Actors, action explosive in ‘Iron Man 3’

Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow star in "Iron Man 3." SOURCE MARVEL STUDIOS
May 5, 2013

Sure, Iron Man’s not-so-secret identity is Tony Stark, but in this third installment it may as well be Dwight Howard for the phenomenal rebounding it does from the underwhelming second film.

Last year, “The Avengers” dominated the box office, satiated the fan base, and gained a number of converts, no easy task, indeed. But its success was actually “Iron Man’s” curse, as it is the most successful of the spinoff franchises, and momentum stalled just a little for the sequel, grossing less than the first. While its take was still more than $300 million, sequels - regardless of quality - have a tendency to outdo their founding films.

When Marvel announced that it was scrapping Jon Favreau, director of the first two, and replacing him with Shane Black, many questioned the choice. The man earned legend status with writing the first “Lethal Weapon” flick way back in 1987, but has had a marginal, checkered box-office history ever since, with highs such as “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” and “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” (also starring Downey) and lows such as “Last Action Hero” and “The Last Boy Scout.” But none of his films since “Weapon” have ever achieved blockbuster status.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to Black’s “Iron Man” installment, in which he serves as both writer and director. And it is to his credit as a writer that this chapter of the franchise feels as fresh and natural as it does. The superhero genre has typically stuck to one of two templates in the past couple decades - flawed-but-funny hero learning to come to grips with his/her power with splashes of comedy and explosions thrown in for good measure, or dark and tortured heroes who face overwhelming loss and sadness while still attempting to find the good in humankind.

“Iron Man 3” manages to take a little from both categories with refreshingly satisfying results. Tony Stark (at this point, they should just change his name to Robert Downey Jr., as the role is owned by the actor) is now crippled with panic attacks, retreating into his lab to tinker with his suits as a means of escape. He’s alienated himself from his girlfriend Pepper (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and best pal Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle).

Tony/Iron Man gets called back into action when global terrorist The Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley in an unexpectedly brilliant role) begins dropping bombs on American turf. But Iron Man’s best proves not good enough, leaving him stranded, alone and as resourceless as he was in the Afghan cave that imprisoned him in the first film.

But lest you think “Iron Man” is taking a turn down Christopher Nolan Lane, Black keeps one iron leg firmly in a comedic pool. (The fact that the incredibly annoying-but-ubiquitous one-hit wonder “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65 leads off the film should give a hint as to its tone). And with Downey delivering the lines, there is no arsenal around capable of slowing it down. In fact, Black places so much faith in his actor that he appears throughout most of the film sans suit. This may seem blasphemous to those who like their heroes donned in their trademarked attire, but it’s what makes this “Iron Man” feel so recharged.

Downey is also helped by a compelling array of friends and possible foes. Guy Pearce (looking like a younger, thinner Val Kilmer) stars as another playboy scientist named Aldrich Killian, who may or may not be working with The Mandarin. He’s as deceptive and narcissistic as Tony once was, but has failed to see the evil in his ways. And Paltrow has never been better as Pepper this go-round. She’s no longer the nurturer and finds a strength all her own, worthy of donning her own iron flight suit. Cheadle is a tad short-shrifted in his role, but provides stability for Stark at the very moments he contemplates going completely off the rails.

But it’s Kingsley who will have crowds chattering after the final credits (for which, this being an “Avengers” film, you should remain seated until the end). And it will be quite interesting to hear the audience’s reaction to his role. The minute your friends begin discussing it, staple their lips shut until you see it and judge for yourself.

All of this culminates in what truly feels like a progression for all involved, and not merely a chapter, which is often the case in such franchise pictures. The characters are given room to grow, to change, and to learn, which too often gets drowned out in the call for more munitions in superhero films.

There are plenty of explosives to be found in “Iron Man 3,” mind you, but it’s energizing to see them go off with the actors as well as the action.

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