Tony Stark was profoundly affected by what happened in “The Avengers,” what with the arrival of Norse gods and malevolent aliens and other things that would tend to disrupt a person’s worldview. In “Iron Man 3,” the billionaire weapons-designer-turned-do-gooder, once again played with irresistible snark and a tinge of soulfulness by Robert Downey Jr., has thrown himself even more obsessively into his work to avoid the anxiety attacks and sleeplessness that trouble him when he sits still. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony’s CEO and soulmate, worries about his health as he tinkers away in the basement of his lavish Malibu cliffside home, upgrading, duplicating, and improving the Iron Man suits. Even Tony’s sentient computer (voiced by Paul Bettany) is concerned.
Here to handle Tony Stark’s PTSD with humor and explosions is Shane Black, the man who wrote “Lethal Weapon” (that seems appropriate) and wrote and directed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” a criminally under-seen 2005 noir-ish meta-comedy that also starred Robert Downey Jr. “Iron Man 3” is only the second film Black has directed (he co-wrote it with Drew Pearce), but he takes control of the franchise with the crazy, assured aplomb of one of his characters. I liked the first “Iron Man” well enough, and “Iron Man 2” was all right (if completely forgettable), but part 3 entertained me more than either of them. It’s funnier and smoother, more surprising, defter at being creative while still working within the confines of the superhero formula. (Is there any superhero’s girlfriend who hasn’t been suspended from a perilous height by a villain?)
“Iron Man” (2008) B
“The Incredible Hulk” (2008) B
“Iron Man 2” (2010) B-
“Thor” (2011) B
“Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) B
“The Avengers” (2012) B+
“Iron Man 3” (2013) B+
“Thor: The Dark World” (2013) C-
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) B
“Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) B
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) B-
“Ant-Man” (2015) B
“Captain America: Civil War” (2016) B
“Doctor Strange” (2016) B+
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017) B-
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) B+
“Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) B
Speaking, parenthetically, of villains, there’s a better selection of those this time too. On the world stage, an enigmatic terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has perpetrated several bombings, leading the U.S. president (William Sadler) to call Tony Stark’s pal Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) into service. (Rhodes’ Iron Man-like suit, formerly called War Machine, has been re-dubbed Iron Patriot because it sounds better.) Closer to Tony’s own life, a genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) comes to Stark Enterprises pitching biotech that can potentially re-grow a human’s missing limbs or digits. The former dork — seen in the 1999 flashback that opens the film — is suave now, and exhibits symptoms of a crush on Pepper. Stark head of security Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two films) keeps tabs on Killian’s dangerous-looking goons. Meanwhile, a one-night stand of Tony’s (Rebecca Hall) reappears for dubious reasons.
Black, relishing the opportunity to play in a big sandbox, keeps things moving at a steady pace, with high-energy action sequences popping up organically in the story just as you’re starting to think you could use another one. Downey’s delivery of Black’s wise-acre dialogue is unsurprisingly spotless. (To a bad guy he’s captured: “You’ve got a minute to live. Fill it with words.”) And when the introduction of a possible junior sidekick for Iron Man threatens to erase some of our goodwill toward the film, Black handles it in a way that restores confidence without being completely cynical. Tony isn’t 100 percent glib about touchy-feely emotions, either. His love for Pepper Potts is serious, and he takes it seriously. Like most entries in the superhero genre, “Iron Man 3” is whisper-thin in terms of subtext and dramatic import — and don’t get me wrong, ain’t nothin’ wrong with that — but the legitimacy of Tony’s feelings toward Pepper and his own mortality gives it a little weight. Mostly it’s just fun, though, and a lot of it.
B+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; )