The snow may still be melting off in shady spots, but the Big Summer Movie season has officially begun with the appearance of “Iron Man 3.” Again starring and dominated by Robert Downey and featuring a strong supporting cast, the movie recaptures the spirit of the first in the series. Writer/director Shane Black replaces Jon Favreau, who did so well in #1 and slipped so badly in #2 but is here relegated to a minor role. Along with screenwriter Drew Pearce, Black has crafted a script that consistently amuses and occasionally probes a bit below the surface of this action flick.
The story begins with billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) recounting — to someone — the events of December 31, 1999, when he was partying in anticipation of Y2K, arrogantly sporting a name sticker reading “You know who I am.” Hooking up with a brilliant young botanist aptly named Maya (Rebecca Hall), he ignores the pleas of another scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), to meet him on the rooftop and hear about his invention.
Flash forward to the present: Tony is still suffering from PTSD brought on by helping save the world, as detailed in last summer’s hit “The Avengers.” He has turned his company over to his longtime amanuensis, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is now his live-in woman friend. The super egotist Tony actually tries to apologize when he ignores Pepper at Christmastime in order to tinker in his high-tech workshop. He spends more time talking to his computer, Jarvis (wonderfully voiced again by Paul Bettany), while perfecting the latest iteration of his metallic wear. At this point, the prototype can assemble itself upon its maker’s command and suit him up, though the attempts are still pretty comical. (Downey fans might be reminded of his earlier portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, who memorably battled with machines in “Modern Times.”)
But world peace is still threatened, in particular by a bin Laden type who styles himself “The Mandarin.” As played by Ben Kingsley, this bad actor apparently can control the world’s TV screens and, more terrifyingly, its smart phones. He is also served by a band of terrorist soldiers who can regenerate themselves after losing, say, an arm, but who have an unfortunate tendency to blow up themselves along with their victims. (The movie has the bad misfortune to be released in the wake of the Boston Marathon attack.) When Tony taunts him by giving him his street address and daring him to “bring it on” — another unfortunate historical echo — the Master Fiend sends rocket-armed helicopters who level Stark’s seaside mansion.
Aided by Jarvis and his self-assembling armor, Tony escapes to a small Tennessee town where he meets a young boy, Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins, already a screen vet at 10). As his name implies, Harley is a pretty sharp mechanic, one who helps Tony get back on his feet and, even better, supplies the movie with some of its most entertaining moments. In fact, when Tony and Harley part company, the film reverts to action hero formula. A horde of special effects folk make the proceedings quite watchable, if not especially original or unpredictable. The dialogue, on the other hand, crackles with wit and humor, Downey delivering his trademark one-liners with deadpan aplomb. The laughs come even in the middle of torture scenes and Big Fight sequences.
There are plenty of twists and turns and character revelations to maintain interest: Kingsley in particular demonstrates his astonishing range as an actor, as if we needed reminding. The screenplay also muses a bit on the profit of gaining the world and losing your soul, asking a little more of the audience than most movies of this ilk. It’s rated “PG-13,” primarily for “intense sci-fi action and violence throughout,” but it’s tamer than most video games. Stick around for the end of the closing credits: it’s both funny and informative about the narrative and audience.