'Iron Man 3' Review: Send Sorry Sequel Back to the Shop for Repairs

'Iron Man 3' Review: Send Sorry Sequel Back to the Shop for Repairs

If industrialist Tony Stark were handed Iron Man 3 and asked to fix it, he’d probably put on a pot of coffee and tell his secretary to hold all his calls. It would take a ton of tinkering to make the third film in the Iron Man franchise fire on all cylinders.

Once more, a superhero saga chooses two villains over one, forgets the formula that worked wonders the first time and figures audiences will be dazzled by CGI magic alone.

Nothing doing.

Robert Downey Jr. returns as our favorite egotistical playboy, only now Tony Stark is tortured by the memory of those aliens he fought while serving in the Avengers franchise. He can’t sleep, and he’s suffering from anxiety attacks, so he pours himself into his work for solace.

He gets an unwelcome distraction in the form of a terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, excellent as always), a mysterious figure setting off explosions across the U.S.

That isn’t all Tony has to deal with at the moment. His loyal squeeze Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is losing patience with his erratic behavior, and a brilliant inventor named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) has designs on both Pepper and Tony’s empire.

We haven’t mentioned how Tony’s all nighters allowed him to summon pieces of the Iron Man suit with the flick of a wrist, or that his bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) stumbles upon part of the terrorist’s network, or how Rhodey (Don Cheadle) is now working directly with the U.S. government via the renamed Iron Patriot suit.

But wait, there’s more (and so much less!). Rebecca Hall joins the fray as Tony’s old flame, a scientist who may hold the key to regenerating lost limbs. Clearly, Tony shoots high with his one-night stands.

Exhausted yet? Part of Iron Man 3’s problem isn’t just the avalanche of characters, themes and plot twists, some of which are actually quite intriguing. It’s how poorly co-writers Shane Black (who takes over as director) and Drew Pearce stitch all the elements together. 

Black the screenwriter gives the film a verbal snap too often missing in superhero outings, but some of the biggest guffaws come directly at the story’s expense. A twist involving The Mandarin is Exhibit A, but the film seems so intent on making us laugh it fritters away juicy subplots and tension builders with haste.

A few sparkling sequences escape the narrative flotsam. Iron Man rescues a group of people ejected from an airplane, a triumph of special effects and visual imagination. And the destruction of Tony’s mountainside home (no spoiler here, it’s all in the trailer), may be mind-numbingly stupid but it works on a purely visceral level.

Where Iron Man 3 fails without exception is bringing, you know, Iron Man into the fray. There’s no better actor to bring a superhero to life than Downey, but the film turns him into a hero sans suit, which strains belief while robbing us of seeing olShellhead in action. How a superhero film could skimp on the superhero is a mystery greater than The Mandarin’s attacks, but it’s fitting for a film which goes wrong in so many fundamental ways.

The latest chapter in the Tony/Pepper romance also fails to ignite, turning their clever bickering into a series of clumsy exchanges and, later, one of film’s most recycled plot devices. Paltrow is also reduced to wearing a bra top for a large part of the film, squandering an Oscar-winning actress in a part any reality show starlet could nail with a personal trainer.

The emotional underpinnings of Pearce’s character may be the film’s masterstroke of doom, but then again character motivation, clarity and cohesion are problems scattered liberally across the film’s sleek canvas. 

Iron Man 3 follows the mediocre second installment, meaning it’s time to give this franchise a break or simply let our metallic hero save his best lines for future Avengers installments.