Iron Man 3 is an ominously exciting, shoot-the-works comic-book spectacular. It keeps throwing things at you, but not with the random, busy franchise indifference that marked the hollow and grandiose Iron Man 2. Iron Man 3 is closer to a vision of the world teetering on the edge. (Imagine The Dark Knight Rises with less apocalyptic hot air.) The film was directed and co-written by Shane Black, the former high-testosterone action screenwriter (Lethal Weapon) who in 2005 directed the quirky, half-baked Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. His work here isn't just skillful — it's fast and furious. He wires each scene for maximum intensity, and the result is that rarity, a superhero thrill ride with something at stake.
Robert Downey Jr.'s defining trait as an actor — the way he tosses off each line with speedy, nattering insouciance, as though he were talking to himself, which he basically is — can make it seem like nothing he's saying really matters. This time, though, Downey turns Tony Stark's reflexive motormouthed mockery into something at once dread-fueled and humane: a barely camouflaged expression of his fevered anxiety. At the beginning, Stark is testing out his latest brainstorm, a system that allows his Iron Man armor to zip through the air in pieces and cling to him as if he were magnetized. The hurtling metal almost appears to be attacking him, and that's a metaphor for what he'll face at every turn.
There's an ultra-terrorist on the loose, a global troublemaker called the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley with a scraggly beard and medieval hair. With his methodical low voice, he's a scarily ''rational'' psycho cult leader. When the Mandarin takes over the airwaves, he's like Osama bin Laden recast as a Bond villain, and Kingsley bites into the role with lurid gusto. The film's other baddie is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, at his most sleekly nasty), a former geek scientist who's working in cahoots with the Mandarin (and thanks to a great twist, that's putting it mildly). He has turned a group of the damaged and the maimed into walking weapons with molten flesh. Goaded by the press, Stark invites the Mandarin to come at him, and come at Stark he does — with rocket launchers that destroy Stark's home in the first of many darkly bedazzling action sequences, all edited with a detonating precision that renders the violence that much more voluptuously threatening.
Iron Man 3 is mostly liberated from the market-tested three-act structure that hobbles too many comic-book films. This one feels like a deep-dish middle installment that strands Stark without any protection — in this case, in the hinterlands of Tennessee, where he crash-lands, only to learn that his Iron Man suit no longer works. There are hilariously tense encounters with the local yokels, a testy camaraderie between Stark and his War Machine rival James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), an abiding romantic tension to his bond with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a climax that's a flat-out epic piece of action-fantasy engineering. I can't say I was moved by Iron Man 3, but I was transported. A-