There's an air of easy perfection about Iron Man 3. It is precisely as good as a summer popcorn movie can possibly be without being even a little bit better. Marvel Studios and Disney have this thing down to a science, don't they?
The third installment in the series that put Marvel as a standalone entity on the map picks up in the wake of Marvel's biggest triumph, The Avengers. Tony Stark, played charmingly yet again by Robert Downey Jr., is trying with very little success to recede from the spotlight he seems so natural basking in. He has turned over much of the technology behind his trademark suits of armor to the military, more specifically Don Cheadle's Col. James Rhodes. He has stepped away from Stark Industries, leaving the day-to-day operations to Pepper Potts, reprised by Gwyneth Paltrow, who is also his steady girlfriend, his committed relationship representing yet another departure from the old days.
Despite all those seemingly positive changes, Tony can't outrun his past. He's dealing with either severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder caused by that whole close-call-with-complete-annihilation that made up the climax of The Avengers. And despite his best attempts to get out of the superhero business, two villains emerge to pull him back in for another rodeo. There is Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce, a deranged scientist whose "Extremis" virus can regenerate lost limbs but has some nasty side effects, and there is The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, a mysterious terrorist with an ideology that is as unclear as his ethnicity.
Apparently, the only way to get to Tony Stark these days is to take everything he holds dear, and so that's just what this duo and their minions does, putting his former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) in to a coma, turning his Malibu mansion in to rubble and threatening Pepper's life. With everything on line and little in the way of his usual tricks and tech, Tony is forced to get back to the basics -- building things and rattling off snarky one-liners. There's absolutely nothing disappointing about any of these developments. Downey's quips are as snappy and satisfying as ever. The action sequences, particularly the destruction of his mansion, are breathtaking. There wasn't a second of Iron Man 3 I didn't enjoy.
But there wasn't a second of it that will stick with me in any meaningful way, which means that it falls well short of the heights of this genre. You can see where director and co-writer Shane Black, who cut his teeth on movies like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, tried to inject elements that would elevate the film, but it never sticks with any of themes for more than what seems like a millisecond. A better director or a more courageous studio might have tried to build an entire film around the Killian-Mandarin dynamic only hinted at in Iron Man 3 -- the idea that capital-F Fear, perpetuated by an irresponsible and incompetent fourth estate, is part of a feedback loop that generates immense wealth for a few cynical profiteers. That didn't happen here for whatever reason.
Instead, we got sketchy outlines of those more high-minded concepts. It left me feeling a bit like someone who goes in to McDonald's, notes that they do actually have salad on the menu, and then opts for the Big Mac anyway. Sure, the salad would have left me feeling better after my meal, but Marvel's got the secret sauce, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet.