Iron Man Three: Tony Stark Saves the World, Gets a Heart

Robert Downey Jr. soars again in the new Marvel marvel

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Many people have dreams where they fly through the air and suddenly, disastrously lose altitude. But for Tony Stark, whose invention of an airborne Iron Man suit made him a superhero, the image of a flying man falling signals something worse than an anxiety attack. It is a harbinger of career suicide.

Not just Tony, the Mensa zillionaire played with such admirable arrogance by Robert Downey Jr., but the entire Iron Man franchise seemed on life support when Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 arrived in 2010. That pallid sequel existed only because the 2008 original was a worldwide smash — the economic imperative of many an action sequel. The first movie, also directed by Favreau, had a lot going for it, especially its making a hero of that peculiarly American species of capitalist genius who builds stuff, makes it move fast and earns a huge profit. That’s exactly what the Marvel guys, who expanded the characters from their comics into some sensational movie escapism, did for Hollywood.

(READ: Corliss’s reviews of Iron Man and Iron Man 2)

Last spring, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers partially restored Stark’s verve and luster, as well as selling $1.5 billion worth of tickets worldwide. Now director and co-writer Shane Black, whose name sounds as if it belonged to one of Tony’s suaver adversaries, really gets the franchise soaring with Iron Man Three (known in its advertising as Iron Man 3) and launches the summer blockbuster season with a movie of nifty thrills and ruthless sauciness.

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“Some call me a terrorist,” says the robed, bearded figure known as the Mandarin. “I say I’m a teacher.” This revived bin Laden commandeers American TV sets, and perhaps all social media, with threats dire but unspecified. They begin with a massacre in the forecourt of Hollywood’s Chinese Theater and escalate to a kidnapping of the U.S. President on Air Force One (which makes IM3 the third of four 2013 movies — after Olympus Has Fallen and G.I. Joe Retaliation and before this summer’s White House Down — to use an abducted POTUS as a plot device). When Tony rashly announces his home address and, W-style, invites the Mandarin to bring it on, helicopters demolish his Malibu mansion.

Like Disney’s early animated features, which petrified children by exploiting their fears of separation, death and disfigurement, modern action films scare adult audiences with doomsday scenarios ripped from the darkest headlines. Beginning on the final New Year’s Eve of the last millennium and ending on Christmas Day of a year like this one, IM3 spans the brief, grisly history of the worldwide jihadist impulse. The script, by Black and Drew Pierce, manages to create a fanciful but plausible agency of organized evil — this Osama-Oz and his confederates — and concoct a satisfying resolution to geopolitical meltdown. Ahh, if only real-life atrocity could be overcome in a happy Marvel ending. If only Tony Stark ruled the world, as he thinks is his due.

(READ: Is Iron Man the Only Interesting Marvel Superhero?)

Back on that fateful New Year’s Eve, in Bern, Switzerland, a scruffy nerd named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) tried to interest Tony in a very advanced gadget. Tony ignored the proposal, being too busy partying like it was 1999, which it was. Thirteen years later, Killian has created his own megacompany, spiffed himself up — his hair could be an exhibit in the Cool Coiffure Museum — and, with the aid of biologist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), perfected his invention: Extremis, which can “hack into the hard drive of any living organism” and upgrade its DNA. The product has a few kinks, like making those who ingest it glow from the inside and then explode. But, Killian figures, life is cheap. Before they expire, his minions will have slaughtered hundreds by ejecting laser blasts from their fingers. (This is the comic-bookiest part of IM3.)

(READ: How The Avengers conquered the movie world)

To kill Killian and manhandle the Mandarin, Tony probably doesn’t think he needs help — “It’s moments like these,” he purrs as he dons his Iron Man togs, “when I realize how much of a superhero I am” — but he gets it anyway: from Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), whose space uniform makes him the War Machine, and from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony’s resolute girlfriend, CEO of Stark Enterprises and, when she dons her own flying suit, Iron Lady.

(SEE: A Sneak Peak at the Heroes and Villains of Iron Man Three)

Tony’s most devoted assistant, though, is a Tennessee 10-year-old named Harley (Ty Simpkins, an endearingly kidlike child actor), who — like the boy who idolizes and helps the outlaw played by Matthew McConaughey in Mud — brings his hero food and the tools to get his craft back in tiptop shape. Harley’s other function, in a standard-issue action film, might be to serve as an ideal-son figure to a restless man. But Black will permit no dewy bonding; Tony is as curt with the boy as he is with anyone else he momentarily needs. He can’t be a father because he has never grown up; he is the perpetual boy genius.

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Here’s one of the cool things about the Marvel bosses’ managing of their movie empire: figuring that their special-effects wizards can take care of the action scenes, they often assign their biggest productions to directors not known for comic-book pictures. Favreau had been an indie actor (Singles) and director (More), and Whedon had created self-referential TV shows (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse). Ang Lee genre-trotted from English teacup (Sense and Sensibility) to Chinese martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to the 2003 Hulk movie. Bryan Singer made three low-budget features, including The Usual Suspects, before being handed the X-Men franchise. Sam Raimi graduated from no-budget horror (The Evil Dead) and humid bayou melodrama (The Gift) to the Spider-Man trilogy. Spidey got a reboot last year from Marc Webb, whose only previous feature was the modest rom-com (500) Days of Summer. All these directors were in their mid-30s to mid-40s when they got their Marvel gigs, and most had grown up reading comic books about the heroes they would bring to the screen.

Black is older, at 51, and has been a Hollywood legend, or cautionary tale, for a quarter-century, since the UCLA film-school grad wrote the script for Lethal Weapon, the 1987 inspiration for a long run of smart-ass action comedies. In an industry where screenwriters are the least overpaid contributors to box-office success, Black got $1.75 million for his Bruce Willis movie The Last Boy Scout (pretty bad) and $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight (very good). Both films flopped, as did a Black rewrite, Last Action Hero, and by the mid-’90s he was no longer Harry Hot. In the past 15 years, his only feature script credit, and his first stint as director, was the criminally underappreciated (by me) 2005 crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which provided Downey with one of his few prime roles in a period when he was as toxicologically reliable as Lindsay Lohan is today.

(READ: Corliss’s churlish review of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)

For Marvel to choose Black as director and co-writer of an Iron Man movie might seem its own reckless, perhaps hopeless, gesture of rehabilitation. But he too was a fan of the series, telling the Scotsman, “I’ve been reading Iron Man since I bought my first issue in 1966 as a 4-year-old kid.” An early Black script, for 1987’s The Monster Squad, had assembled a platoon of venerable Universal fright gods (Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon) in a kind of premature Avengers. And when Downey, now the most important actor in the Marvel galaxy, puts in a good word for his old friend, people listen.

Obliged by the PG-13 rating to mute the splenetic cussing that was a glory point of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (“To all you good people in the Midwest,” Val Kilmer says as the end credits roll, “sorry we said f— so much”), Black still shoehorned some of his favorite tropes into IM3. Like Last Action Hero, it brings an iconic character into contact with a “real” boy who idolizes him. Following Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the new movie is set at Christmastime. IM3 could even be seen as Black’s reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Tony as Scrooge, Maya (a former Stark girlfriend), Killian and the Mandarin as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and Harley as Tiny Tim. The best Christmas present for the Stark Scrooge: at the end he gets a heart.

(SEE: TIME’s Top 10 Worst Christmas Movies)

As for the meta-movie gags often strewn through Black’s scripts, they’re mostly limited here to references to The Avengers, which, after all, was Tony’s previous adventure, and which he is as reluctant to discuss as kids are to pester him about it. “How’d you get out of the wormhole?” one lad wants to know; Tony won’t say. And when Harley asks him, “What about The Avengers? Can we talk about that?” (note: he means not them the team but that the movie), Tony mutters, “Later.” It’s a tribute to Downey’s gruff charm that he doesn’t lose his audience by refusing to sugarcoat Tony’s relationship with a winsome boy — and that the most oratorically gifted of current Hollywood stars can turn one word into an aria of self-sufficiency.

Later could be never. Who needs The Avengers? Not this movie (though if you stay seated through 10 minutes of end credits, you’ll find Tony on the psychiatrist’s couch telling his problems to a most unsuitable shrink). For all its sprawling diversions, last year’s box-office champ seems like small change compared with the much more vigorous and focused IM3. Besides rehabbing a hero who overcomes anxiety to save the world and defeat the terror-industrial complex by the simple matter of cloning his body armor, the movie proves that there’s still intelligent life on Planet Marvel. As you’re propelled out of the theater on IM3′s hydraulic lift of pleasures, you’re likely to say, “That is how it’s done.”