The idea that you have to sit through mediocre “character development” to get to the combat fireworks is common to action films, but the first two “Iron Man”s inverted the genre’s traditional appeal: viewers slogged through unexceptional set-pieces to watch Downey be a smart-ass, enabled by capable actors on the same comic page. That was a semi-happy accident, a result of the movies moving into production without a locked script, as multiple actors confirmed; the resulting improv sessions wore their spontaneity transparently. The action sequences had to be figured out before-hand — CGI takes time — but they’re the least memorable components of the first two installments.
This method of construction isn’t unfamiliar: when Jackie Chan made “Police Story” in 1985, he conceived his desired martial arts sequences first, then had the screenwriter come up with a framework that could plausibly get him from one to another. Same process, different outcome: in the “Iron Man”‘s, you came for the comedy and put up with the action filler. With the exception of Jeff Bridges strapping on his gigantic-robot-villain suit at the end of the first film and Mickey Rourke causing racetrack havoc at the start of the second, it’s hard for me to remember any significant mayhem from the first two installments; the showdowns basically look like outtakes from “The Rocketeer.”
That’s no longer the case in “Iron Man 3,” whose plot that functions in ways that a screenwriting teacher would approve: there’s a prologue establishing (“planting”) characters that’ll re-emerge as villains, a first act establishing Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering from post-”Avengers” anxiety attacks (a challenge to be overcome, though it’s forgotten halfway through), and a midway plot twist that simultaneously changes everything you thought about the villain while still keeping the movie on course towards an orgy of third-act CGI gasoline explosions and neatly resolved plot arcs.