The most surprising thing about Iron Man 3 – which is otherwise pretty much what you'd expect, in spades – is its unanticipated sense of finality. The movie plays out like the concluding installment of a standard trilogy, with the story winding down into tidy resolution. The obligatory post-credits scene, in which another sequel is traditionally teased, here teases nothing so specific. Is a retrospective box set already in the works?
Maybe not. Although irreplaceable star Robert Downey Jr.'s franchise contract reportedly ended with this film, the forces of commerce may prove overwhelming. The first two Iron Man movies grossed more than $1.5-billion worldwide (with DVD sales factored in); and then there's The Avengers, which grossed even more on its own. Avengers 2 is due to start shooting next year, and does anyone think that superhero reunion will take place without Downey's metal-clad character onboard?
In any case, Iron Man 3 is a great big whiz-bang digital entertainment, exactly as advertised. The 3D conversion is a little light on wow, the action is occasionally muddy, and the plot's a bit wobbly in spots, if that matters. But new director Shane Black, taking over from Jon Favreau, has layered some nice pulp trappings into the story: an exotic master criminal, an infestation of fiery-eyed demons. And he knows how to use his one-of-a-kind star. (He and Downey previously worked together on the 2005 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which Black also cowrote and directed.) Downey's nervy intelligence and mastery of the throwaway quip are enough to supercharge any movie, and Black lets him rip. As always, some of the actor's best lines have the zing of improvisation: confronted with a smoldering demon girl, Downey notes, "I've dated hotter chicks than you."
The evil genius here – well, one of them – is a shadowy terrorist called the Mandarin. In the Iron Man comics, this character is a formidable megalomaniac, born and based in China. Here, for reasons we'll get to in a moment, the Mandarin is more ethnically ambiguous – with his Osama-like beard and his penchant for on-camera executions, he seems like a very familiar sort of jihadi (although without the usual Islamist palaver). He also looks exactly like Ben Kingsley.
The Mandarin's sudden appearance on the scene catches billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) at a low moment. Still shaken by the intergalactic assaults of The Avengers, Stark is now prone to panic attacks (a bit of narrative business that quickly disappears). Plagued by insomnia, he spends days on end building new Iron Man suits, which line the walls of the vast workshop in his cliff-top Malibu home. This obsession has begun to irritate his longtime colleague, Pepper Potts (sweet/saucy Gwyneth Paltrow), now his live-in girlfriend. But Stark snaps out of his funk when the Mandarin mounts an explosive attack on Los Angeles that seriously injures Stark's security chief, Happy Hogan (Favreau, returning for his third go-round in the role). Stark challenges the Mandarin to a one-on-one face-off, and the ballsy bad guy responds with a blazing CGI assault that dumps Stark's deluxe house into the ocean.
Meanwhile, one of Stark's old girlfriends, an experimental botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), has turned up with bad news about her boss, the brilliant nanotechnologist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce with a malevolent smirk). Killian has devised a substance called Extremis, which can restore severed limbs or, alternatively, turn people into fiery-eyed demons. With two madmen on his hands – and the fate of the nation in the balance – Stark pivots into Iron Man mode, assisted at crucial points by his fellow super-suit warrior James Rhodes (amiable Don Cheadle again), now doing business as the Iron Patriot.
Director Black has engineered some agreeably rousing action sequences, most impressive among them an airplane bail-out in which plummeting passengers are linked hand-to-hand in mid-fall so they can be guided down to a relatively soft landing. A number of nasty thrills are provided by lead demons James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak, and there's also a detour to rural Tennessee, where Stark, with his iron suit drained of juice, is aided by a little nipper named Harley (Ty Simpkins). This latter interlude could have degenerated into cutesy goop, but Downey fends off the syrup with a stream of tart one-liners and a bracingly bad attitude.
There's no point in nitpicking a film like this – and there's really not all that much to nit-pick anyway. But I think there is a fundamental problem in having a whole squad of Iron Man suits zooming around under their own power (controlled by Stark's robo-concierge, Jarvis, voiced by Paul Bettany). This calls into question the need to have Stark around at all.
But even the most heavily computerized uproar here has a disarming enthusiasm, and the overqualified actors bring valuable texture to the time-tested superhero proceedings. (Kingsley is especially funny in providing the story's big twist.) Short take: This is a better movie than it needed to be.
It's also a model of the new international movie business. Since China is now the world's second largest movie market (and purportedly on track to surpass the U.S. by 2020), accommodating the country's official film censors – who are very touchy about political affront – has become a major Hollywood concern. So the makers of IM3—Marvel Entertainment and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company – decided not only to climb into bed with the Chinese film establishment, but to bring along extra pillows and complementary cocoa as well. Thus, a slightly different version of the movie has been created for China, in partnership with the film's Chinese distributor, DMG. This tweaked edition includes extra footage shot in China and features Chinese stars Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi. (Wang also makes a fleeting appearance in the un-tweaked IM3, but by the time you're trying not to blink, you've already missed him.)
There's some pretty bold product placement here, too. Last January, the Chinese electronics manufacturer TCL bought the rights to put its name on Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the venerable Hollywood movie palace; shortly thereafter, IM3 producers staged a major action sequence for the film right outside what is now the TCL Chinese Theatre. In addition, there are more TCL video monitors and smartphones popping up in this movie than you might expect in a story set in the U.S., where TCL is a little-known brand.
Sealing all of these deals with a kiss was Robert Downey Jr., who flew into Beijing for the movie's Chinese premiere last month and, according to BBC News, delivered himself of these words: "I'm interested in all things Chinese and I live a very Chinese life in America." Before long, the American blockbuster audience may be sharing that sensation.