengers, which found Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, drawn into an intergalactic battle with an invading alien horde, Stark is feeling a little discombobulated; in fact, he may have something along the lines of PTSD (one of a number of the pointed jabs at the military-industrial complex that the comic has always been known for, and among a handful of deeply intriguing plot strands that ultimately go nowhere here). But more importantly, he has a new nemesis to deal with: The terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who's been killing innocent people and blowing stuff up in an attempt to rattle the President of the United States (William Sadler).

That's just a vague introduction to Iron Man 3's plot, which is actually a lot more complicated than that -- in fact, if anything, it's overloaded with twists, turns, and double-crosses. Which is a shame, because you can sense the beginnings of something really special here; often, it feels like Black and Pearce wanted to create a much more serious, less set piece-reliant film than the one they ended up making, and as time wears on (and on and on -- all 135 minutes of it), that's the movie you may end up wishing you were seeing -- an exploration of identity themes, post-9/11 politics, and the meaning of freedom in the 21st century. All that stuff gets shoved to the margins, though, in favor of...well, explosions, really.

Well, maybe a little more than explosions. Actually, for all its faults, Iron Man 3 continues to demonstrate Marvel's strengths as a comics adaptation factory, including the fact that they really understand the importance of solid acting and well-written scripts that provide strong connective tissue between the action sequences. Downey is pretty much on auto-pilot for a lot of the movie, but he's still a fantastic Tony Stark -- even when the plot strands him with a grade-school sidekick, he manages to turn it into a funny, layered exploration of Stark's stunted emotional growth -- and he's still surrounded by ace supporting players like Gwyneth Paltrow (whose rapport with Downey remains one of the franchise's best features) and Don Cheadle (who has a little more to do this time around, even if it does boil down to a climactic battle with strong overtones of Black's time in the Lethal Weapon universe).

That's all legitimately enjoyable, but again, it's drowned out by the sound of things going boom. And like a lot of recent blockbusters, Iron Man 3 gives you too much of everything: It's too long, it has too many twists and turns, and it's silly with CGI special effects that are supposed to make things feel big, but instead just leave you feeling like everything you saw in the Die Hard sequels may have been understated in comparison. And underneath it all, there's the nagging feeling that this movie has broader ambitions, but lacks the courage or intelligence to fully pursue them; on one hand, it raises fundamental questions about our way of life, and on the other, it quickly and cheerfully dismisses them. If a "comic book movie" -- whatever that means in 2013 -- was all Iron Man 3 wanted to be, all the empty pyrotechnics would be easier to forgive. As it is, though, it makes the brave and refreshing choice of actually asking you to think -- for exactly long enough to be disappointed after it changes its mind.

Still, that is one hell of a first act. And if all you're looking for is a loud, good-looking way to kill two hours and 15 minutes -- which is a perfectly valid reason to spend $15 and put on a pair of 3D glasses -- you won't be disappointed. Just make sure you don't look or listen in too closely.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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