Being a superhero comes with super-sized problems. That’s certainly the case with Iron Man and his cocky creator, Tony Stark, who’s suffering from a mega case of job-related stress at the beginning of this third movie spun from his Marvel comic exploits.
After saving the world in his previous adventures with his fellow superheroes last year in “The Avengers,” Stark is a neurotic mess in “Iron Man 3.” Nightmares and flashbacks keep him from sleeping. And his obsessive late-night tinkering down in his billion-dollar basement, making new high-tech Iron Man outfits and smart-suit upgrades, is starting to chill some of the warmth out of his relationship with his loyal live-in gal Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
But there’s no rest for the weary. A new villain, the Bin Laden-esque Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), is terrorizing the U.S. president (William Sadler) through a series of increasingly destructive bombings, taunting via videotaped messages that “You’ll never see me coming.”
And just as troubling, there’s also a cool but creepy scientist (Guy Pearce) who can’t forget that Stark snubbed him, and his idea, years ago.
A new director, Shane Black, takes over this time from Jon Favreau, who steered the first two movies. A hot Hollywood helmer for his action-movie screenwriting on four “Lethal Weapon” movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Last Action Hero” and Bruce Willis’ “The Last Boy Scout,” Black also helped craft the script, which clearly shows his gift for snappy dialogue and a story that doesn’t sag or drag.
Though he’s not behind the camera, Favreau returns in his recurring role as Happy Hogan, Stark’s former bodyguard. Also back in the iron saddle is Don Cheadle as Col. James Rhodes, continuing to use Iron Man technology for the U.S. military. New faces include Rebecca Hall as a brilliant bio-scientist whose research has led her down a dangerous path, and young Ty Simpkins, whose role as Stark’s temporary accomplice brings a new level of pint-size charm to a story that otherwise doesn’t have much of a natural niche for kids.
But for pure entertainment, you can’t surpass Kingsley, whose Mandarin holds quite a surprise.
Black enjoys playing with all the toys to which his mega-million-dollar special-effects budget gave him access. As you might expect, the movie dazzles with computerized whoosh and whap. And it’s generally well-orchestrated, particularly an attack on Starks’ California seaside mansion that sends it plunging to the bottom of the ocean, and an eye-popping sequence during which Iron Man is challenged to figure out, on the fly, how to save a plane-full of passengers blown into the air when Air Force One explodes.
A prolonged grand finale seems to stretch on for several boomy minutes too long, however, reveling in its own bigness. But “Iron Man 3” wisely keeps its focus on Stark, giving Downey lots of room to quip and rip, and even setting up an entire third of the movie where his computerized, flying armor fails him, leaving him stranded some 2,000 miles from home and forced to go without using it.
Here, it’s not the suit that makes the man; it’s the man that makes the suit. It’s quite a suit, for sure, but Downey is still the star that keeps it — and this multi-million-dollar movie franchise — roaring and soaring.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Iron Man 3”
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley
DIRECTED BY: Shane Black
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes