Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: "Iron Man 3"

"Iron Man" was a zippy, giddy take on the superhero genre, with Robert Downey Jr. as our over-caffeinated but charming stewardess on a cinematic zero-g flight into the stratosphere. Then there was "Iron Man 2" because, well, the laws of economics more or less demanded it, even if it offered audiences little more than an obligatory dark-n-dreary phase.

And then came "The Avengers," the harmonic convergence of several comic book movie franchises, proving that sometimes more is more. Unfortunately, it's left Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, with little reason to keep hanging around in his third solo outing.

Downey is back with that rapscallion twinkle in his eye, his nervous tics and motormouth line delivery revealing a man too smart to be comfortably constrained by the mortal limits of his fleshy cocoon. He quotes an anecdote that Albert Einstein only slept three hours a year, and it's clear from Stark's tone that he begrudges even that much time spent away from his gear-happy lair, tinkering away on never-ending improvements to his array of super-suits.

In his own imitable wobbly way, Stark/Downey is the steadying force that keeps the "Iron Man" movies together.

Unfortunately, director Shane Black, who co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce, have come up with a story that's like a buffet line -- they couldn't really decide on a recipe, so they just threw in a little of everything.

Want more snappy banter between Stark and best friend/security wingman Happy (played by Jon Favreau, former director now demoted to sidekick)? It's there, tiredly. And relationship tensions between him and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his lady love and now head cheese of Stark Industries? Ditto.

There's also some stuff about the after-effects of Stark's battles with critters from outer space in the Avengers flick, leading to one or two full-out panic attacks. It seems the uber-arrogant playboy/inventor/savior of mankind actually has confidence issues.

"Gods? Aliens? I'm a man in a can," he moans.

The world is being threatened by a mastermind terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who dresses like a pasha and speaks like a Mississippi Baptist preacher while setting off mysterious bombs that leave no trace of their mechanical origin. He being a movie villain, Mandarin has to do this live on TV, hacking every station in the country at once, simultaneously.

Worse yet, the Mandarin apparently has all these strange henchmen who sort of glow red from the inside, can make things extremely hot by touching them and heal amazingly fast.

A few new characters float around the edges. There's Maya (Rebecca Hall), a botanist and former Stark fling who's found a way to "hack the operating system of a creature's DNA," or something. And Aldrich Killian, who we see in a 1999 flashback looking homely and walking with a crutch, who later turns up as handsome as Guy Pearce.

Don Cheadle returns as Jim Rhodes, who wears an older version of Stark's suite and serves the U.S. government as War Machine ... wait, check that, they redub him Iron Patriot after the name tests better with focus groups.

There are a few exciting action sequences, but the overall effect is more discombobulating than exhilarating. Stark jumps from situation to situation, and -- thanks to some new technology -- from suit to suit so quickly, it never really feels like there are real consequences to the mayhem.

Late in the game, Stark narrates a lament about how many geniuses start out with great intentions, but then compromises and complications bring down their best efforts. It's an apt metaphor for super-hero movies, which start out with a cool premise and M.O. Then as time goes by, the mythology gets junked up with tertiary characters and subplots.

Maybe that's why in the comic book world, every so often they reboot a character by returning him or her to their roots, which are reimagined for a fresh start. With "Iron Man 3," they've taken this hardware as far as it can go.

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