This Iron Man is Gold. 

A new director energizes a better-than-expected Iron Man 3.

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Usually nothing interesting happens before a movie starts. But when an anonymous spectator in the nearly sold-out crowd cried out, "Why does Hollywood hate us?" during the trailers preceding Iron Man 3, I chortled in agreement. Why indeed were the entertainment gods resurrecting Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) for another go-round? And why were we moviegoers so eager to endure more glib self-satisfaction from Marvel's most supercilious superhero? Besides, wouldn't the third installment of this franchise pale in comparison to last summer's Avengers All-Star Intergalactic Holiday Special? Yet as I watched the funky, funny Wonder Woman-style closing credits, I forgot about those pre-title questions. Instead, I kept asking myself whether Iron Man 3 was the best Marvel Comics adaptation yet released.

It might be. Then again, my unironic endorsement of Iron Man 3 might sound like a backhanded compliment. I absolutely hated the first two Iron Man movies, yet aside from its bracing and gravity-defying set pieces, Iron Man 3 hardly resembles either a superhero movie or the third installment in a trilogy. Its villain is mysteriously remote and its titular character spends most of his time in civilian gear, trying to repair his collection of weaponized Tin Man outfits. It has plenty of action, but it also dares to toss out ideas — about scientific research and funding, about terrorism, about political image-making — during the quiet interstices between fight scenes.

However, like the other two films in the franchise, the plot of Iron Man 3 grows out of the idea that no past sins or slights go unpunished; the chickens always come home to roost. In this installment, Tony Stark is no longer the egomaniac who privatized world peace. He's a psychologically wounded intergalactic war veteran, still shell-shocked by his role in the Avengers initiative. And once the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) takes all of Stark's mechanized toys away, the film grows darker and more desperate. Downey, often at his cocaine-sweating best when he is panicked, pinned, or cornered, finally faces some genuine adversity in Iron Man 3, and his patter and improvisatory gifts flourish under the constant light, heat, and pressure he faces.

More fragile and anxious than ever, Stark has to rely on his wits and intuition as he tries to unravel a mystery involving, among other things, a less idealistic group of genetically modified combat veterans who have the capacity to regenerate limbs and explode if they "run too hot." (In keeping with the logical-when-it's-convenient superhero universe, the handling instructions for these particular human IEDs remains tantalizingly unclear for both major and minor characters.)

Writer-director Shane Black — whose 2005 neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang looks more and more like a major debut by a could-be-major auteur — encodes sardonic verbal and visual slapstick into nearly every scene, whether it's called for or not. He'll cap a thrilling aerial rescue with an unexpected collision or turn a dockyard showdown into an extended game of tag. Good for him: He's made an Iron Man film with the same invention and irreverence as its protagonist.

Iron Man 3
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Iron Man 3
Rated PG-13 · 135 min. · 2013
Official Site: IronManMovie3.com
Director: Shane Black
Writer: Shane Black and Drew Pearce
Producer: Kevin Feige
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale and Ben Kingsley
Iron Man 3 3D
Rated PG-13 · 135 min. · 2013
Official Site: IronManMovie3.com
Director: Shane Black
Writer: Shane Black and Drew Pearce
Producer: Kevin Feige
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale and Ben Kingsley
Iron Man 3: An IMAX 3D Experience
Rated PG-13 · 135 min. · 2013
Official Site: IronManMovie3.com
Director: Shane Black
Writer: Shane Black and Drew Pearce
Producer: Kevin Feige
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale and Ben Kingsley

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