The slick, engaging “Iron Man 3” opens with a tone-setting voiceover by self-described billionaire genius philanthropist playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). “A famous man once said we create our own demons,” says the man in the iron mask.
In this cleverly self-aware outing, our seriously damaged hero’s journey is locating the demons he created and dealing with them. Some he can punch with a weaponized glove. Others require him to wrestle with his own hubris.
Directed and co-written by Shane Black, who scripted “Lethal Weapon” and a raft of other cheeky action-comedies, the film races on a high-octane mix of spectacle, sarcasm and smarts. It balances massive, show-offy effects with hip knowingness and quirky human touches. It’s a comic-book world seen not from the viewpoint of a fanboy but a wiseguy adult earthling.
Downey’s Stark is a fully formed Pop Art portrait that radiates weirdly in all directions. He’s understandably jittery following the intergalactic battles of “The Avengers.” “Nothing’s been the same since New York,” he says, invoking a real-world resonance.
Now flying solo, he’s struggling to salvage his relationship with Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), while building ever-fancier versions of his self-protective armor. Since his version of romantic attention is buying his exasperated lover a three-story stuffed bunny and sending an empty, remote-controlled Iron Man suit to keep her company while he labors in his workshop, you will see that things are not going well.
The film leaps backward to 1999 and a snide Stark blithely mistreating everyone he meets. His then-girlfriend Maya (Rebecca Hall), a bio-researcher, and geekish genetic engineer Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an effusive admirer who only wants five minutes of the tycoon’s time, get a full blast of his condescension. Both will return to bedevil Stark, proving the truth of that famous man’s warning.
The danger Stark faces back in the present is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley in breathtaking form), a terrorist of Mongolian-Arabic appearance and mysterious intent. “You will not see me coming,” he warns, a line that pays off big as the clever, self-aware story offers up its revelations.
Don’t ask me what the master plan is. Something about “owning the war on terror.” It doesn’t much matter. Black tweaks the superhero-movie formula to his own style of exhilarating nonchalance.
The film takes Stark out of his near-indestructible tin suit for much of the action, literally putting his vulnerable skin in the game. The finale isn’t another megalopolis apocalypse but a shipyard showdown from one of Black’s noir comedies, with Stark and buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) firing handguns.
Even minor roles are cast with unusual care. William Sadler plays the president. You may not know the veteran character actor’s name, but his face might be familiar from his many roles as cretins, traitors and murderers. Just seeing him in a suit implies he’s a hypocrite. Black’s disdain for government couldn’t be clearer.
The story introduces Harley, a manipulative but ultimately helpful little kid (Ty Simpkins) who is nearly Stark’s equal with snappy sarcasm. “I saved your life,” Harley declares. “Saved yours first,” Stark fires back.
The kid humanizes Stark, goading him to ease off the arrogance and embrace his inner grease monkey. With his high-tech suit inoperable, he builds weapons out of kids’ toys and stock items from a home improvement warehouse. Marvel superhero movies have given me a lot of pleasure, but not much to top the image of Downey strolling into enemy headquarters, blasting henchmen with a potato gun and a sack of explosive Christmas ornaments.