This ramble is rated 7 by the LSBRC for sustained mild spoilers.
Tony is having PTSD and anxiety attacks following the events of The Avengers. He feels inadequate being just a man in a suit after fighting alongside (and against) genuinely super human beings. Interestingly his friends from The Avengers are conspicuously absent here, especially Dr Banner who goes off with Stark at the end of Avengers for some kind of R&D love-in but doesn’t show up during this film.
Capitalising on Iron Man’s distraction is The Mandarin who appears out of nowhere as a terrorist super villain bent on teaching America a lesson. What that lesson is or why he feels the need to teach it isn’t really expanded on. Like a lot of the bad guys in super hero stories, the why doesn’t really matter so long as he is evil enough to get the attention of whichever hero is chosen to strike down the menace this week.
Unlike many other bad guys from super hero stories, The Mandarin is played excellently by Ben Kingsley who steals literally every scene that he is in. And you do get to find out some of the reasons why he does what he does and they are genuinely surprising for a change. There are other new bad guys too, introduced in a somewhat heavy handed and obvious intro flashback sequence. They have developed a serum that gives users super powers but also causes them to spontaneously explode (of course).
Despite some very serious threats both personally to Stark and co and to America (and the rest of the world if you are interested in trivial things like that), and dealing with serious consequences of terrorism like suicide bombings and their impact on communities, this film is much more playful than the previous 2. Of course there is the trademark Stark irreverence which has been present throughout all the movies that feature Iron Man, but there is also a noticeably more comic book feel that is nice but also makes it difficult to take the more serious aspects of the plot, well…seriously.
After publicly threatening the terrorist organisation, the inevitable retaliation leaves Tony Stark on the run and without access to most of his resources. On the road he meets a succession of Iron Man fanboys who become temporary sidekicks and help him out as he rebuilds his resources and fixes up his suit in preparation for a showdown with The Mandarin. Most notable is the young boy he meets who appears to have no family but does have a workshop and resources to allow Tony to rebuild his damaged suit and construct a bunch of other stuff too.
After losing his suit(s) Stark goes MacGuyver style to try to take out the terrorists on his own despite the fact that they are possibly some of the strongest enemies that he has ever faced. Suddenly Tony is a ninja, sneaking and fighting without his suit on. While it is a nice change from the usual noisy showoff Iron Man it is not really what you expect and feels a little cheesy. There is no real indication that Tony had any skills at fighting and infiltration prior to this excursion and it is generally implied that he isn’t really up to much without the suit so this sudden change in abilities throws the viewer off a little.
Also, given that he is in touch with War Machine when he decides to fight, it is monumentally stupid to go in alone. But then that’s Tony Stark all over; all style and no sense. Presumably Tony feels that he needs to prove that he can do useful things without the suit to back him up and his usual reckless disregard of his and other’s personal safety fits right in with his plan of going it alone against the world’s premier terrorist.
Despite these new found skills, once he gets the Iron Man suits up and running again they are more powerful and plentiful than ever before. Tony’s situation goes from one extreme to the other having only one barely functional prototype suit for most of the film to having an autonomous army consisting of all of his previous prototype suits at his beck and call for the big showdown at the end. He also teams up with War Machine (which is of course technically an Iron Man prototype which Rhodey stole in the previous film).
War machine has been re-branded “Iron Patriot” by the army and painted red white and blue to look like captain America, apparently due to the popularity of the captain after the events of The Avengers. I’d take the piss here but the film does a pretty good job of that itself, especially Tony Stark of course.
I won’t be giving much away by saying that the obvious villains turn out to be of minor importance and that everything leads up to a big spectacular fight at the end with the slightly less obvious villains. The final fight scene is truly spectacular and it is nice to see some of the prototype suits getting some airtime even though they don’t get any kind of introduction or explanation, it is also nice to see some of the specialist suits in action.
Pepper gets to wear the suit briefly in this film but doesn’t get to do much with it. Far from being allowed to do some ass kicking as a female Iron Man, this is just an extension of Tony protecting her by encasing her in the suit during a terrorist attack (and leaving himself vulnerable in the process showing that he is more mature and less selfish or something). Tony has to take the suit back off Pepper so that he can save the day, apparently making a noble sacrifice in the process and leaving Pepper to grieve for him.
It is a shame that such a great opportunity to introduce a strong female Iron Man pilot even for a short period was missed. All the other aspects of the plot could have remained; Tony protecting Pepper, Tony’s noble sacrifice, Pepper’s grief, Tony’s McGuyver inspired trek back to self belief, etc, etc, but Pepper could have been allowed an opportunity to fly around and open up some whoopass on some terrorists which is definitely something I would have liked to see.
To compound this, Pepper then goes and falls right into the bad guy’s trap and needs rescuing again this time by Iron Man, Iron Patriot and a whole bunch of Iron Man suits. In the end it is Pepper who saves Tony in the obligatory boss fight. But even this victory is dulled in the end by her having to be saved once again by Tony in an annoying voice over / montage at the end. Why they couldn’t just let her have the glory and leave the ending ambiguous I don’t know, it certainly would have improved my enjoyment. The summing up / “everyone lived happily ever after” bit at the end is annoying both because it is clichéd and because it limits the scope for another movie where everyone is awesome.
The true nature of the Mandarin is interesting and fun although it has been done a few times before it is well played here. Ben Kingsley plays the character excellently throughout and is a lovely contrast to the other characters all of whom take their roles too seriously and so make it difficult for the viewer to take their characters seriously. The other villains are pretty generic and boring and you never really care about what their motivations or desires might be. They are simply there to give Iron Man something to protect the world (and save Pepper) from.