When I heard that The Mandarin was going to be the villain of this film, I was wary. The Mandarin is an awkward and slightly embarrassing character for Marvel, what with the "Yellow Peril" undertones that the company tries to downplay these days. How they wound up handling it is very clever; I won't spoil it here, but I will say it was satisfying both in terms of the story and in terms of Ben Kingsley's awesome performance. There is a problem, however, in that he's really not the Mandarin. Instead of a megalomaniac genius with a set of alien/mystical power rings, we have a guy who's basically bin Laden with superhero technology. I thought that a lot more could have been done with the character. Given that Tony Stark is an american industrialist, Rhodes is a member of the U.S. military, and Mandarin is (traditionally) a Chinese mastermind, it makes fertile grounds for exploring realpolitik.
Yes, yes, I know. judge the story you're given rather than the story you would have wrote. But this particular film invites it because it felt like a long series of missed opportunities. The story seems to want to be about something, but can't decide what; Tony suffering PTSD from the events of The Avengers? Tony's struggling to balance his life as Iron Man with his life as Tony Stark? Tony struggling to deal with the consequences of past mistakes? Learning that he can't protect the ones he loves? All these things are brought up, fiddled with a bit, then dropped in favor of fight sequences and Tony trading barbs with everyone. The film is great to watch anyway, since Robert Downey Jr. does the latter very, very, well. But still, but still, but still...
One of the big selling points of the original film- arguably the reason why it succeeded at all- was the fact that it was done without a script. Downey insisted on being able to ad-lib his lines, and eventually they wound up improvising the entire film, resulting in very naturalistic dialog that humanized the characters. (Jeff Bridges famously described it as "a $200 million student film".) The second film continued suit, but for this third installment they've got a new director and the movie feels a lot more scripted. That's not bad per se; the dialog is good, and the performances are first-rate as well, but the lack of spontaneity makes it so much easier to nitpick the film's flaws, including rampant fridge logic, uninteresting villains, and the fact that the plot relies so much on supposedly smart people - both Tony and the villains - doing stupid or nonsensical things. (The latter two have been recurrent problems with the Iron Man films.)
The performances, as I said, are first-rate, and when added to some great action setpieces, the resulting film is far from bad. (And I love what they did with Pepper Potts near the end.) But the spark isn't really there, and I have a feeling maybe it's time to put this particular hero to bed.