Iron Man 3: Robert Downey Jr. and His Empty Suit of Iron

Who needs a pilot? The Iron Man franchise prepares to remove its star from the flying metal suit.

Imagine a flock of jet-powered metal shards in the sky, wheeling and diving like a cloud of birds, coming straight at you with lethal velocity. Any normal man would take cover, but Tony Stark is no normal man. Instead, he walks toward the missiles, welcomes them like homing pigeons. They’re his babies. He made these networked pieces of his iron attire, which adoringly congeal and click together around Stark’s frail human body. (Well, not so frail, but more on that later.)

It’s not enough for the public to love and fawn over Stark/Iron Man (“I get that a lot”); his technology must give him a daily hug. Because as we begin what’s likely the last of the Robert Downey Jr.-starring Iron Man movies, Stark is even more of a tic-ridden, neurotic head case than before. He’s neglecting his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), now moved into Stark’s swank Malibu mansion. He’s suffering PTSD from something to do with worm holes and aliens (this from The Avengers, but don’t worry if you skipped it). He’s a needy playboy-inventor who’s happiest when tinkering in the lab with his robots. He commands, and they obey. Love me, he says, and they do.

Iron Man 3 does not, however, have quite such a command over its audience and story. It’s basically a meandering, lighthearted revenge tale wrapped in a few topical, terrorist trappings. Jon Favreau is back as Stark’s chief flunky, but he’s ceded the directing duties to Shane Black, who had a lot of fun with Downey in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black’s mandate is to bring some lightness to the clang and clash, to keep the 3-D effects movie from becoming, well, Transformers. (He’s half-successful at that job.) With a confusing array of metal suits flying around like unmanned drones, the picture doesn’t give many opportunities for the performers to simply act without green screens and computer augmentation. And unlike the Transformers movies, real actors are employed here—or maybe underemployed is the better term.

In a 1999 prologue, Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce play scientists snubbed in different ways by the arrogant Stark. A dozen years later, they’ll have their revenge. Paul Bettany again voices Stark’s computer valet, Jarvis (think of him as an Etonian Siri). Don Cheadle is back as Stark’s pal Colonel Rhodes, now sheepishly piloting the red-white-and-blue “Iron Patriot.” And Ben Kingsley shows up with jihadi beard, long hair in a bun, and a Nixonian growl to threaten the world via YouTube. His performance becomes much richer and funnier in IM3’s second half; though like the others, it’s lost amid soaring steel suits, orange-glowing, DNA-enhanced villains, and dangling shipping containers that pendulum like yo-yos. (I will concede that Iron Man’s rescue of Air Force One is thrilling—and an argument against ever flying again.)

The quieter comic moments, the acting moments, must give way to the imperatives of global blockbuster-dom. (More footage will be added to the Chinese cut, but I can’t think where.) Even as the Iron Man movies have made Downey an unlikely international action star in his 40s, his role has felt diminished in each new chapter (Avengers included). He increasingly seems a cog in the endless Marvel/Disney/Paramount franchise line. The iron suit has become more valuable than the man, and those proportions are exactly wrong. Stark’s flippant yet wounded quality draws depth from Downey’s past personal and career difficulties; he, like Stark, came back from near death to joke about it. Today, looking healthy and fit, Downey has an enjoyable buddy-movie rapport with Cheadle—that being Black’s specialty in the Lethal Weapon era—when out of their metal costumes.

You want to see more of this unarmored, amusing Downey, when he’s protected only by his wits, and the same is true of his non-CGI cast members. But that’s not the movie IM3 needs to be to gross a billion bucks. From Shanghai to São Paulo, fans are paying to see more of the flying metal suits, no matter if they’re empty inside. E

Iron Man 3 Opens Fri., May 3 at Cinerama and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 129 minutes.

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