Silver Screen: Iron Man III **1/2

Silver Screen: Iron Man III  **1/2
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What set the first Iron Man movie apart from the superhero pack was the film’s good humor, a potent
Bryan Miller

What set the first Iron Man movie apart from the superhero pack was the film’s good humor, a potent cocktail of glibness and whimsy. Star Robert Downey Jr.’s Olympic-caliber smartassery and director Jon Favreau’s bright, shiny approach to the material differentiated it from Christopher Nolan’s self-serious Batman, Bryan Singer’s stilted Superman and soap operatic X-Men, and Sam Raimi’s increasingly emo Spider-man.

The superhero-movie field is more crowded than ever, with four more big-budget comic-book spectacles coming later in 2013: the Superman reboot Man of Steel and second installments for Thor, Wolverine, and Kick Ass. But by Iron Man’s fourth outing, counting his previous two solo flicks and his appearance in The Avengers, Downey Jr.’s livewire performance has been refined and codified to the point that it’s just another special effect. On a couple of occasions in Iron Man III, our mechanized protagonist is revealed to be an empty suit of armor controlled remotely by its master. It’s an apt metaphor for this perfunctory-feeling blockbuster, which hits all its marks with mechanical precision but doesn’t seem to have any humanity within.

Months after the cataclysmic events featured in The Avengers, billionaire supergenius Tony Stark (Downey) is suffering the after-effects. His neurotic tics have grown into full-blown panic attacks. It’s a nice little nod toward continuity and character development that ultimately comes to nothing in a story overstuffed with subplots and extraneous supporting players. Yet the story, for all its embellishments and asides, is stupefyingly simple: A terrorist is mad at Stark so he blows his house up, puts him on the run, then blows up some other stuff as part of a broader plan that has no greater purpose than to just be really evil because, hey, bad guy here!

The terrorist in question is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a curiously not-at-all-Chinese terrorist who releases Osama-style mixtapes to the news media threatening America’s imminent destruction. Meanwhile, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an awkward scientist Tony blew off years ago, reemerges as a handsome Stark-esque inventor whose Extremis technology could make him a prominent weapons developer. The movie attempts a bad-guy switcheroo reminiscent of the similarly dumb gimmick in Batman Begins that generates a modestly surprising plot twist at the expense of having a villain with any distinct motivations or personality.

Meanwhile, distractions abound. Tony’s pal James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), whose entire character description is “Tony’s black friend,” is piloting one of Tony’s suits of armor for the U.S. government as the Iron Patriot. One of Tony’s ex-girlfriends (Rebecca Hall) returns, and she’s mad. The Vice President (Miguel Ferrer) appears in two scenes, and he’s not nice. Tony’s girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still around. None of this has anything to do with the price of rice in whatever country the Mandarin is from, but it pads out the two-plus-hour running time, dragging the proceedings out on the way to the climax, where at long last the movie delivers a thrilling, well-choreographed action sequence.

Director Shane Black takes over the franchise from Jon Favreau. Black has a strong track record with action-comedies; he wrote Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, and both wrote and directed the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with none other than star Robert Downey Jr. When Black makes his mark on this franchise, though, it’s sometimes a little too familiar: Robert Downey Jr. is held captive by hanging from a metal post à la Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, he sprints through a Christmas tree lot à la Mel Gibson, and he makes buddy-cop jokes with his older black friends à la Mel Gibson.

Black, who cowrote the script, does have a way with zippy dialogue, and the quips are what stand out most about Iron Man III. Unfortunately, a few good zingers can’t overcome the movie’s distractible pandering to all possible audience members, be it gun-lovin’ middle-Americans with a flag-toting American robot called War Machine, younger audience members with an annoyingly plucky kid sidekick (played by Ty Simpkins), or to female audience members with the perfunctory girl-power moment at the conclusion, which seems to have been dreamed up by Paltrow’s management team. None of these subplots have anything to do with the central storyline, which starves from lack of attention. There’s too much everything, but not enough of anything.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.