Iron Man 3 is missing that old Tony Stark spark. Not from Robert Downey Jr., who is still the best thing about this overblown show, with his smarter-than-thou charisma intact even while his character emotionally falls apart.
No, it's the feeling that has been missing since the first Iron Man flick in 2008, when Stark first invented his steroidal Tin Man suit and wasn't certain it would work, or how to work it. Marvel Films had similar concerns about building a movie franchise around a comic book character not named Spider-Man, resulting in a loosey-goosey approach to superheroism that was enormous fun while Batman and Superman were going grim.
It's kind of like what Stark says at the end of Iron Man 3, after someone else's science runs amok, bodies are tagged and bagged and the smoke clears: "You start with something pure, something simple … then come the mistakes, the compromises." Iron Man 3 is compelled to be bigger, louder, less interested in personality than profit-taking, and winds up looking no better or worse than any other 3-D clash of titans.
In a way, director Shane Black — taking over for Jon Favreau, who should be more appreciated now — made the middle movie of a fantasy trilogy but in its third episode. Middle movies are often the darkest, when the least happens that truly matters later; think The Two Towers or to some extent The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. Iron Man 3 begins slowly and darkly, descending from there to instances when the screen literally goes black for so long that you think the projector has stopped.
After a villain-priming prologue set during New Year's Y2K, the movie leaps to present day and a Tony Stark suffering post-Avengers stress syndrome. His close encounter with a wormhole left Tony with anxiety attacks and a work ethic so driven that his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is fed up. It's me or the Iron Man suits, she insists, so Tony sneaks his work on No. 42 in the arsenal.
He'll need each and every one before the movie ends. The world is being terrorized by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden doppelganger down to the video declarations of death to America. The resemblance is mildly annoying — can't Black and co-writer Drew Pearce come up with anything fresher? — until the plot throws a third-act curve ball explaining why it's there. Then it's just mildly entertaining.
The movie's midsection is both interesting and confusing, with Tony in Tennessee and Miami with only his wits to depend upon as he figures out the Mandarin's game. It's puzzling enough to avoid spoilers yet ultimately generic enough to disappoint. But it does set up a slam-bang final half hour, with mid-air crises, graphic violence and Iron Men to spare. Just what the faithful want, and more than truly necessary, like the 3-D effects that don't have much besides fireballs and debris to enhance.
Yes, there's a post-credits "Easter egg" worth sticking around for, even if it doesn't set up a future adventure as did previous ones. There's also an end note promising Tony Stark will return, although Iron Man 3 proves anyone can save the world in the right armored exoskeleton. Metallic clothes make the man or woman, but the wisecracking man makes the franchise.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him @StevePersall on Twitter.