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Iron Man 3 is a well made film by any standards. What made it so surprising was how little it resembles Tony Stark's previous 3 outings.
The message of the movie is, "the man makes the suit", not the suit makes the man. Shane Black takes Tony Stark out of his comfort zone following the events of The Avengers, showing how New York messed up Tony's head. At the same time, a campaign of violence launched by the Mandarin, a flamboyant uber-terrorist, draws Stark into a journey of self-realization.
Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark hasn't been this sincere since 2008's Iron Man. He takes the next step in the character's progression and makes it (mostly) believable. Downey delivers the best performance in the movie, which elevates the quality of the supporting cast.
Where Iron Man 3 falls short is in some of the writing choices. Despite being based on the Extremis storyline, the movie takes great liberties with (and even pokes fun) at the comics. In the movie, Tony is unaffected by the Extremis program. The original storyline saw him reexamine the nature of Iron Man, in addition to upgrading him with the super tech a futurist would use. It feels as though a plot closer to the original's set in a post-Avengers world would have been better than the scattered story presented here.
The action in the movie is excellent— for a non-superhero. Considering the movie introduces 35 new armors, the lack of armored action raises a big question mark. Previous Iron Man movies, and especially Avengers, introduced suits which were logical progressions from their predecessors. Every new explosive, laser, and delivery system was more interesting than the last. Here, the suits don't work and feel like clones, flying and using repulsors, but never getting enough screen time for us to appreciate their abilities. I don't go to the Iron Man films to see Don Cheadle (or RDJ) shoot people with a handgun.
A few other gripes concern the supporting cast's treatment. Maya Hansen's arc is awkward and has some clunky "in it for the science" moral dialogue. Pepper Potts' transition to full blown Action Girl seems unecessarily forced. The lack of action for the Iron Patriot armor is criminal.
Despite the flaws, Iron Man 3 could have been a near-perfect Iron Man movie if it had just a little more Iron Man in it.
As it can be gathered from my review, I actually liked the fact that the armour barely featured in the action scenes. When he is wearing the suit, most enemies are utterly pathetic against Stark, and that doesn't do a lot to create tension.
Stark is fairly feckless outside of his armour, always running away, screwing up and struggling to keep out of harm's reach. In my opinion, that is far more interesting to watch - I want to see the genius get out of difficult situations, using his smarts to come up with elegant solutions. Movie Bob compared it to Jackie Chan, and I agree there is a wonderfully grounded, rugged, small scale nature to the action (like the bar fight). The suit is an anathema to that kind of intensive, local action.
I think you raise something of a good point when it comes to the armours that we see used, but then the film does make a point that he's basically been running on fumes since the events in New York; Pepper goes to bed while he stays down in his lab and puts more and more suits of armour together, so.. I think the point is that despite marking them up with different designations, a lot of the suits he's meant to have made since New York just plain aren't meant to be very good. The one used most prominently (43? 42?) seems to be the most effective, and yet the most reflective of the fact that Tony is basically running on empty.
In terms of what was best for the movie, Stark being out of the suit most of the time was probably the better choice as noted above, though I still think the suits were featured enough to make it distinctly an Iron Man movie. Besides, the movie used them in more clever ways than I can remember the previous two movies using them (as protection, remote controlled distraction, using only some parts of the suit and not others, etc.)
I will say the parts with the Mandarin seemed rather unnecessary and shoehorned in just to please those familiar with the comics, though I doubt it even did that considering how that subplot ended.
However, I'll disagree about Potts "transistioning" into an action girl; I don't think that's what they were going for at all. It was more like the classic "villain overlooks small mistake in his plan that comes back to bite him" bit used to cap off the movie's climax more than anything else, and a nice way to show that she looks out for Stark as well.
What happened with Pepper struck me as the same as what happens in the first star trek. Villain should have killed her earlier, but waits, and then she ends up killing him later (in the first movie's case, with the arc reactor). This version just got her into a sports bra instead of business attire.
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