A 1999 prologue includes a lovely shout-out to the first film as Tony, in full spoiled playboy mode, swans about a Swiss tech conference and New Year's Eve party. Tony pays more attention to hot scientist Maya Hanson (Rebecca Hall) than geeky Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), so arrogant behavior has unexpected repercussions.
In the present, Christmas approaches and Tony's experience in The Avengers has left him prone to insomnia and panic attacks, so he works nearly around the clock coming up with variations on the Iron Man suit that include mental links. In a chilling scene, Tony finally dozes off, only to suffer a nightmare that activates one of his automated suit, which briefly treats his girlfriend/corporate partner Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as a threat. His armor doesn't just cut him off from other people; it can pose a danger to them.
External adversaries also present themselves, including a well-groomed, superrich Killian, who attracts Pepper with inventions like a giant 3-D hologram of his own brain. The United States also faces violent attacks and taunting video messages from The Mandarin (an arresting Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-like terrorist who speaks in a quasi-American accent (despite the character's Chinese origins in the comic books). The first act culminates with a jaw-dropping, intricate action scene as Tony and Pepper try to live through a devastating attack on his palatial Malibu home.
Iron Man 3 then unexpectedly shifts the action to small-town Tennessee, where Tony, possessed of no resources but a wrecked Iron Man suit, tries to unlock the overlapping mysteries of The Mandarin and an enigmatic squad of supersoldiers with abilities to rival liquid metal android of Terminator 2. It's certainly fun to see a more vulnerable Tony improvise his way out of sticky situations and interact with fresh characters types, including a precocious but likable kid (Ty Simpkins).
But from here on, the movie also feels weirdly contrived. Given the stakes involved, including threats against the U.S. president (William Sadler), Tony doesn't seem to pursue as much help as he could. Unless I missed something, the film doesn't even mention SHIELD as a potential ally.
It's like Iron Man 3 becomes less about Tony and more about Downey. He repeatedly runs into fans who gush over him and ask annoying questions about whether The Avengers will get back together. Director/co-writer Shane Black crafts a surprising amount of in-jokes about show business, either directly or implicitly. And while Paltrow and Don Cheadle as Tony's friend Rhodey give fine supporting performances, their scenes feel rushed and hyper, and afford their roles meager subplots. Pepper may the love of Tony's life, but Paltrow and Downey never share a moment as warm and relaxed as their scene The Avengers.
Downey previously starred in Black's satirical thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and clearly the filmmaker both screenwriting chops and a keen directorial eye - otherwise, Iron Man 3 would feel like one of Roger Moore's lesser James Bond films. It's a shame, then, that Black seems more interested in drawing the audience's attention to the omnipresent Christmas decorations than coherently explaining the villain's motivations and endgame. Gags involving the Iron Man suit falling to pieces start out amusing, then get kind of old, and the overblown finale definitely overstays its welcome.
Nevertheless, Iron Man 3 delivers enough laughter and excitement to make up for its flaws, and proves that noisy summer action movies don't have to insult audiences' intelligence. Downey remains terrific, as always. You just get the feeling that, after being a team player in The Avengers, this time he didn't want to share the limelight.
Iron Man 3. 3 stars. Directed by Shane Black. Stars Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., May 3. At area theaters.
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