The Avengers played more like the genesis story of the titular team, whereas Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all announce themselves as start-ups from the get-go. Enjoyable as it's been, the studio has essentially staged a five year meet-and-greet up to this point, the only exception coming in the form of Tony Stark's largely shrug-worthy second outing. We know the studio can get a ball rolling, but can they keep it that way?
Picking up right where The Avengers left off, Robert Downey Jr.'s billionaire genius playboy is starting to see his smart-allick, one-step-ahead edge begin to slip. The extra-terrestrial throw-down that left New York in shambles has Stark experiencing bouts of PTSD, staying up all night tinkering on one new Iron Man suit after another. And that's only the start of the guy's problems. Enter The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a racially ambiguous super terrorist with a deep-burning hatred for the American way, and a penchant for televising chilling PSAs explaining just why. Stark decides to take the maniac head-on, leading the wise-cracker on a journey with more than a few surprises just around the bend.
The above summary is vague for two reasons, the first being that Iron Man 3 works best when allowed ample liberty to subvert expectations, and the second caused by a simple case of amnesia; only a week after seeing the film, the actual plot-mechanics feel hazy, and, more to the point, inconsequential. What remains fresh in the memory is the movie's pulse, a crackling mix of humor, thrills, twists, and energy. Writer/Director Shane Black, making his franchise debut, has excellent rapport with Downey Jr., first witnessed in the hilarious dark comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film to which IM3 owes more than anyone could have possibly foreseen. His touch with humor is unsurprising, but his management of the pacing and action are welcome surprises.
He does have some problems with that pesky tone, though. The trouble is presented immediately, as to film opens with snarky voice-over under-scoring powerful images of destruction. Comedy and trauma don't often make for the best cocktail, and saddling a scene of The Mandarin literally setting a human body on fire next to silly old Downey Jr. and the silly old robot arms that help him make his suits doesn't really work. As a matter of fact, most of the dark stuff doesn't; why even dredge up national anxieties and images of true terror if, deep down, all you really want to be is a fun time at the flicks (undoubtably Iron Man 3's primary goal). To be fair, the heightened moments, tonally jarring as they may be, do often manage to raise the stakes in ways Marvel his proven fatally afraid of testing in the past.
May 2013's big superhero tent-pole is a little messy; plot-holes abound, characters get lost, and that lack of emotional clarity certainly doesn't help. But to say that Iron Man 3 is anything less than a rollicking ride would be disingenuous, its lows possibly lower than your average Marvel, but its highs undoubtably higher. This is a studio with a firm grip on the quality control of their product, and even if (in the opinion of this writer, anyways) they have yet to really make a, 'wow,' movie, IM3 keeps their hit streak intact.