I try to keep my reviews fairly "spoiler free", but there are certain elements about Iron Man 3 that I really want to bring up, and many would probably consider them spoilers. While I won't directly reveal anything, that specific section will be marked with a spoiler tag and will also be in invisotext. As always, feel free to continue a "spoilers welcome" conversation with me and others in the comments section.
It's too bad that Shane Black probably won't be returning to the Marvel movie universe, since his single contribution is easily the best constructed film they've released since beginning their "shared story" experiment five years ago with the original Iron Man. While Iron Man Three (I love that the film's credits actually title the movie that way) does lack some of the relentlessly outrageous spirit previously seen in The Avengers, it makes up for it in spades with a more practiced pace, excellent characterization, a focused sense of action and the dependably unflappable charm of its star.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a changed man after the alien invasion in New York. He's shut himself away in his laboratory, while the world outside is being terrorized by a charismatic villain known only as The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley). Once things become personal, Tony, along with his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle), will have to suit up and take out the bad guys just like always. But, in order to protect the love of his life, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), he may also have to keep his eye on scientific entrepreneur Aldritch Killan (Guy Pearce), a former love interest of Pepper and spurned colleague of Tony.
One of the strongest aspects of all the Iron Man films (and The Avengers) has been Robert Downey Jr.'s charismatic portrayal of Tony Stark, and this third entry is no exception. In fact, he seems even more rapid fire than ever, churning out quips with nearly every line he delivers. This film also gives him the most introspection since the opening scenes from the first film. Tony's exploration about what it means to be Iron Man is a driving part of his character this time around, and it allows for some fantastic reevaluation for him. I've never been more interested in Tony Stark's cinematic incarnation than I was in Iron Man Three. It doesn't hurt that Downey is as on point as ever, and never feels checked out in the least. Both he and Gwyneth Paltrow have given consistently great performances, and nothing about that has changed. Don Cheadle feels more in the swing of things this time around, and his best bits all come from when he's out of his Iron Patriot suit. It should also be mentioned that former director Jon Favreau returns as bodyguard Happy Hogan (now head of security at Stark Industries) and gets some of the best laughs in the movie. While his screen-time is diminished, his importance isn't.
***SPOILERS*** [Highlight to read]: But the real surprise of the show comes from the film's villains. Sir Ben Kingsley's Mandarin is only seen through terrorist broadcasts, so while his threat has plenty of presence, it's hard to feel intimidated by him since we don't meet him until much later. But, when he is revealed, his character ends up being insanely watchable and a highlight of the film. It also turns the focus on Guy Pearce, who is easily the best foe Tony has had to face in any of these movies. He's calculating, cool and like some of the best villains, says some things that actually make a lot of sense. Pearce's performance is top notch, and is reason enough to check out the movie. ***END SPOILERS***
Every single action scene in Iron Man Three is an absolute blast. There isn't a dull moment once things start getting rough and tumble, and this is bolstered by a well-thought-out pace that outshines any of the other Marvel films. Even when Tony requires the help of a young boy (which is almost certain death in most movies), things move along briskly, always aided by Robert Downey Jr.'s unstoppable wit. Another thing that this film has going for it is that it doesn't feel obligated to any other upcoming movies. That was one of the fatal flaws in Iron Man 2, which devoted a huge chunk of its second act to setting up events in Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. Iron Man Three is only beholden to previous films, and that gives it plenty of narrative freedom to tell the story it wants to tell. I know Marvel is fully committed to their shared universe, but if they can pull off films like this that work as standalone entries, they'll be much better off.
All of Marvel's films have always had a sure hand behind the camera, and this same professionalism is seen in Iron Man Three. There isn't an abundance of editing to the point where you can't tell what's happening, and everything is framed well. The score by Brian Tyler is fairly standard, but it gets the job done. I can't say I wasn't whistling the film's theme when I walked out of the theater, so that's a good sign.
The most exciting thing to come out of Iron Man Three is definitely the way things end. I won't give anything away, but know that it is a big shock to the status quo, which is something fanboys are often very reactionary about. They like these characters because they are so non-mutable, but Iron Man Three throws a big monkey wrench into that, and that is a very good thing. Characters need to change and evolve to continue to be relatable, and if superhero movies (particularly Marvel's) want to progress, they have to show that kind of dangerous growth. Iron Man Three does this in a very gutsy way, all the while staying true to the character and persona of Tony Stark. It also positions Marvel Phase Two movies as entities that you won't be able to predict, and that's exactly what needs to be established.
Iron Man Three isn't just a great progression of Marvel's continuing story, it's an extremely competent popcorn adventure film that isn't dumbed down or willing to pull any punches. It's got loads of humor (it's easily Marvel's funniest movie, until Edgar Wright gets Ant-Man finished, I'm sure), stellar set-pieces, phenomenal characters, a deft grasp on pacing and plenty of good old fashioned comic book fun. If Iron Man Three is indicative of what this summer at the movies is gong to be like, 2013 is going to be one hell of a cinematic year.