Iron Man 3

First dazzling, then dazing: Iron Man 3 is what they call in the tavern industry "overservice." Leaving it, you can anticipate that you'll hurt in the morning. The problem is the pen of director/co-writer Shane Black, demonstrating the mockingbird qualities of his best movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and his witty, even nastily witty, handling of situations seemingly necessary in any saga. The plucky little kid rescuing our hero says his dad isn't there because he went out for a scratcher ticket. And he must have won, because he hasn't been back in six years."

Certainly, the genius of this series about the jet-powered superhero lies in resurrecting screwball comedy to go with the clanging metal—Gwyneth Paltrow, customarily drawn to sappy material in her films, is here alert and delightful, unsteady on her feet trying to keep up with the brisk, heartless Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).

You do laugh at Black's mean touches, such as Stark refusing to give the aforementioned little plucky little kid a ride home in the snow. In a flashback, the millionaire playboy attends a 1999 New Year's Eve party wearing a lapel tag reading "My name is You Know Who I Am."

The question, as always in Black—and this goes back to his cantaloupe-testicled actioners of the 1980 like The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight: Why waste energy mocking a convention that it might be better to do without in the first place?

He's not Joss Whedon, whose charm comes from the self-admission of geekdom, of the shorthand reference to the old convention. Whedon honors customs in the breach, where Black cites them to describe his disgust. In Whedon, the self-assured characters light their own exploding cigars.

The great line everyone quotes in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang about the dictionary definition of an idiot is an example of Black's limitations: it forces a cigar into a character's mouth and lights it. Bugs Bunny can get away with that; Iron Man can't.

Still, of the numerous metaphorical 9/11 movies, Iron Man 3 is one of the slyest. The single best idea in the film is that Stark hasn't processed the cosmic events in The Avengers: the very mention of "what happened in New York" sets him off into trembling PTSD.

As well it might. Iron Man dared a hideous and lonely death, as terrifying as what happened (or did it?) to Bowman in 2001: an exile's demise light years from home. What could be more terrible for someone like Stark, who lives to be admired?

In the beginning of Iron Man 3, Stark is grim and hollow-eyed; even without the helmet, he looks like Iron Man. The dyed whiskers make him seem older instead of younger. Stark is sleepless, punishing himself with work.

His latest invention—a way to make the armor come to life without him inside it—has bugs galore. When it flies through the air to gird his loins, it slaps him in the crotch and kicks him in the ass.

In the other Iron Man films, the metal suit grew over him—an elegant, lyrical animation of transformation, as Stark strode across a room. Now there's an aspect of threat when Stark suits up. The armor doesn't seem smooth. When he cuddles up to Paltrow's Pepper, the suit's articulated joints look like they would pinch her fingers. After battle, the suit is scarred and crunched, and Stark wears it that way.

A new terrorist has emerged, a bin Laden with better televisionistic skills. He calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) as he hijacks the airwaves and blows up crowds. Black has to introduce him fast, with a collage of television announcers—the Mandarin is already well known by the time we hear about him.

The first attack we witness in person takes place in a Hollywood landmark. You find it hard to know what to feel about the attack—when ancient kitsch gets it, how can you feel that sad. The victims are vaporized into Hiroshima shadows, a way of killing them without suffering.

In a moment of stressed brio, Stark does something stupid: on television, he gives the Mandarin his address and tells this villain to bring it on, just as W. did. The movie blames this loss of temper on the media, which isn't fair. (And imagine not knowing where Tony Stark lives; wouldn't his Malibu home be on every Gray Line tour?).

Meanwhile, much to the miffed jealousy of Pepper, Stark's ex-fling (Rebecca Hall) turns up, as does a scientist Pepper knew slightly—Guy Pearce, obviously too debonair to be up to any good, and working for something alarmingly called "The Extremis Project."

Stark's mansion is destroyed by a helicopter attack; with just one battered suit of armor left, Stark has to unravel the knitted plot.

The Mandarin began in the comics as an abject Fu Manchu knockoff—admittedly, the villain as he appears today is covered with a coral reef˝like accretion of detail, motives and backstory, written over the past few decades. Kingsley gets to run with this part. Run with it he does, and in more than just one direction. The direction the plot takes amplifies some of the business half-buried in The Dark Knight about America's response to 9/11: condemning our weakness in the way we allowed ourselves to be terrorized—the way we succumbed to the rhetoric that our nation was caught in a grand crusade between good and evil.

As for the Mandarin's motives—they're pure but silly hatred of America. The Mandarin's broadcasts are videos created by the one-named artist Logan—they don't look state of the art, they're more like 10-year-old David Fincher titles sequences.

The Mandarin hates our history (the Sand Creek Massacre) as much as he hates our food (the all-American fortune cookie). He seems to hate them on equal levels. It's as if Howard Zinn started denouncing Panda Express.

The villain's army of suicide commandoes brings out the vincibility in the Invincible Iron Man; Stark and his pal Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), now with his own flying suit and nom de guerre— "The Iron Patriot"—team up. In the film's highlight, 14 people are sucked out over the ocean in a blown-up Air Force One. They're rescued acrobatically (it's handled by a sky0-diving team, not CGI, and it looks it).

Compared to that, the inevitable finale is the opened exploding toy box, and you were right to have that sinking feeling from the previews, watching all those flying robots arrive in a phalanx. Trying to beat the Transformers is a fool's game. The film's endless nominal references to Christmas are a reminder of what this release is all about: preparing the way for the home-video market in December and selling scads of Iron Man action figures.

Fatigue sets in during the finale. The Iron Man series isn't the typical superhero trilogy, a tripod with two legs. Black's wised-up side is acute: whether lifting a joke from The Venture Bros. with a henchman who'd rather quit than fight, naming a villain in honor of Atlas Shrugged, or depicting Iron Man hitting a helicopter with a large and unlikely weapon.

But it's not exactly a match made in heaven: Stark's bluntness and Black's sass. There's little breathing room despite the calmer moments: Stark dragging his useless armor across the snow as if it were a sled, or spending some forensic time trying to solve the crime (this sequence pleased me because I'm much less interested in warriors than I am in detectives).

There's little of the ecstasy of flight, much more about collision and plummeting. And the Easter egg following the credits is a put-down; it's the confession that Stark's feelings are boring, and they don't matter. It's a last fatal draught of sourness.

The movie is conscious of the superhero glut, and the fans have to know it, too—it's like being a Bond fan walking out of Thunderball and realizing that enough was getting to be enough.

Iron Man 3

PG-13; 130 min.

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