Iron Man 3 is, like its hero Tony Stark at the outset and Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts at another point in the story, a hot mess. It does what third installments tend to do: revisit the themes of the first, but make everything bigger and more complicated, and then deliver some kind of grand resolution. And while director Shane Black brings a manic energy to the franchise that more than matches star Robert Downey Jr.’s twitchy performance, it’s not enough to overcome the lumbering bloat. He’s aiming to leave you dazzled, satisfied, and maybe just a little wiser; you’re more likely to leave punch-drunk, exhausted, and maybe just a little puzzled.
“We create our own demons,” intones Tony Stark at the outset, right before we’re treated to a spicier version of the setup for Pixar’s The Incredibles. There, a youthful version of Mr. Incredible ditches a wannabe superhero in order to get to his wedding; here, a youthful version of Tony Stark ditches a wannabe genius in order to bang a botanist. In both cases, super-villainy ensues as a result.
But that’s not the real trouble. The real trouble is that Stark is having an existential crisis after nearly dying in The Avengers. He can’t sleep. Just mentioning New York is enough to bring on anxiety attacks. To cope, he tinkers endlessly with his distractions — the super-suits that are threatening to take over his persona. (In one creepy scene, he asks Pepper to plant a kiss on the faceplate of a suit he’s operating from another room.)
Salvation comes in the form of a crisis: the bad guys take out his house and his lab, and he’s left holed up in a Tennessee garage with a cute and clever little boy. This provides Stark with both a target for his witticisms — “Dads leave, that’s what they do. Don’t be a pussy about it” — and a source for the recovery of first principles. The little boy — like Pepper, like bodyguard-buddy Happy in a coma, like fellow Iron Man James Rhodes, and even like the villain — serves a purpose: to help Tony Stark get his groove back. And how can you tell that Stark is a better, happier man by the end? Because he tells you so.