A terrorist known as The Mandarin is blowing things up, and Tony Stark, quite unwisely, calls him out personally... the Mandarin responds by destroying his house with missiles. After that, naturally, you can bet that some serious hijinks ensue.
How is the resulting movie, compared to its predecessors? A bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, some of the pizzaz has gone out of it: Jon Favreau has handed over the directors’ chair to an understudy, Shane Black (though he’s still around as a producer and to play Happy Hogan), the acting has less spark and less range, the big action scenes are now visually cluttered and hard to follow, there are noticeable continuity and logic glitches, and the score is meh. But on the other hand, I was greatly relieved to see that they’ve completely fixed the lame story and character problems of #2, allowing Stark some much more genuine growth, and allowing the audience to bring most of their intelligence into the theater. And furthermore, they’ve now given Iron Man one of the biggest and best adventures yet seen in the Avengers universe. Plus, the movie is funny. The execution may be a little flatter, but in many areas this script is the best of the three. And since Shane Black was a main writer on it, he easily earns back any credit he may have lost on his slightly Michael Bay-ish directing.
It’s based on the “Extremis” story from the comics. Which means that, yeah, he’s going to be up against something a lot worse than any conventional sort of terrorism. “Extremis” is a technology that allows the bad guys to create powerful supervillains almost at will, and not all of them stay under control. Against even one of them, the Iron Man armor is scant protection.
After having his house blown up around him, Stark is left with no resources except for one nonfunctioning suit, and precious few clues for where the attack came from. So he starts tracking down the bad guys armed with nothing but whatever gadgets he can cobble together in a garage. So if you want to see Iron Man being a badass without his suit, here you go.
The award for Best Use of Ben Kingsley This Decade Other Than Hugo goes to: Iron Man 3. To say more would be a major spoiler.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle each get plenty to do with their returning characters, Pepper and Rhodey, and do it pretty well. Gwynnie continues to be, in my opinion, a significant positive asset for the series. Admittedly, Cheadle doesn’t quite come across as a military type in his overall manner and bearing. Also pretty good are Guy Pearce as the villain behind Extremis, and Rebecca Hall as a scientist whose work it’s based on.
There’s an interesting twist at the end, compared to the comic-book version of Extremis. Though not nearly as big as one earlier twist — one which I have to say was kind of risky, given how closely the Mandarin and his Ten Rings group tread to the path of well-known terror figures of the Al Qaeda variety. (In this movie, the invasion of New York that happened in The Avengers stands in for 9/11 as a national trauma.) But it pays off, and I totally dug it, though I would understand if some get pissed off instead.
Since they weren’t sure when this was made whether this might be the final Iron Man story, they do a bunch of wrapping up at the end, which leaves things in a state of tidiness that’s excessive enough to strain belief a bit. But since Downey did re-up to continue the role, that shouldn’t do any real harm.
Speaking of series continuity, this refers back in several ways to the events of The Avengers, so yes, this is best watched after having seen that one, though it’s certainly not essential. It’s less important to have seen Iron Man 2, which you may want to skip because it’s much stupider than the other two. That one was almost more important for introducing the Black Widow than for anything to do with Iron Man directly. Pepper is now running the company day to day, and Col. Rhodes has his own suit — there, you’re caught up. Either way, if you dug Iron Man in any of the other movies, definitely watch this one.