By MICHAEL SMITH
In the comic-book movie genre, there are two films that most perfectly illustrate the best that these blockbusters have to offer as art and commerce.
On the side of brooding brilliance, there is "The Dark Knight," and on the side of humor combined with action-packed fun, there is the original "Iron Man" from 2008, with Robert Downey Jr. inhabiting the character of Tony Stark in so complete a manner, and to such audience acceptance, that it seems impossible to envision anyone else in the role.
It is our good fortune that we still have Downey to kick around in "Iron Man 3" (and he does take a beating), because even when this film's plot gets murky and the villains seem lacking, we have this talent who so totally understands his character's appeal that we can simply smile and enjoy our popcorn.
We can trust in Tony Stark, even when he's falling apart and can't trust himself.
The surface appearance is that the egocentric industrialist should be happier than ever, following "The Avengers" successfully banishing those aliens back into space and his Malibu home now being shared by Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who appears to be the love of his life.
But if you consider the action of "The Avengers" to have been a war, then the erratic behavior, insomnia and anxiety attacks plaguing Tony would appear to be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Our hero is hurting.
Mirroring the fact that Tony can't quite get his metal suits to work correctly for most of the film is the concept that our hero is trying to fix himself, and it's not quite working out.
It doesn't help that the United States is on edge due to foreign bombing attacks engineered by the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley as a bin Laden-esque Middle East terrorist who promises to bring his violent campaign to American soil.
A further concern is the appearance of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a ghost from Tony's past, talking about his work on Extremis as if it's about unlocking brain potential and body regeneration but making it sound as if it's about weaponization -- which it is, because this theme is central to each of the "Iron Man" films.
The Mandarin and Killian characters remind greatly of the two- pack bad boys played by Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke in "Iron Man 2," in which two villains didn't add up to the power of one truly great villain. The effect is the same in this film, but again Downey is enough to overcome the deficiency.
But this is not that picture. Writerdirector Shane Black helmed 2005's wonderfully trippy murder mystery "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" that starred Downey, and in taking over "Iron Man" directing duties from Jon Favreau, he goes in a different direction by going in multiple directions.
This movie has a ton of plot (it's ambitious), as well as characters (enough that Rebecca Hall sees her scientist character become an afterthought). "Iron Man 3" has more plot twists than Marvel's other films combined.
It's important to remember that this film exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- that of the movies, not the comicbook inspirations -- for purists with "That's not what happens!" complaints.
The action is explosive and constant, and the 3-D post- conversion slick enough that those looking to this brand of viewing should embrace it.
My cinematic complaint would be that a series that made science look so fun can't seem to quite make sense of the Extremis storyline, with a leering Pearce essentially winking in a "Just go with it, folks" manner on this fuzzy concept.
The comedy is pumped up from the beginning, with the screwball banter between Tony and Pepper extending to multiple characters, like best-bud Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), but especially with computer-voice/personality Jarvis, and Paul Bettany's voice-work is better than ever, and it's always been excellent.
Black's best twist is taking Tony out of his element to a sleepy Tennessee town where he must uncover the origins of his enemies' secrets. Watching Downey in fish-out-of-water mode, interacting with redneck saloon patrons through downhome banter, is a joy.
But it is his connection with a precocious youth (Ty Simpkins, the "Insidious" kid getting to have fun) who makes us think of what a young Tony Stark must have been like that really improves the movie's pacing.
These scenes are critical in raising the fun factor amid so much doom and gloom, as well as some vicious violence.
The ending is one of those slam-bang entertainments that works so well because the predictable elements are joined by surprise revelations, and because Downey's character is a man whose personal mission has become our journey, too. Tony is flawed, like all of us, and complex, and so is "Iron Man 3."
He might be richer and smarter, but he can be as weak as any of us.
That famed Stark ego is as much a mask as the Iron Man suit itself, but one of bravado concealing insecurities to which we can all relate.
There's a reason that we see this hero as so super: He's so human.
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