Praise be to the gods of cinema, the curse of the threequel has been broken. Iron Man 3 not only sticks with everything that made its predecessors great and starts Marvel Phase Two off with the necessary bang, but also constantly aims to dick around with the audience's expectations, and better yet succeeds at nearly every turn. Director Shane Black mostly keeps the tone and look consistent with Iron Man 1 and 2, while still placing a distinct stamp upon the film and making it a memorable one.
Downey continues to shock and awe as Tony Stark, bringing back the same special deadpan wit and every laugh that it earns, but also a surprising amount of humility as Stark is broken down to little more than a raw nerve, the pieces scattered like the armor plates of his newly-minted Mark 42 (a possible Hitchhiker's Guide reference?) armor. Downey takes Stark from cocksure to crumbling at a moment's notice, and the weight of the anxiety is never in doubt.
IM3 places further emphasis on Stark's humanity by focusing on Stark outside of the Iron Man suit for the better part of the movie. Cut off from the suit, from Pepper, even from JARVIS (one can only imagine Paul Bettany having a bit of fun in the recording booth as the AI experiences a few hiccups), Stark plods through a small town in search of answers, picking up a few temporary sidekicks along the way. Only a little of the humor flounders a bit at this point, but watching Stark struggle to keep up his unflappable facade in the face of a young starstruck fan supply some of the biggest laughs in a film with no short stock of big laughs.
Guy Pearce, unquestionably an actor worthy of his own comic book film franchise, sweats foul intentions from every pore the moment his swaggers back into the film after a brief introduction in the prologue sporting a limp and a shaggy wig. Along with his lackey James Badge Dale, Pearce's Aldrich Killian is all sneers and shifty eyes, making him pretty one-note as a character but never lacking in menace, especially when the creepy "Extremis" glow crawls across the skin. Rebecca Hall makes the smallest impression among the new cast members, but is likeable enough in her small role, and adequately sympathetic when faced with a dire moral quandary. As for Ben Kingsley's The Mandarin, suffice to say the character is not adapted how even those with casual knowledge of the comic's background will expect, and the treatment makes a good bit of sense for a character this outrageous (at least by Iron Man's standards). Kingsley takes an equally unexpected approach slow, eerie drawl, and becomes even better on screen once his big secret comes to light.
In the action department, IM3 again sets the bar high for Marvel Phase Two, showing off some increasingly inventive, large-scale and finely-choreographed fights, leading up to the blow-out finale that sees Stark go through several different suits over the course of few minutes, with easily the Iron Man series' single best final mano-a-mano duel - maybe even the best in the Marvel film series as a whole - that concludes with a wicked parting shot from a very unexpected source. If one thought that after the Chitauri Invasion in The Avengers, the only direction to go was down, simply put, one thought wrong.
On the slightest of downsides, if anything suffers from the abundance of new material in this entry, it's Tony and Pepper's relationship. By having them become an item at the end of Iron Man 2, the writers ran the risk of the romance becoming stale, and to their credit they avoid they avoid this trap, but at the risk of their screentime together. This was understandable in The Avengers given the sheer number of things of going besides, but in Iron Man's own movie it does become an issue, even while the magic of Downey and Paltrow's chemistry is still quite active. The same could be said of Stark and Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who spend more time together out of their armor than in, but this then lends their third-act escapades plenty of humor in the vein of a good old fashioned buddy-cop movie.
In addition, callbacks are made to the first Iron Man (including a supporting player's surprise cameo) and in this not quite enough steps were taken; the true roots of the organization behind Stark's first capture are hinted at, but the links are not quite cemented to the degree that, say, The Dark Knight Rises connected to Batman Begins.
Finally, the conclusion of the film suggests a little too bluntly that this may be Downey's final solo ride as Tony Stark, trying to wrap up every little tiny thing in ways that just seem to hammer the audience over the head for the sake of a sentimental ending. At the same time though, it can't seem to decide if it's really the end of an era, or if "the adventure continues".
If indeed Iron Man 3 signals Downey riding into the sunset, a better sendoff would be hard to come by, as Downey and Shane Black bring the same magic on display in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a recommended hidden gem of a film). The bar has been set pretty damned high for the rest of the lead-in toward Avengers 2, but if this film is any indication, expectations are going to be rocked left and right - even where the obligatory post-credits stinger is concerned.