Good for Marvel/Disney in keeping the title simple. No fancy Roman numerals, no colon, so extra words about the return of this or the revenge of that. But if there was a second title for this third in the “Iron Man” series, it could be “The Rise of Tony Stark.” The first two films were about the man who describes himself as “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” (and also says, “I am volatile, self-obsessed, and don’t play well with others”) literally losing his heart and becoming something between a robot and a rocket ship. In this one, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) loses almost everything else and begins to find himself.
Jon Favreau, who directed the first two films, turns over the reins to screenwriter-turned-director Shane Black, who showed a sensibility ideal for bringing out the best in Downey in the breakthrough film, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” And Downey’s best is as good as it gets. Black, who co-wrote the film, has a darker humor and a more twisted take on the story, and it works very well, even bringing in Favreau for a small but important part as Happy Hogan, Stark’s loyal head of security, a tough guy with a soft spot for “Downton Abbey.” Don Cheadle returns as Colonel Rhodes, whose iron suit persona has been re-branded from War Machine to the more family-friendly Iron Patriot. And the repartee with Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) is dry as a martini, knowing, sexy, and harking back to the sublime banter of “The Thin Man.”
It begins with a flashback to New Year’s Eve 1999, where we see the old Tony, careless in both respects. He does not care about what happens to other people and he does not care what happens to him. He leaves a note for a woman with whom he shared a one-night stand: “You know who I am.” But even he does not know who he is. He barely notices anyone else, which turns out to be a major mistake personally, professionally, and in terms of setting off some very bad consequences for the future of the planet.
By the time he figures that out, he will be more vulnerable than he has ever been before. He has allowed himself to open his arc reactor-fueled heart to Pepper, so he has much more to lose. And he is struggling to recover from the trauma of the fight against Loki (“The Avengers”), so it will be harder for him to respond. He does not sleep. He barely notices what is going on around him. He just works furiously to perfect his iron man suit, his only companion in the lab the artificial intelligence butler/sidekick Jarvis (impeccably dry delivery voiced by Paul Bettany). “I’ve also prepared a safety briefing for you to entirely ignore,” Jarvis says briskly.
Outside, it is December and Christmas celebrations are everywhere. But a villain who calls himself The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley, clearly having a blast) is causing damage and unrest. “Some people call me a terrorist,” he says to the world. “I consider myself a teacher.” He explains that he is acting in the tradition of a notorious American attack on an Indian settlement when they knew the warriors would not be there, killing the unprotected women and children.
Happy is critically injured in an attack, and it is too much for Tony, who implusively gives out his home address and dares The Mandarin to come after him. Invitation accepted — target destroyed. Everything he has worked on is gone. So is every place he feels safe. To keep Pepper safe, he goes underground, allowing the world to think he is dead. But that removes him from his money, his home, his power, his equipment, and his iron flying suits. He has to fight The Mandarin — and a more powerful enemy he does not even know about — with some supplies from the local hardware store and a little girl’s Dora the Explorer (limited edition) digital watch.
There’s a lot to process. I haven’t even gotten to the giant stuffed bunny, the beauty pageant, the secret experiments, and the attack on Air Force One. And, of course, the stunts and special effects.
The plot is a bit cluttered, though it helps that the detours include unexpected help from “Happy Endings'” Adam Pally and a mechanically-minded latchkey kid (Ty Simpkins). Not so much the cameos from Bill Maher and Joan Rivers, which feel tired and superfluous. The stunts are fine. The script has some clever lines and some cleverer digs at messaging and brand strategy. What matters, though, is Downey’s total commitment to playing Stark as a flawed, complex, but greatly gifted character.
Parents should know that this film has non-stop comic-book-style violence including terrorism, with chases, explosions, and shooting, intense but only briefly graphic, some strong language, some alcohol, some sexual references, potty humor, and references to suicide.
Family discussion: How do Tony’s actions in 1999 set the movie’s events in motion? How do we see both the heroes and villains think about the importance of public relations? How can desperation be a gift?
If you like this, try: “The Avengers” and the first two “Iron Man” movies