The summer movie season gets off to a terrifically exciting start with "Iron Man 3", the latest adventure of billionaire playboy turned superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Not only is the movie vastly superior to its predecessor, it ranks with "Spider-Man 2" and "The Dark Knight" as one of the best comic-book sequels of the past decade. Downey and company prove the third time's the charm with a surprise-filled installment that benefits immeasurably from its lead actor, who's clearly enjoying himself.
This sequel to a sequel is actually more of a follow-up to last year's "Avengers" movie than 2010's forgettable "Iron Man 2". When we last saw Stark, he was fighting alongside the Hulk, Captain America and other superheroes to save New York City from an alien invasion. As we soon learn in "Iron Man 3", Stark hasn't quite recovered from the epic events depicted at the end of "The Avengers" (the mere thought of them gives him a panic attack). Adding to his anxiety are a string of bombings carried out by a terrorist calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). After his bodyguard (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in one of the bombings and Stark and his girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) narrowly escape a helicopter attack, Iron Man makes stopping the Mandarin priority number one.
The Mandarin is one of two memorable villains featured in the film. Railing against what he views as the hollowness of American society, the Mandarin claims responsibility for the bombings in a series of live broadcasts that resemble the tapes Osama bin Laden used to release on a regular basis before Seal Team Six put a bullet through his head. Kingsley, that ultimate master of disguise, has the audience's rapt attention every moment he's onscreen.
The other major villain is played by Guy Pearce, last seen as a rich old man who wanted to live forever in Ridley Scott's underrated "Prometheus". His character in "Iron Man 3", Dr. Aldrich Killian, has similar dreams of invincibility. He creates a cure for his own disability that has some interesting side effects – like, for instance, the ability to breathe fire. Pearce isn't quite as fearsome as Mickey Rourke was in "Iron Man 2", but, as Killian, he makes a remarkable transition from disabled nerd to smooth-talking human dragon.
Of course, Downey is the real star. There's a reason why people at the screening I attended cheered when they saw these words appear on the screen: "Tony Stark will return." His performance isn't as powerful as Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of Bruce Banner, but Downey is easily the funniest and most charming actor playing a superhero these days. There's some witty banter between Stark and JARVIS (voiced by British actor Paul Bettany), the computer system that controls all of Iron Man's high-tech toys. But luckily Stark spends a lot of time outside the suit in this installment; Downey is one of those magnetic actors you want a lot of face time with. He has several laugh-out-loud moments with Ty Simpkins, who plays a kid Stark meets after getting stranded in Tennessee. The fatherless boy is eager to be Iron Man's sidekick, even though Stark isn't exactly the world's most sensitive adult. Downey's rudely hilarious line about how sometimes dads leave is the film's comedic highlight.
Page 2 of 2 - The sequel reunites Downey with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" director Shane Black, best known for writing some of the greatest action movies of the '80s and '90s, like "Lethal Weapon", "The Last Boy Scout" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight". Black's gifts as a writer are evident in "Iron Man 3"'s shocking plot twists, and he's come up with some of the series' most exhilarating action scenes, like when Iron Man saves 13 passengers who have been ejected from Air Force One. Don't forget to stay after the end credits; unlike all of those lame scenes with Nick Fury that led up to "The Avengers", the post-credits scene here is actually worth sticking around for. Iron Man's third but apparently not final outing sets a very high bar for "Star Trek Into Darkness", "Man of Steel" and other summer movies to come.
"Iron Man 3" will be playing through May 23 at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. The matinee show is in 2D; it starts at 2pm and costs $6. The evening show is in 3D; it starts at 7:30pm and costs $8.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He'll return next week with a review of the sleeper hit "Mud". He lives in Wichita.