Getty Image: Kevin Winter
It's the winter of Tony Stark's discontent.
Amid the Christmas holidays, Tony, aka Iron Man, is suffering from anxiety attacks and chronic insomnia.
But, like another famous Tony - Soprano - the angst doesn't fully dent his swagger. He may be emotionally damaged, but it doesn't get in the way of his motivation and wry humor, nor the overall entertainment of the action-packed Iron Man 3 (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Thursday in some theaters and Friday nationwide).
Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) is still a genius superhero. He remains hot for Pepper. That's Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his former assistant who now runs his company, Stark Industries. He saved New York City from annihilation in The Avengers, but it left a psychic toll. His bluster masks trepidation that, in the event of another attack, he won't be able to save the one he loves. Beneath Tony's taut muscles and iron armature, there's a soft underbelly.
This third installment (after 2008's Iron Man and 2010's Iron Man 2) has such a surfeit of visual dazzle and eye-popping stunts that it teeters on overload. But Downey reins it all in with his perfectly-timed dry wit.
The Marvel universe is well-served here by director Shane Black as he pits the sardonic Stark against a corps of terrorists who take control of the airwaves. They bomb Tony's spectacular Malibu mansion to smithereens and viciously harm his top security guy, Happy Hogan (former Iron Man director Jon Favreau).
In his home lab Tony was accustomed to working knee-deep in holographic 3-D diagrams. But when he finds himself in a snowy corner of Tennessee, minus his high-tech gadgetry, Tony is forced to reconfigure his heroic alter-ego in fundamental ways. That's where he meets young Harley (Ty Simpkins), and his cheeky repartee with the boy is particularly acerbic.
Both Pepper and Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) move further into the spotlight, hitting all the right good-guy notes. Rhodey emerges almost as heroic as the iron-clad Tony. Ben Kingsley is terrific as an Osama bin Laden-style terrorist called The Mandarin. Guy Pearce is solid, but not memorable as Aldrich Killian, the head of Extremis, a biological enhancement project that creates fiery super-humans.
A massive wall of credits attests to the manpower required for the ubiquitous digital effects. Action sequences are impressive, particularly a scene involving an exploding plane and a dozen plummeting passengers who form a human chain.
The rambunctious Iron Man 3 is a briskly paced thrill ride until about 90 minutes in, when the excitement wanes. A few late-breaking surprises re-invigorate the tale, however.
While seemingly more explosive than its predecessors, it shoehorns in a couple of sedate scenes from the Masterpiece Theatre phenomenon Downton Abbey. It's a funny juxtaposition that helps the audience catch its collective breath.
But, it's also an intriguing reminder that it is possible to be both a Downton Abbey aficionado and an Iron Man fan.
And perhaps Iron Man 4 could use an assist from steely Maggie Smith.
Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
Gannett / USA Today