AT THE MOVIES - 'Iron Man 3' rekindles love of the franchise

AT THE MOVIES - 'Iron Man 3' rekindles love of the franchise

*** 1/2 "Iron Man 3"

No longer concerned with spotlighting imminent multi-hero action flicks, Shane Black's "Iron Man 3" allows its title character a chance to breathe, pitting the man in the magnetic red suit up against a subversive enemy and a round of recurring panic attacks. Black's thoughtful approach humanizes Robert Downey Jr.'s needling lead and acknowledges the crippling stress of being a famous superhero. A villain with a twisted political agenda and a small army of dangerous henchmen sweetens the pot and pumps some impressive action sequences into the narrative, putting the franchise back on track after a regrettably messy sequel.

Luckily Iron Man/Tony Stark earned back a few stars in last year's "Avengers," Joss Whedon's wildly successful Marvel universe crossover that allowed Downey Jr. a wealth of punchlines and another chance to save the world from certain doom. Sadly, such doom still haunts our lead quipster, as he struggles with Post-traumatic stress, insomnia, and an obsessive desire to tinker with his ever-expanding wardrobe of mechanical super suits. As the compulsion drives Stark's live-in lady Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) mad with grief, a mysterious robed madman known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) sets off a string of terrorist bombings, igniting the ire of Iron Man. With the threat of anxiety looming, Stark suits up and sets out to defeat the anti-American enemy, picking up a few friends and enemies along the way.

The key word here is few, a concept "Iron Man 2" struggled with, crowding the action with major villains, sub-plots, sidekicks, and "Avengers" allusions while neglecting its charismatic star. Such a pity, as Downey Jr.'s embodiment of the character is so expertly controlled and appealing, a sub-par script only degrades his bankable worth. There's a reason why Iron Man is front and center on "The Avengers" theatrical poster, and Black (an established screenwriter) seems to acknowledge his lead's dominant presence, even including a sequence peppered with multiple Iron Men, each more awesome (and toy aisle-ready!) than the next. Though few and far between (and sadly highlighted in the full-length trailers) the action sequences are tremendous, illuminating a well-spent special effects budget perfectly crafted for big-screen bombast.

Supporting actors successfully hold their own next to Downey: Don Cheadle (as James Rhodes, an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel turned military-sanctioned iron-clad fighter outfitted in one of Stark's suits) gets a few one-liners and a stab at heroism, Gwyneth Paltrow's Potts gets a promotion from Stark snark-detractor to independent heroine, chameleon Kingsley is as engaging as ever, and Guy Pearce adds an appropriate dash of slime to his body-obsessed scientist. While the movie does get a bit crowded at times (Stark's grossly underwritten scientist ex gal pal weaves her way into the overarching plot) there's a sense of leisure and simplicity guiding the story, as Black diligently nourishes his title character, and presents an enemy less cartoonish than his appearance suggests. Stark's sarcasm is unshakable but never unbearable, and his flippant interactions with a young apprentice are strong, even if their randomly inserted relationship seems a bit manufactured.

Like any character-heavy blockbuster, "Iron Man 3" does ramble a tad, and lingers on back story before gaining momentum. However, once buildings start to crumble, and as Stark's suit whips and clangs across the screen with 3D force, the popcorn-chomping excitement heightens, multiplying so effectively that even an absurd airplane crash rescue manages to inspire a hero-worshipping grin. Of course, that's Black's greatest achievement - inspiring childish excitement for a well-developed superhero. Like "Skyfall," "Iron Man 3" reinvigorates the franchise and reminds us why we unapologetically adore our lead protagonist.

Now playing at CinemaWorld, Lincoln, 622 George Washington Highway, 401-333-8676, www.cinemaworldonline.com .