Batman's done it. Spider-Man too. Superman is about to try. As studios attempt to inject new life into overly familiar comic-book franchises, reboots — with changes in tone, directors and stars — are all the rage. But "Iron Man 3" proves there is more than one way to skin this particular cat.
The story of "Iron Man 3" is a continuation of the previous two films, and its key cast is the same. But like a stunt driver taking over the wheel while the car is moving at 100 mph, new director (and co-writer) Shane Black has managed to change this billion-dollar-plus franchise's tone for the better while keeping the same actor as Tony Stark. Call it a spiritual reboot.
That nifty maneuver was a bit easier than it sounds because Black has a history with star Robert Downey Jr. The two worked together on 2005's cult favorite private-eye film "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," with the actor clearly enjoying himself back then with Black's unmistakable style of oddball, hyper-verbal dialogue that has since become something of a trademark for the actor.
There is quite a bit of Black's trademark attitude and humor here as well, things like a throwaway reference to the sci-fi classic "Westworld" and a goofy character who has Tony Stark's likeness tattooed on his forearm. Black and company throw all kinds of stuff at the audience, and though it doesn't all work, a lot of it does and the attempt to be different and create unguessable twists is always appreciated.
The most interesting thing about this new "Iron Man" is that, far from being slicker than the first two versions, it is unexpectedly — and successfully — darker and more serious than its predecessors, with a cast including top actors like Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley and Rebecca Hall.
With former director Jon Favreau reduced to his acting role as Happy Hogan, now the obsessive head of security for Stark Industries, this latest "Iron Man" (co-written by Drew Pearce) has thankfully done away with most of the previous installments' tone-deaf repartee between Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow's indispensable (to him at least) Pepper Potts.
Pepper, now in charge of Stark Industries, is in residence at Stark's Malibu compound and sharing his life, though the man himself is far from his former carefree self. Skittish, uneasy, unable to sleep and given to compulsively building one high-maintenance Iron Man suit after another, Stark is still dealing with the anxiety attack aftereffects of fighting off all those aliens in last summer's "The Avengers," a movie which "Iron Man" blithely assumes everyone on the planet has seen (which may in fact be true).
Looking older and unsettled and lacking his usual self-confidence, Downey's still winningly charismatic Stark starts things off by taking us back in time to a scientific conference he attended in Switzerland in 1999, where his cocky, pre-anxiety self needlessly created enemies and alienated potential friends.
Stark was immediately attracted to scientist Maya Hanson (the always effective Hall), whom he snarkily describes as "the most gifted woman I've ever met … in Switzerland." Maya has found a way to get plants to regenerate themselves, though their tendency to explode in the process is admittedly worrisome.
The billionaire philanthropist isn't quite so enamored of Aldrich Killian (Pearce), another (albeit geekier) scientist. He blows off the young man, which turns out not to be the best idea he ever had.
These flashback introductions taken care of, Stark returns to the present, where his manic state is intensified by the televised manifestoes of the Mandarin, a ruthless international terrorist convincingly played by Kingsley, complete with Asian topknot and untraceable accent, a role that takes full advantage of the dark side credentials the actor established in "Sexy Beast." The film also raises some intriguing questions about how we as a society have a hand in creating our own enemies, our own demons.
It's not just Kingsley who is effectively villainous. The film has given him a pair of expertly evil confederates in Eric Savin (James Badge Dale, the gaunt cancer patient in "Flight") and Brandt (Stephanie Szostak). On the other side, Stark ally Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has been rebranded from "War Machine" to "Iron Patriot" by an image-conscious focus group.
Meanwhile, Killian, geeky no more, presents himself to Pepper as the head of an organization called Advanced Idea Mechanics that is seeking funding for a technology he calls Extremis, which will in effect create invulnerability by allowing the body to heal itself. Pepper, always a worrier, is concerned what would happen if this kind of revolutionary technology fell into the wrong hands, but Killian tells her not to be concerned.
As if all this weren't head-spinning enough, Stark manages to focus the Mandarin's omni-directional hostility toward himself personally, with catastrophic results. Which leads to the question, is Iron Man still Iron Man if he has to fight evil without the help of his suits?
Because it is, finally, a comic-book superhero movie, "Iron Man 3" does tend to fall back on massive explosions and action set pieces as the conclusion nears. But by even posing questions of identity, the film creates the kind of jeopardy we can believe in, and for a superhero movie, that is an accomplishment in and of itself.
'Iron Man 3'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release
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