updated 04/30/2013 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/02/2013 AT 11:00 AM ET
It’s hard to know how battling a giant alien millipede might affect a guy, but it seems to have turned Iron Man 3’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) into Bruce Wayne.
This post-Avengers Iron Man is a brooding insomniac, tinkering in his Batcave and so mired in existential angst that he’s having panic attacks. He’s so dour, it’s actually a relief when a madman attacks his Malibu manse, blowing it off the map in one of the film’s most spectacular scenes.
At least then we don’t have to spend the entire threequel in Tony’s head.
The evil genius to thank for that is a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, superb in a tricky role), who hijacks TV broadcasts across the nation to natter on about American policy and threaten the president (William Sadler).
Naturally, The Mandarin has a partner in crime, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist so brilliant he’s able to reprogram human genes, yet so petty that he’s still peeved at Tony for a long-ago snub. Together, The Mandarin and Killian pull off targeted bombings that send the nation into panic (and could remind some viewers of the Boston Marathon tragedy), not to mention that stunning assault on Tony’s pad.
That attack sends Tony into exile, essentially stripping the iron from the man. This might make for a nice bit of character development, some soul searching for a charmingly shallow man, but then the film can’t stop itself from tossing in a fourth-season TV-sitcom cliché: a cute kid (Ty Simpkins), who finds supplies and gives Tony someone to talk to during his sabbatical.
The only reason these scenes work is because Tony is hilariously heartless with the poor boy, never giving a sentimental inch.
And where are Tony’s friends during his sojourn?
Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is off protecting the country in his own metal suit as Iron Patriot (apparently that’s a friendlier name than War Machine), while Tony’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), runs Stark Industries, which means she no longer has to just stand around looking really pretty.
Unfortunately, IM3 gave that job to Rebecca Hall, who plays the terribly underwritten role of scientist Maya Hansen.
That’s not to say that Iron Man 3 completely misses the mark. After all, Downey is still reliably funny and facile as Tony Stark, Kingsley is beautifully nuanced as The Mandarin, and some of the film’s bigger set pieces really put the money on the screen.
It’s just that IM3 isn’t nearly as much fun as the first Iron Man or even its less-loved sequel, much less the holy text that is The Avengers. That said, hardcore fans should still see it (as if I could stop you). Just be sure to leave your Avengers-size expectations at home.
The film opens in the U.S. on Friday, May 3.