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‘Iron Man’ Is a Little Anxious and a Little Winded, but Still Shows His Mettle

The third Iron Man movie, the finale to this trilogy of Marvel marvels, is the jokiest and cutest of them all. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets a kiddie sidekick, for Pete’s sake.

It’s also far and away the most violent, with a Die Hard body count, bombs and bullets, and Stark trash-talking evil henchmen about how he’s going to kill them.

Writer-director Shane Black, who cut his teeth on Lethal Weapon movies and directed Downey in one of his best pre-Iron Man pictures, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, brings a more violent, angst-ridden sensibility to the franchise. And a less subtle one.

“Ever since that big dude with the hammer dropped out of the sky,” a character apologizes, remembering Thor’s arrival and The Avengers, “subtlety’s kind of gone out the window.”

So there is not one Iron Man this time, and not just two (the War Machine suit, worn by Stark’s military pal played by Don Cheadle). No, as the trailers promise, there are many — suits that can be summoned, video game fashion, in mid-fight, mid-flight. That sort of deus ex machina robs the fights-to-the-death of their fear of death and the film of some of its high-stakes urgency.

A new terrorist foe — “I prefer the term ‘teacher’”— is assaulting America. The Mandarin (Ben Kinglsey, big and broad), who isn’t Chinese, is threatening the president (William Sadler), the country and Iron Man.

And when the bad guy’s minions take down Tony Stark’s bodyguard (Jon Favreau, who also directed the first two Iron Man movies), Tony vows “good old-fashioned revenge.”

That’s when Tony’s Fortress of Malibu is destroyed. That’s when Tony’s beloved Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is endangered. (These aren’t spoilers. It’s all in the trailer.)

This Iron Man is about the “demons” we create through the people we wrong, and Black (who co-wrote the script) frames all this within a Tony flashback, to the day he scored a one-night-stand with a scientist (Rebecca Hall) and stiffed a think tank founder (Guy Pearce).

Downey is as on the money as ever as Stark, punching up pithy punchlines — “BILL me” to a bloodthirsty reporter who eggs him into trashing the guy’s cell phone.

Stark criss-crosses the country, from Tennessee to Miami, and suffers anxiety attacks along the way. A kid (Ty Simpkins of Insidious) with a Disney Channel haircut to make up for his hard-luck life in Tennessee, pitches in to help. A pushy, inquisitive child and these red-eyed minions of evil whose wounds heal in an instant would give anybody heart palpitations.

The third-act twists are pretty easy to see coming, and the action beats feel pre-ordained. But one bit of business involving people sucked out of Air Force One is the film’s jaw-dropper, a stunt/effect that is as epic as anything this genre has produced.

And the broad, goofy jokes and one-liners land — even if they feel a little winded this time.

Examining Downey in close-up, you can fret that he’s aging through his best years in an action franchise that doesn’t tax him the way movies like The Singing Detective and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang once did. But he helped make comic book pictures safe for great actors. And if he pops up as the face in the suit in an Avengers movie or two, I don’t think anybody would begrudge him that. The suit has fit him, and he has filled the suit to perfection.