May 2, 2013 • 05:50:56 p.m.

Robert Downey Jr. superb in ‘Iron Man 3’


Robert Downey Jr. stars in the film “Iron Man 3.” (More Content Now photo)

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

A series’ third film is not supposed to be as fresh and nervy as “Iron Man 3,” but this series has always bucked the conventions of superhero movies.

Never forget that the first movie ended with Tony Stark junking the whole secret identity thing and declaring, “I am Iron Man.”

Historically, the third film in a superhero series is the one that becomes both bloated with too many characters and emaciated by too thin a plot. This happens when the studio decides profits from action figure sales trump the virtues of storytelling. “Spider-Man 3,” where the studio forced director Sam Raimi to include Venom as a villain, has become the go-to cautionary tale, although “Batman Forever” paved the way.

Marvel has gotten smarter since “Spider-Man 3,” and “Iron Man 3,” with Robert Downey Jr. again superb in the title role, sidesteps the problems associated with the third-movie curse by not repeating the first two films. “Iron Man 3” has a different feel from its predecessors, including “The Avengers,” and that makes it as surprising as it is exuberant. For once, an Iron Man movie doesn’t end in a CGI smackdown between Tony Stark and a villain who has acquired a more powerful suit of armor.

Shane Black, who previously directed Downey in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” takes over directing duties from Jon Favreau and delivers more of a hard-core action movie with a driven pace. Favreau shows there are no hard feelings by reprising his role as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s head of security, and scoring some early comedy relief before the action turns grim.

The story picks up sometime after “The Avengers,” where Iron Man flew into a wormhole to stave off an alien invasion during the climactic battle in Manhattan. The very mention of New York will trigger an anxiety attack in Tony, so he spends most of his time puttering in his lab perfecting new versions of his Iron Man suit. He is now up to the Mk 42 armor.

Several figures and events from Tony’s past, illustrated in a flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999, will return to haunt him. A former girlfriend, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), has almost perfected her formula to regrow lost human limbs. While I always thought scientists in the Marvel Universe who developed formulas to regrow limbs turned into giant lizards, Maya’s approach has a more lethal side effect: The body might overheat and explode with a blast that rivals a concentrated nuke.

That side effect gains the attention of a terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and patterns his look after Osama bin Laden.

While that is brewing, rival tech genius Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) comes calling on Stark Industries and hopes to woo Tony’s gal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) into a business and romantic relationship. Tony once spurned a younger, geekier Killian that same New Year’s Eve in 1999. Killian founded a think tank called AIM, so longtime Marvel fans know he shouldn’t be trusted.

Tony’s friend Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) also returns, now promoted to the president’s (William Sadler) personal bodyguard. “Rhodey” has changed his nom de guerre from War Machine (which tested as too militant) to the Iron Patriot, with the suit receiving a red, white and blue makeover.

It has become a trend in a series’ third installment to tear the hero down to his basics and make him prove himself once more with only his wits. It happened with James Bond in “Skyfall” and with Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises” and with Iron Man here. Just as Bruce Wayne spent most of “Dark Knight Rises” separated from his Batman identity, Tony Stark spends most of “Iron Man 3” without the armor that provides his super powers.

Black, who co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce, piles on the action (which includes a surprising amount of gunplay for a superhero movie) but he maintains the focus on Tony Stark’s evolving personality and his romance with Pepper, which got shunted into the background in the first two movies.

Downey’s quips and sarcasm help “Iron Man 3” generate more laughs than today’s standard comedies. Black also undercuts many typical hero moments, yanking away the bravado at the last moment. Stick around after the credits and you’ll be rewarded with a great joke.

The Mandarin is one of Iron Man’s oldest villains, but comic purists won’t be pleased with his portrayal. For a man who claims a Chinese identity, the Mandarin speaks with a strange, stilted Midwestern accent. Overall, “Iron Man 3” benefits from a villain whose intelligence, determination and decisive actions recall Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber from the original “Die Hard.”

Downey dominated this series from the start but his control over “Iron Man 3” is even more impressive than in the first two films. Downey continues to bring an electricity unlike any other performer in the superhero world. It is impossible to conceive of anyone else playing Iron Man. Good luck rebooting this one.

• Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce star in “Iron Man 3.” The film is rated PG-13 and runs two hours and 10 min.

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