In Marvels ongoing quest for world domination via massive interconnected blockbuster franchises, Iron Man 3 is utterly expected, but full of surprises. A step down from The Avengers, but a big step up from Iron Man 2.
Disney/Marvel's Iron Man film franchise has never looked more cartoonish than in the closing credits of Iron Man 3. Unlike the previous films, which featured first line drawings, then comic-strip style illustrations splashing across the screen to the music, this film uses live action snippets from the film, and from the gag reel (I believe). Despite the photo-realism, the mad-dash editing and brisk musical beat give it the feel, more than ever, of a Saturday morning cartoon title sequence.
It's a fine and fitting credit sequence, but I mention it because it's representative of where the franchise has been heading. Iron Man, way back in 2008 took a fairly realistic approach to the superhero film. It featured topical themes, and only barely stretched the boundaries of realistic technology. It was unique at the time. There have been a slew of more recent films that have connected with the original Iron Man, using that film's established credibility, and expanding its universe to include a large array of colourful characters who have been referenced and cameoed to no end in this ambitious project. And with each little step, this universe has grown further and further from our own; straining credibility both in the science-fiction aspects (which might as well be labelled fantasy at this stage), and with the fundamental principles of reality, such as the fact that a mere mortal cannot survive (let alone continue to fight) after a certain amount of force is applied to the body. All this is to say that Iron Man 3 continues Marvel's franchise-wide trend of turning this world that looks like ours into their own thoroughly cartoonish one.
I honestly don't have a problem with this, it's just interesting to observe - especially in stark (haha, geddit?) contrast to DC Comics approach, who's only recent success has been the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan took that franchise in an ultra-realistic direction, and for the most part it paid off in spades, making them boatloads of money (I don't know how much, but I'm sure it was heaps), plus creating arguably the best Action/Superhero/Crime/Film of all time, and inspiring a reboot of Superman which is shaping up to be different, but similarly epic.
Back to Iron Man. This film deals with Tony Stark reeling in the wake of the events of The Avengers. I suppose what happened in Iron Man 2 probably plays into this as well, but I honestly can't remember all the craziness that went on there. Anyway, soon after the incident in New York involving inter-dimensional aliens and Tony Stark flying through a wormhole, Tony sees that a mysterious figure called The Mandarin is making threats against America. Meanwhile, corporate espionage, threat of new bio-enhancing technologies, robot tinkering wizardry, and mass destruction also ensue - the film is packed with all the goodies you already know and love from previous Iron Man's.
On the upside, it's totally unpredictable, in a good way. You're never sure quite where the film is going, but by the time it gets there you will walk away satisfied. It's a strong, coherrant story, with flashbacks from Tony's past effectively worked in to set up an interesting central plot.Thankfully, the plot isn't nearly as cluttered as the last film, although a few threads hang loose. At times the film touches on Tony's miraculous escape at the end of Avengers, but it doesn't ask anything in a meaningful way, and it doesn't offer any resolution to this question.
Then there's that surprisingly long section of the film spent with a random kid that Stark meets. Their interaction is so strange, I half expected the boy to be an apparition of Tony's younger self, and soon he would wake up alone in the wilderness. That doesn't happen.
But while I was skeptical at points, the whole thing builds into a satisfying climax that pays off a lot of what comes before it. Little things, like the self-building suit that you've seen in the trailers, are utilized to great effect in the last act, and there's a particularly fantastic reveal about the villain that both utterly surprises, and completely satisfies. Indeed, I don't think we've ever seen a villain quite like The Mandarin. His early scenes are a little mediocre, with the obnoxious editing of an Anonymous video coupled with the stereotypical setup/preaching of a Bin Laden tape. But the more you learn about him the more fascinating he becomes, and his final few scenes are some of the best in the film.
The action is well staged, shifting between stock-standard, and sheer awesomeness - highlights include Tony trying to rescue a bunch of people who have fallen out of a plane, and Tony trying to fight baddies while his suit is only half constructed. Probably the best part of the movie is that it takes joy in surprising the audience. There are a lot of fake-outs, and throwaway one-liners, and awkward moments, and moments of brilliance.
The film deals with the identity of Iron Man, and Tony's dependence on his machines, and his relationship with Pepper, and his treatment of people in his past, and all sorts of other kinda-familiar-but-still-kinda-sweet themes. It doesn't dig deep, it doesn't spend too long developing character or theme. It shows up, shows off, and leaves. It's the quintessential Marvel blockbuster, and one of the better ones as far as those go. It leaves the characters in an interesting place, so how this all shapes up in Avengers 2 (or Iron Man 4, or whatever) will be exciting to see.