While not awful by any definition, this installment just seemed useless. It didn't add anything to the series in terms of plot, special effects or acting and while Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley seem intriguing as villains on paper, the irony that they played nerdy and stoner losers, respectively, is somewhat of a one joke pony. If either had brought real menace to their character, it would have been more interesting.
It's been established that Tony Stark could already jump into an Iron Man suit on the fly, literally. Now, he has perfected the technology to the point where the suit actually flies to him. Hand, leg, and face armor parts travel from wherever they are, soaring through the air at Tony's command (he communicates by earpiece with Jarvis, the robot control system, which puts Siri to abject shame) and latching onto his body -- or anyone else's if he so orders.
Alternatively, Tony can remotely control an entire suit. No human even has to be inside of it. So, he can protect and attack from a distance, as long as he has access to Jarvis.
When the movie opens he and Pepper are now living together. He's embraced monogamy. Their main relationship problems stem with his obsession with his iron suits. After the Avengers events and the destruction in New York (they have now moved to Malibu) Tony has become even more neurotic. He has anxiety attacks remembering the defeats of the past and suffers from acute sleep deprivation which bring a dangerous edge to his genius experiments. His brilliance is not compromised, but his judgment is.
We flashback to New Year's Eve 1999 where he had a one night stand with a scientist, Maya, who created plants that could regenerate themselves, sprouting new stems via a white hot firing process. Tony thought the "botany" was cute, but was more interested in the lovemaking. Meanwhile, an outcast inventor, Aldrich Killian, waits to meet with Tony. Tony humors him, takes his business card, but then stands him up. Some time after that, we learn that Killian and Maya found each other. Two great tastes that taste deadly together. Killian has learned to apply Maya's plant regeneration process to humans. They grow new limbs, which not only possess inhuman strength, but wield excessive heat that not only burns, but eventually explodes everything they touch. While the regeneration seems to turn once-decent people into killing machines, it's not clear why this happens. Killian has also refined the ability to project a person's brain as a 3-D image, a hologram. If you pinch his arm, you can actually see his brain react. A trick her performs for Pepper. So, he's engaging in some form of mind control with his regenerated minions, but that parts not clear. Later when he kidnaps Pepper, someone upon whom he once had a crush, he subjects her to the regeneration process. It sets her limbs afire, but doesn't make her a murderous robot as it does the others. I'm not quite sure why that is, except for the fact that the process was incomplete and Pepper was rescued while she was still in Phase I.
It's silly any way you slice it. No one wants to lose an arm or a leg, but prosthetics have improved to such an extent (look at Oscar Pistorius' races) that you don't have to submit to evil to regain your physical abilities. That's why one scene where we realize that the Vice President of the United States is a Killian ally because his wheelchair-bound granddaughter needs a new leg is absolutely ludicrous. This is not Heidi's cousin Clara. Amputees are no longer "cripples". No VP has to destroy the world just so his granddaughter can walk again. Do you hear that Joe Biden?
The illogical plot unfolds when Killian's deranged robots attack Tony's best friend Happy Hogan outside of Grauman's chinese theater. Happy was suspicious of Killian's visit to Pepper at Stark Headquarters, but Tony ignored his concerns. Hogan ends up in a coma and Grauman's is destroyed, causing an angry Tony to give a press conference vowing revenge. He gives out his home address in a "come and get me" challenge. Killian obliges and disintegrates Stark's Malibu home before Pepper can get them moved out. This is the only superhero franchise where the protagonist's own home is repeatedly destroyed in scenes that last forever. They could make a 2-hour montage movie just from the battles that take place in Tony's lair. In this latest Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Stark saves Pepper (and Maya) and then goes on the run to Tennessee. He is presumed dead, but lets Pepper know he is safe, before using the anonymity that "death" brings him to catch Killian offguard and bring him down.
Of course, there's a hitch in this plan when Killian (with Maya's help) captures Pepper.
After that, there's more fighting and fire than story. Some suspense is generated by the fact that the Iron Man suit (and Jarvis) ran out of electrical power and need to be repowered, leaving Tony rather defenseless in the interim. Tony hides Jarvis in the garage of a boy scientist who helps power the weakened Jarvis back up and Tony must skulk around Tennessee without his armor, using his wits and Macgyver-like improvisational skills to avoid Killian's automatons instead.
But once the suit is back online, it's on. Between Tony's armor and his friend Colonel James Rhodes' the iron man suits fly them all over the globe, to Killian's hide out, to Air Force One and Washington, D.C. Finally, Jarvis calls in back up (all the extra iron man suits stored in the basement of the razed Malibu home). They fly from California to the scene and help Iron Man and Colonel Rhodes defeat Killian and restore order to the world.
Although, Pepper had fire coursing through her body and superhuman strength due to the excruciating injections that Killian subjected her to, Tony is able to reverse the process and she becomes normal again, inspiring him to want to do the same. He gives Jarvis the order to self-destruct all of the Iron Man suits. He throws the disc shaped generator that causes his heart to pump, into the Pacific ocean (in a manner some have called environmentally unsound)and perfects a simpler pacemaker. While Pepper has indicated that this return to basics is what she wants, I'm not sure why. Tony has not just saved her life with his Iron Man suits, but they protected the president and the world as well. Yeah, so they occasionally short circuit and wake her up in the middle of the night, but that's a small price to pay for world peace, I would think.
As Tony walks away from his discarded armor he says he doesn't need it because, "I am Iron Man." Well, ok, but you can't fly. You aren't indestructible. You have a panic attack that leaves you crouching in the fetal position every time someone mentions New York City. When it comes to saving the universe, I'd rather have the suit back. I'm just not sure how the two hours that preceded the movie's "back to nature" message actually corroborate it.
While the idea of magical, omnipotent suits flying to your rescue and playing offense even when unmanned is an enticing one, it actually works to anti-climatic effect in a story. We all know the superhero will prevail in the end, but we want it to be a good fight. All of these invincible Iron Man suits rather deplete the story's sense of challenge. Maybe that's why they were ultimately destroyed, to send Tony back to a more vulnerable, underdog state for the next sequel.
This go round, if you want to see RDJ play an erudite, but dissolute prodigy, whose brain is both manic and dazzling, reciting humorous lines with glib nonchalance, rent one of the Sherlock Holmes films. Your imagination would be better served.