By Eric Henderson

I give all due credit to my brother-in-law for pointing out to me something that I hadn’t been perceptive enough to notice before: that Tony Stark/Iron Man is possibly the only superhero whose true identity is scarcely a secret to the world. But it goes beyond that. Stark’s transparency is actually so palpable that it serves to obscure his actions behind his personality.

The brazen lack of shame in his game is likely what lifted the Iron Man franchise off in the first place, not only when held against the moody likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy but even in contrast to some of the installments under Marvel’s Avengers tent (specifically the cheekily retrograde Captain America and the flamboyantly square Thor).

Stark, a kajillionaire erector who was handed lemons and, in typical entrepreneur fashion, made an army’s worth of platinum lemonade, lives large and equates his inflated self-regard with his nobility. Hubris equals heroism, an equation that posits Stark as the true Captain America. Unwitting or not, he’s like a propaganda machine for a nation that respects only the achievements of the distinctive.

In two distinct ways, Iron Man 3 pins the indefatigable Stark against that reputation. First, in taking place during the aftermath of the events from last summer’s The Avengers romp, Stark finds himself struggling to exude bluster while not-so-privately battling pangs of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Being the world’s foremost jetsetter, his existential terror may have less to do with his fear that intergalactic invaders will return and more to do with his discovery that there are, in fact, forces greater than his own will to power.)

Second, the world is trembling under the spell of a theatrical international cyber-terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who appears to be beating Stark at his own P.R. game.

Directed and co-written by Shane Black, most famous as the writer of the first Lethal Weapon movies, Iron Man 3 hones in on the fact that Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark is equal parts Murtaugh and Riggs, and soars about as high as any of the films in the series whenever Downey veers unexpectedly from smug self-satisfaction toward hollowed-out insecurity, and swiftly back again. Downey’s manic edge here verges into something less than sane, and the yo-yo reception he gives to the movie’s requisite cute kid/wannabe sidekick alone justifies his paycheck.


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