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After nearly crashing and burning on his last solo flight in 2010, Iron Man returns refreshed and ready for action in this spirited third installment of the thus-far $1.2 billion-grossing Marvel franchise. In a way a double-sequel, both to Iron Man 2 and to last year’s mega-hit The Avengers, Iron Man 3 benefits immeasurably from the irreverent quicksilver humor of co-writer and director Shane Black, whose obvious rapport with Robert Downey Jr. in his only other directorial outing, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is further manifest here. Brandishing at least a couple of killer twists, this Disney release (having taken over from co-presenter Paramount) will be the (early) summer’s first massive hit, both in overseas openings beginning April 24 and upon domestic launch May 3.
Too long gone from the film scene, Black, who made his mark with the initial Lethal Weapon script, takes this assignment both very seriously and not seriously at all, which is entirely in tune with the glib determination Downey has always brought to the role of Tony Stark. The star executes almost continual verbal pirouettes, barking out sardonic quips and rejoinders even in moments of greatest distress but, due to his exceptional lingual dexterity, it rarely gets old and never seems condescending to the admittedly cartoonish context.
By extension, this giddy double-edged approach extends to many of the other characters. The good-guy leads, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Col. Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), have two incarnations, and it’s not giving too much away to say that they are far from the only ones here who have double personalities. Black and his co-screenwriter, first-timer Drew Pearce, have great fun reshuffling the deck, teasing about who might occupy what superhero suit and morphing the story along with identity revelations and expansions of the dramatic horizons; the well-chosen cast members respond in kind with virtually palpable glee.
After an enticing prologue in which Tony spends New Year’s Eve 1999 in Switzerland well matched with the fetching Maya (Rebecca Hall) while brushing off the professional entreaties of weird fellow scientist Aldrich Killian (a semi-disguised Guy Pearce), the current day finds the wealthy world savior in retrenching mode in the bowels of his Malibu mansion, fussing with updates of his Iron Man gear while lady love Pepper Potts runs the show at Stark Industries. Subject to anxiety attacks and unable to sleep, Tony can’t even be bothered with a series of world bombings and grave further threats from a Bin Laden-type terrorist, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a variation on an early Iron Man comics villain who is insidiously adept at commandeering world broadcasting and the internet.
For her part, Pepper is approached by Killian, now transformed into a dashingly handsome think tank genius who seeks Stark’s involvement in Extremis, an alleged mind-projection breakthrough. For unexplained reasons, she turns him down cold.
In an upsetting sequence that cuts far too close to home in the wake of the recent Boston bombings, Hollywood’s famed Chinese Theater forecourt is the scene of what appears to be a bombing but turns out to be something else, an attack by human beings whose eyes begin to glow scarily before their bodies heat to to the point of explosion. Stark’s security chief (played by Jon Favreau, director of the first two series installments) is among the badly injured, while the ever-resourceful Tony recognizes a similarity to an attack previously made in Tennessee.
At first, then, it appears that the strategy behind Iron Man 3 will be to bring chilling real-world dangers to Tony Stark’s doorstep in a more immediate and realistic way than ever before. In fact, the enemy literally does come to his door, in the form of a merciless helicopter attack on his oceanside home that entirely destroys it. Initially presumed dead, he then materializes in Tennessee, where a bright orphan (an engaging Ty Simpkins) helps him connect the dots between the earlier local incident and recent events, which soon are followed up by the emergence of more red-hot Extremisites.
Refreshingly, Black & Co. upend sentimental expectations by having Tony blow off the kid when he’s done with him, just as the ante is upped beyond mere contemporary relevance by some major surprises—one of them, at the 75-minute mark, quite startlingly funny—that shoot the film up to an entirely different level of screwy humor and large-canvas spectacle. The latter includes a beautifully rendered free fall sequence in which an Iron Man zooms down to assemble 13 people who have been blown out of Air Force One into an airborne daisy chain and guides them to a safe landing, while the climax takes full nocturnal visual advantage of a giant mechanized shipping port.
Although it’s moderately creepy, the Extremis phenomenon of flammable humans is probably the least appealing element here, as it provokes memories of vaguely cheesy werewolf eyes and Dr. Phibes-like flesh effects. Pepper’s constant complaining about Tony not being there for her also strike somewhat old-fashioned neglected mate notes but, otherwise, Black and Pearce devote themselves, more with success than not, to generating surprise, injecting wit into rote situations and outfitting the franchise with a sharp new set of attitudes, not to mention outfits.
Looking, if anything, younger than he did in his last couple of spins for Marvel, Downey is at his superhero genius best here, rattling off dialogue both clever and boilerplate with non-repetitive aplomb. Clearly, part of the thinking behind this installment was to have Tony spend much of his time out of his Iron Man suit and force him to generate creative, rather than just physical, ways to solve problems, and this gives the actor more opportunities than he had in the second go-round. Hall’s offbeat presence in what is her first big-budget franchise outing is greatly welcome, Pearce brings an arresting presence to his role as an egghead villain, and a fabulously accoutered and adorned Kingsley has a field day as the elusive Mandarin.
Cinematographer John Toll and production designer Bill Brzeski add class to the generic proceedings, Brian Tyler’s ultra-energetic score doesn’t grate the way soundtracks for such films often do and the special and visual effects are tops when they count.
After 10 minutes of end credits, the usual Marvel tag-on scene amusingly shows Tony on a shrink’s couch being tended to by one of the actors from The Avengers. A final note promises that Tony Stark will be back, although whether only in the next Avengers or in another Iron Man is not made clear. That will be for Downey and his agent to decide.