In the galaxy of big-screen superheros — a rather glum lot — Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man is the snappy one.
He's the sarcastic, motor-mouthed, preening, self-referential do-gooder, as opposed to all those self-serious crusaders. No matter how much of a scrap heap of metal-twisting mayhem the franchise piles on, Downey's sheer charm is the only real super power in Marvel's “Iron Man” trilogy.
“Iron Man 3” follows not just “Iron Man 2” but the box-office busting “The Avengers,” in which Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, joined forces with other superheros. These global blockbusters are more produced than directed. Shane Black inherits the helm from Jon Favreau, the director of the previous two.
Black's film, more than any other “Iron Man,” is stuffed with self-aware, winking style. This includes loads of references to “The Avengers,” an experience from which Stark has developed panic attacks and sleep-depriving nightmares.
He is pulled into a confrontation with a terrorist named Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who, in hijacked broadcast transmissions, takes credit for public explosions that, in a movie such as this, chafe awkwardly in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. When reporters mob Stark for his response after an explosion puts his friend and bodyguard (Favreau) in the hospital, Stark swears vengeance and brazenly supplies his home address for a fight.
When helicopter missiles collapse Stark's Malibu estate into the sea, his companion Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is separated from him, and his damaged computer operator Jarvis rockets Stark to Tennessee.
With a damaged suit and grasping at leads on the bombing, Stark has to rebuild himself, which he does with the help of a mop-headed, fatherless boy (an excellent Ty Simpkins). Tennessee isn't an accidental landing spot, but a preprogrammed flight to a location where Stark begins to learn what's behind the bombings.
There are good bad guys. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, an inventor turned military contractor who Stark haphazardly jilted back in his partying years. His connections to the terrorism aren't immediately clear, but his rise comes from a kind of biological enhancement that makes its users nearly indestructible and, when really angry, breathe fire.
The “Iron Man” films have always played in the world of the military industrial complex, one where the guys with the fancy weapons control the world more than politicians. But within “Iron Man 3” is a fight between screwball irony and blockbuster bombast. The script, by Black and Drew Pearce, contains the best dialogue of the series. But the wisecracking begins to feel suffocated under the weight of a whole lot of action.
The heavy metal action could never sink the irrepressible Downey, but it weighs down the otherwise light joy of “Iron Man 3.”