I have very mixed feelings about Iron Man 3.
On the one hand, the movie throws some very unexpected curve balls at the audience, and departs from other big-budget action movies by being a very thoughtful and introspective movie. It provided everything that Star Trek Into Darkness failed to deliver. If the people who wrote Iron Man 3 had been involved with writing Into Darkness, then that movie would have benefited greatly. Iron Man 3 succeeds because the writers are really trying to say things with their movie, even if they have to twist the audience's expectations and break a few eggs to do it.
On the other hand, the movie suffers from some pacing and script issues, and it blunders with its primary villain(s).
A heavy dose of introspection
The core of the plot is about Stark coming to terms with the events of The Avengers and deciding if he can truly hang with genuine supermen and gods. It's a very introspective film (which is something that the Iron Man movies have been very good at). In fact, most of the movie revolves around Stark being forced to solve problems as a regular person, rather than being able to rely on a fancy, weaponized suit of armor.
Stark has reexamine his goals and objectives and try to figure out where he wants to draw the line regarding problems he can deal with, and problems he can't deal with, and also with whether or not he should deal with them. The internal conflict within the character is the primary moving for much of the movie's plot, and Robert Downy Junior pulls it all off with the grace and style that we've come to expect from him with this character.
Tony Stark is going to be stuck solving problems without his fancy armor throughout most of the movie.
On top of that, the "action" of the majority of the film is performed by Stark rather than by Iron Man. Most of the movie is about Stark solving problems without the aid of his suit, having to fashion makeshift weapons and tools and using wit, charm, and intellect to defeat challenges.
While it's good to see a slower-paced, more cerebral movie, Iron Man 3 spills the beans too soon, and becomes tedious
Unfortunately, the wonderful character development leads to a few problems with pacing.
The movie's structure feels more like an episode of The X-Files or a cop drama than a comic book movie or modern summer blockbuster. It even includes an infusion of the supernatural in the form of references to the events of The Avengers. Unfortunately, this pacing works to the movie's detriment because, unlike an episode of The X-Files (or any good thriller for that matter), there is no mystery for the audience to solve. The movie shows the audience most of its solutions right at the start. So while Tony Stark spends a full third of the movie gathering clues and going around in circles trying to piece the puzzle together, the audience might grow bored because we already know what the full picture looks like. Or at least, we think we do.
Now there are ways to show the audience the solution to the mystery and still make the movie compelling. Some cop dramas will show the crime at the start, and then the drama of the show is watching the investigators piece the puzzle together, with audience rooting for them and yelling at the TV whenever they miss a big clue. This isn't the way that Iron Man 3 unfolds, however. Stark makes no progress towards solving the problem until the bad guys show up and solve it for him. So there isn't any sense of forward progress to the movie's narrative for a solid thirty or forty minutes. While I like a movie that takes its time and establishes characters and environments, Iron Man 3 just goes about it in the wrong way and becomes legitimately boring in parts. A for effort; D for execution.
The unexpected villains
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The fake Mandarin is cute, clever, and unexpected, but it runs afoul of comic-book fans' famed fanboyism
This is a really hard element of the movie for me to review.
On the one hand, I feel obligated to rip the movie apart for turning the Mandarin (one of Iron Man's longest-standing rivals) into a red herring. I've foamed at the mouth over similar "creative license" taken by the writers of adaptations of some of my favorite franchises, including The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men: First Class, and Star Trek: Into Darkness movies, as well as the Silent Hill Downpour game (and many more). It would be unfair and remiss of me to allow my lack of Iron Man fanboyism to let this movie to escape without criticism for not staying true to the source material.
But at the same time, I have to admit that the plot twist was clever, creative, and did great service to the movie's plot.
A creative, but apocryphal approach to this classic Iron Man villain.
The writers took a chance with this script, knowing that many fanboys would roast them alive for it. If you butcher the source material in a bad movie, that is absolutely unforgivable. But if the change improves the movie, then it's a lot easier to get away with it. I can't say for certain that a movie about Iron Man facing a far-east sorcerer with magic rings couldn't have been good. In fact, it might have been better. This movie references and acknowledges that Norse gods, wormholes, and aliens are real, so there's no shortage of supernatural elements in this film. Not to mention the actual badguys are kind of silly anyway (more on that later). But the writers' decision regarding the Mandarin gave them an opportunity to say something through the medium of film and impart a message onto the audience. And this message is one of the driving themes of the movie: the idea of symbols and their power over people. And how focusing on that symbol can distract the public from the real issues at hand. This movie teaches a very poignant socio-political lesson. For having the guts to try to say something with their movie, the writers deserve to be applauded! If only the writers of Into Darkness had the balls to do the same with their plot and make the movie about something, instead of giving us the Cliff Notes of introspection within a movie focused entirely around mindless vengeance and senseless conspiracies.
The "James Bond"-villain plotline was a bit silly for a movie that took itself so seriously
I would have been much more accepting of the Mandarin red herring if only the movie's primary villain hadn't been so ... silly. This is full-blown James Bond territory here! It's not a bad thing. The James Bond-esque socio-political manipulations of the bad guy are a perfectly acceptable plot line that I enjoyed. It was the vessel through which the Mandarin allegory was carried, and it all comes together perfectly towards the end.
It's just that the bad bad guys' superpowers are just silly and very hard to accept, even in a world populated by aliens and Norse gods of thunder. Forgoing a proper Mandarin to replace him with something that has even worse science behind it is a huge letdown. I thought the whole point of faking the Mandarin was so that the primary villain could be grounded in reality a bit more. Not so. In fact, the villains could have had no super powers at all, and the movie could have still had a virtually identical plot with the same themes and character arcs. The only character whose development directly necessitated the inclusion of super powers was Pepper Potts, and that was a totally dismissable subplot anyway.
I just didn't buy into the bad guys, and it really hurt my impression of the movie.
On top of that, this symbolic Mandarin really missed an opportunity. Since Stark spends the whole movie having anxiety attacks because of his discomfort with the supernaturally overwhelming events of The Avengers and his own feelings of inadequacy compared to his super-powered collegues, throwing a "mystical" villain at him could have allowed for these themes to be better integrated into the movie's overarching plot. Stark doesn't like the idea of there being forces in the universe that he can't control or understand with a mathematical equation. A genuinely (or at least Arthur C. Clarke-esque) magical Mandarin would have been a great foil for a character in that frame of mind! Off the heels of fighting space aliens alongside a literal god, he has to go fight off a magical wizard terrorist? That wouldn't have done much for his anxiety, and would have tied the personal struggle within Stark into the external struggle against the villain.
It may have worked better; or it may not have. We'll never know though, since that isn't the movie that we got. So the fanboys definitely have some legitimate grievances when it comes to the portrayal of Mandarin. Fortunately though, the movie is still pretty good.
End of Spoilers
A cluster-fuck of an ending
The awkward pacing and controversial villain choices are all excusable though, because they all service the story and help to develop the character. The central conflict gives every significant character some role in the movie, so that no one feels out of place.
The movie remains exceptional up to the ending, where it falls completely apart. It's an ending almost as bad and schlocky as Spider-Man 3. And nitpickers have a very legitimate case at calling out the ending for creating a "plot hole" that almost sinks the entire film. I don't think it's quite that bad, because there are plenty of ways of writing this "plot hole" off given the establishment of the character and the events that lead up to the supposed plot hole. So I'm not going to pull at the tapestry here.
The final battle scene is just way over-the-top. It's silly, and it's stupid, and it's probably only in the movie as an excuse to sell toys. The introspective narrative falls completely away to be replaced with a spectacle action scene full of overly-choreographed ballets of desperation and good luck. For a movie that took so many chances, and focused so much on forcing Stark to solve problems without the aid of technology, it was very disappointing to see the character slip right back into being completely dependent on his machines in order to be able to confront his enemy.
Pepper Potts gets a significant role in this movie beyond just "Iron Man's girlfriend". It's a pretty dismissable plotline though that doesn't add much to the narrative other than further complicating the climax.
Some of the action is confusing, and the outcomes don't stray from monotonous predictability. For a movie that took so many chances earlier on, it just gives up on creative script-writing for the climactic boss battle.
The rest is flawed, but good
Despite the ending being almost unwatchably bad, the rest of the movie is flawed, but good. It is well-conceptualized and mostly well-executed.