Iron Man 3

3.5 stars
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IM3 poster

"Iron Man 3" will probably stand as the funnest popcorn flick of the summer season. Better than its clunkier predecessor and just a notch below the first, it's polished, sharply written, funny, well-paced, and is elevated by strong performances all the way down the line.

Much of the credit belongs to writer-director Shane Black, who penned the exciting Lethal Weapon series. He brings the energy of those earlier films to this project, which, after last year's "The Avengers" places Robert Downey Jr. in his fourth story as Tony Stark. By this point, we should half expect our cocky megalomaniac to be a caricature of himself, but surprisingly his schtick is as fresh as ever.

By the conclusion of his origin story, Tony Stark was a reformed war profiteer turned superhero. In his second film, we were introduced to our superhero's "fatal flaw", his implanted life source located square in the middle of his chest that risked killing him unless he could come up with one of the rarest elements in the periodic table. That subplot was useful in its ability to reveal a contrast between Tony's cocky public persona and who he is in private.

That same sort of idea is at work in IM3, with Tony having to confront sporadically debilitating anxiety attacks that he's been concealing even from Pepper Potts, who has grown from being Tony's "only friend at the company" and romantic interest, to CEO of Stark Industries and live-in girlfriend. Besides being Tony's better half, Pepper also becomes more integral to the action story in this film in a set-piece early on that shows Tony's seaside home under heavy air attack.

These movies live and die with their villains, and IM3 delivers two charismatic and entertaining ones in a terrorist named the Mandarin (a totally unfettered Ben Kingsley) and smooth-talking scientist Aldrich Killian (a snaky Guy Pearce) with his remarkable DNA manipulating invention that gives super-strange powers of healing and strength to the stooges in his command.

"We make our own demons", Tony narrates in the opening sequence, which introduces us to Killian in flashback before he cleaned up real well and started wearing suits, at a science convention on the eve of the new millenium. Resentment has festered in Killian ever since due to Tony being a no-show at a private meeting Killian was desperate to set up between the two.

The remarkable thing with IM3 is how alive it all is. We find that the plot becomes secondary to the joy of performance that the characters in this world are exhibiting, fueled by a script loaded with observational humor and a knack for listening to its characters instead of making them simple plot devices. The most refreshing example comes when Tony develops a sort of kinship with a lonely tween boy named Harley Keener after his iron suit gives out and crash lands in a Hollywood suburb. Ty Simpkins has Goonies appeal as Harley in a performance where he more than holds his own onscreen with Downey Jr, who has that ability to talk circles around people with his use of asides, deflections and digressions.

On a more technical level, the series remains inventive and fresh in its use of special effects. It's established early on that Tony is working on a way for his iron suit to air-mail itself to him in the event of a predicament away from home. That's a neat evolution, and the payoff works. Of Iron Man's flying, I find it more fun and graceful than the Man of Steel's choice for the sky equivalent to road rage in his new movie.

Jon Favreau passes the directing baton to Black here, but stays on as Happy Hogan in his most inspired turn yet as the head of security for Stark Industries. Also returning are Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes and Paul Bettany as the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S.

Second sequels aren't supposed to be this good. IM3 is a constantly engaging adventure, and good fun for a change in a summer season drowning in dreadful apocalyptic visions.

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