“When can we talk about the Avengers?” a preteen fanboy asks Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), his world-famous, terrorist-thwarting idol. The man inside the armor would rather change the subject, as the mere mention of “New York” or “wormhole” sends him spiraling into a panic attack. He’s haunted by the events of The Avengers, and so too is Iron Man 3, the first new Marvel movie released in the wake of that record-smashing hit. Joss Whedon’s crossover bonanza was designed to replenish the franchises that fed into it, goosing interest in the subsequent solo outings of its respective heroes. That’s a sound business model, but a backfiring entertainment strategy. Here, it’s hard not to wish Downey were sparring with his costumed comrades again, instead of trading barbs with the far-less-colorful cast members—old and new—of this busy, sporadically diverting sequel.
As in Jon Favreau’s dismal Iron Man 2, there’s no shortage of supporting characters hovering around the eponymous mogul-inventor. Although they share second billing, Gwyneth Paltrow (as love interest and business partner Pepper Potts) and Don Cheadle (as the government-sponsored War Machine, re-christened “Iron Patriot” for PR reasons) drift to the margins of the narrative. More prominent are the heavies, dragged in to test the mettle (and metal) of Downey’s saintly yet sardonic billionaire. In a plot turn that recalls the fallen-hero trajectory of The Dark Knight Rises, the minions of a bearded tyrant called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, whose hamminess serves a covert purpose) blow Stark’s mansion to smithereens. There’s also a scorned, rat-bastard scientist (Guy Pearce at his oiliest), and a posse of molten-skinned henchmen better suited to an X-Men movie.
New to the field of comic-book spectacles, writer-director Shane Black keeps all of this chaos churning at a breakneck pace. Hints of the filmmaker’s personality poke through the Marvel house style: The bookending narration is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang redux, and only the man who penned Lethal Weapon would think to include a passage in which Cheadle and a de-armored, gun-toting Downey bicker like buddy cops. Black’s most endearing experiment, though, is divorcing Iron Man of his iron. Never is the film livelier than when its hero, stranded in the boonies without access to his toys, has to rely on quick thinking and the kindness of strangers. (Amusing as always in the role, Downey seems to relish his time out of the suit.)
Less successful is the mandatory CGI mayhem, staged more confidently than in the Favreau films, but still borderline incoherent. In two hours and change, Black mounts only one truly spectacular setpiece: the annihilation of Air Force One, and the daring midair rescue of its plummeting passengers. Playful and awe-inspiring, the sequence also doubles as a metaphor for the way Iron Man 3, in its desperate attempts to please, frantically juggles so many characters and crowd-pleasing components. Whedon, a true believer in the medium, made that balancing act look easy. Pity it’ll be another two years, and at least that many interim single-hero installments, before he gets the gang back together.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Iron Man 3's Spoiler Space.