What must Iron Man 3 accomplish? Must the flawed superhero of Marvel Comics fame save the world from the evil machinations of terrorism-prone villain? Must he somehow reconcile the fragility of his humanity with powers bestowed on him when he dons his protective iron suit? Or must he navigate his way through an early summer mega-movie that might be deemed a dud if it doesn't outdo its predecessors at the box office?
Iron Man 3 seems to want to accomplish all of the above goals, throwing in an explosion that demolishes Grauman's Chinese Theatre in the bargain. A metaphor for the way the movie's supposed to explode at the box office or a bit of bad-taste, post-Aurora pyrotechnics? Decide for yourself.
So, the plusses: The action set pieces of the movie's finale are scaled to impress and include CGI work that leaves you marveling at its undisguised audacity.
The minuses: Iron Man 3 makes you suffer through some significant longueurs before it crosses its 130-minute finish line. The movie's end-of-picture rewards are tempered by mid-picture sags and talky stagnation.
Robert Downey Jr. does everything you'd expect of him in his third Iron Man outing. Iron Man -- who spends a lot of time out of his suit in this episode -- is lightning fast with a retort. He's amusing, especially to himself.
In the movie's early scenes, Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, is mired in a personal crisis. He can't sleep. He's having anxiety attacks. He's puttering around his laboratory with obsessive fervor, trying to figure out how to make parts of his Iron Man suit leap from the ground and attach to his body. He's also neglecting his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) has been assigned the job of following Iron Man through his psychological malaise. Black, who also wrote the Lethal Weapon movies, assumes the franchise's helm to mixed effect, perhaps because he has limited experience with the heavy-lifting required to direct an effects-laden mega-movie.
Still, there are sights to be seen. A prime example: The finale includes a spectacular airborne rescue in which Iron Man saves 13 officials who've been jettisoned from a plane. Good stuff, but the main enticements of this third installment arrive in the form of tasty side dishes.
Ben Kingsley plays a terrorist called The Mandarin, a villain who evokes scary echoes of Osama bin Laden. Rebecca Hall, not the first actress who springs to mind when you think about franchise movies, makes a nice addition as one of Tony Stark's former girlfriends. And Iron Man finds a bit of temporary companionship in an eight-year-old kid (Ty Simpkins), who joins him for mid-picture plot duties.
Guy Pearce signs on as Aldrich Killian, an evil entrepreneur who mutates into a scorching, fiendish Iron Man foe. Pearce seems to be having as good a time as can be had with a sadistic -- if slightly off-the-rack -- villain.
One thing's sure: After this installment, Iron Man's going to need a new home. Early on, he's blasted out of his cliff-hugging Malibu home. This can't sit well with Paltrow's Pepper Potts, the woman who shares Iron Man's residence. Perhaps she's consoled by being Iron Man's main squeeze, although Paltrow's straight-shooting Potts seldom proves as interesting as Hall's morally ambiguous Maya Hansen.
Iron Man 3 is one of those critic-proof movies that has enough successful bits and pieces to keep general audiences and fanboys reasonably well-satisfied.
For me, the movie proved enjoyable in the same way that fireworks are fun. Moments of waiting are punctuated by vivid bursts of action and color that vanish into the night sky leaving only wisps of smoke to grasp at as we await the arrival of the next blockbuster. Iron Man 3 makes plenty of noise, but its pleasures are spectacularly insubstantial.