There isn't another superhero franchise where our feelings about the character overlap with our feelings about the star as much as they do in the Iron Man films. Spider-Man, Superman, and even Batman have all gone through multiple leading men, but Robert Downey Jr. is the only Iron Man and that will likely be the case for some time. Downey's Tony Stark is a good-hearted screw-up, skilled in business but inept in his personal life, and part of each Iron Man installment involves rooting for him to overcome his worst impulses. In Iron Man 3 Stark is still haunted by the events of The Avengers, and his paranoia and compulsive need to improve the Iron Man suit have begun to threaten his relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow, given more to do here than in the previous films). Robert Downey Jr.'s now-receding personal demons have been well-chronicled; since he has been the recipient of multiple second chances (What would have happened to him if he hadn't gotten the Ally McBeal job?) and now is the star of not one but two film franchises, it seems that we as a moviegoing culture have a need to make sure he's OK.
You have to like Downey quite a bit to like Iron Man 3, a film which attempts to carry forward what has become a central theme of the Marvel series. The WWII-set Captain Americadealt with the question of the difference between heroism and commodified heroism in a fresh, witty way; seeing Captain America reduced to headlining a propaganda show for the troops was a welcome dose of irony. The Avengers raised the question of whether the public was ready for superheroes - and all the attendant property damage - but the idea was crammed into the end of an already busy movie. Iron Man 3 walks a similar thematic path, but doesn't seem all that interested in following through. Stark has become a recluse while his sidekick James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) now serves as a sort of one-man Special Ops force for the government. Rhodes's War Machine suit has been renamed Iron Patriot in an effort to achieve full marketability. Pepper is now running Stark Industries, and in an early scene she rejects a scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his ideas for weaponizing DNA. All of this is taking place as a terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) hijacks TV signals and wages an escalating campaign of bombings aimed at U.S. targets. If you're still keeping up, then know that the bulk of Iron Man 3 involves Tony's attempt to find The Mandarin after the terrorist makes their fight personal. There's an interlude involving a parentless Tennessee boy (Ty Simpkins) who comes to Tony's aid when he's forced to go low-tech, but there are also plenty of explosions, deaths, and Iron Man suits that fly around without anyone inside them. Director and co-writer Shane Black (taking over from Jon Favreau) attempts to leaven all the things that go boom with jokes, but since almost every line Downey says sounds like a joke it's easy to get tired of the attempts at humor.
Movies like Iron Man 3 hit or miss for me on the motivations of their villains, and since screenwriters seem to have run out of everything but chaos and destruction it's almost refreshing that the Mandarin is motivated by money. The question of who makes a profit on the War on Terror is a rich subject, but it is only considered here in the most superficial way - it is literally given lip service. Iron Man 3 is a delivery system for Downey's zingers, beautiful women (Rebecca Hall is underused as a scientist Tony beds then needs help from later), and the idea that our superheroes must have a dark side. Geopolitical realities feel very far away from a film like this, especially since the argument is also made that terror can strike anywhere at anytime. The filmmakers can't be faulted for this of course, but there's a bombing scene that is similar to the recent events in Boston. The "Marvel Universe" films will continue, and there's a suggestion that Stark is rebooting himself, but I hope that Iron Man's next mission won't be for a little while. I need a hero (and a movie star) that doesn't need me quite so much.