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Iron Man 3
In Theaters: 05/03/2013
On Video: 09/24/2013
By: Sean O'Connell
Iron Man 3
I could use Thor's help right about now ...

Throughout Iron Man 3, billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) suffers disorienting panic attacks – a direct result of his involvement in last summer’s The Avengers.

Stark, still relatively new to the hero game, is having a difficult time processing the miraculous – and existence-threatening – challenges he faced in New York City: Marauding aliens; hammer-wielding demi-gods; thawed World War II heroes; and a wormhole that sucked him (briefly) into outer space.

Undoubtedly, the creative team at Marvel Studios suffered their own panic attacks once they realized they had to follow up Joss Whedon’s genre-changing superhero blockbuster with a new slate of films. Phase Two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe starts with Iron Man 3, and includes standalone adventures for Thor and Captain America. But how do these movies meet the bar Whedon raised with last year’s spectacular achievement.

Short answer? They can’t.

The Avengers, to make an analogy, was a raging house party that somehow managed to lure every cool kid in school to the same soiree. Iron Man 3, by comparison, is a lovely dinner party with a handful of close friends. The food is good, and the conversation is decent, but references peppered throughout only remind us how much more fun we had at the blowout kegger. The experiences don’t compare.

Stark’s now an insomniac who spends his waking hours tinkering on a cache of new iron suits. Welcome distractions finally arrive on two fronts. One-time colleague Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) arrives at Stark Industries pitching a pioneering neurological development called Extremis to Tony’s right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). A more immediate threat exists in The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a media-savvy terrorist carrying out his deadly agenda on America’s airwaves who inadvertently riles Stark when a bomb placed at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles injures Tony’s faithful bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau).

Marvel wisely pours its profits back into its special effects work. The action sequences in Iron Man 3 are riveting, explosive acts of extreme destruction, delivering on the thrills comic-book audiences and summer movie crowds seek in a blockbuster. Again, topping the sustained Manhattan battle at the end of The Avengers is too difficult a task, but Iron Man 3 will marvel fans with both an aerial rescue outside of Air Force One and the concluding confrontation between Extremis soldiers and Stark’s iron army.

Favreau, who helmed the first two Iron Man movies, hands the director’s reins to renowned screenwriter Shane Black, Downey’s previous collaborator on the sarcastically self-aware Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Black writes humorous, high-concept action fantasies, from the original Lethal Weapon to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero (which he famously polished).

Only one skill set carries over her, though. The newcomer’s action scenes are on par with its Marvel predecessors, helped – no doubt – by the team of digital wizards in the studio’s employ who are all too familiar with staging super-powered heroism. The script, however, lacks the quippy banter and cutting humor Black brought to his past scripts, even though Downey still crackles in the lead role.

Iron Man 3 is neither turgid nor zippy. It soars at times, and dawdles in places. Black gambles by isolating Stark, sending him on a detective mission of sorts after stripping him from his armor and reducing him back to basics — which are reminiscent of his days spent in a Middle Eastern cave in the original film. In an effort to thwart The Mandarin, Iron Man teams with a Tennessee teenager (Ty Simpkins), a country-bumpkin television engineer, and Potts, who receives a beefed-up role. Still, they’re not quite Thor, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk.

The Extremis soldiers (personified by James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak) are powerful adversaries for Stark. The Mandarin, however, departs from the comics in ways I want you to experience for yourself. I’ll say this much: It was funny in the moment, though the more I thought about the treatment of Iron Man’s iconic adversary, the more I’m bothered by Marvel’s decision to neuter what could have been a lasting, pronounced threat to Iron Man and his universe.

The tide appears to be turning for Tony Stark, though, especially when it comes to Downey’s involvement in the franchise. Nothing will be revealed here, of course, but there’s a noticeable effort to provide closure in the final scenes of Iron Man 3. Arcs that stretched over this trilogy, going all the way back to the hero’s origins, are given resolution in ways that make me wonder if this really is RDJ’s swan song in the suit. The final credit does read, “Tony Stark will return.” That was never in doubt. Downey, however? I’m not so sure.