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. "Iron Man 3"

In the third of this high-flying series, Iron Man achieves mach speed and more lift than he did in the prior episode, "Iron man 2". But there's no way any of this franchise's sequels can improve on the original when inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, "The Avenger") first spontaneously conceived and then put his prototype together, under threat of death, in a desert shed.

Under the direction of Shane Black, whose directing credit list consists of one (not-so-successful) title ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), the important element is that it featured Downey. Somewhere along the way, it seems that a bond was sealed between the two artists in the course of that collaboration. Something Downey needed for him to give us his best work.

With his close tie to his star and what must be an understanding of how best to pull out that performance level best, Black, who cowrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce based on the comic strip by Stan Lee and others, the storyline is tighter, the characters more focused and engaging, and the outer reaches of action concepts pushed to the unbelievable point. Downey is radically better in this creative environment than he was on "2." Furthermore, the story, with a climactic twist, works astonishingly well, the villain is new and ingeniously threatening, and the dialogue is well maintained to be crisp and smart.

In the opening act, Stark flashes back to a New Year's Evening party with a sexy girlfriend named Maya (Rebecca Hall, "The Town"). The name chosen for this character is a bit jarring. Did someone see "Zero Dark Thirty" whose central character's name is Maya and liked it enough to ignore the obvious copycat connection?

The purpose of this flashback is to establish a thread that will become a major plot point and the source of massive villainy. A scientist as well as a beauty, Maya Hansen is the inventor of Extremis

A kookie Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, "Prometheus"), seeks an audience with Stark to offer him a partnership in Extremis. He's ignored and embarassed by Stark, who has better things to do.

Back to current time, Killian, apparently ignoring the humiliation he suffered before, shows up again, this time in business attire from Yves St.Laurent. Now, the owner of Advance Idea Mechanics, he's come to Stark Industries to make his pitch to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, "Contagion," "The Avengers") for a share in the invention. He demonstrats its capability to project a 3-D version of a brain that allows a researcher to walk into its virtual image to find an injury or abnormality and in order to effect a cure.

Clearly, such an invention would be a major game-changer in medical research but Pepper doesn't see it for Stark Industries and rejects a partnership with Killian for reasons known only to the screen writers. Meaning, sometimes you have to advance the needs of the plot by illogical means, and that brings about the result that Extremis can be used to re-wire a whole army of human brains to perform seriously destructive acts.

My reference above to the tightness of the story does not refer to running length, which is well beyond two hours. Rather, it means the core story, discounting the superb, extreme and rather extended action and CGI effects, which are the displays of destruction from the grandiose mind of the bearded, crazed supervillain The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, "Shutter Island," "You Kill Me"). This guy's demeaner suggests a tribal leader on a diet of solder and lead and a portfolio of world-class weapons. In a TV appearance, he warns the world of his psychotic intentions.

The TV cameras go to Stark for an answer, which is the childish challenge to Mandarin to let him know he doesn't take him seriously. The world-savior industrialist taunts the despot by furnishing his home address. This brings a flying armada of helicopter gunships blasting Stark's spectacular mansion on a Malibu cliff. It's taken apart bedroom by bedroom, living quarters by living quarters, workroom by workroom. To the ground. Stark escapes in his Iron Man suit, guided by its artificial intelligence pilot, Jarvis. A surgical operation. Tony's got some rebuilding to do... when he can get enough power to return to California.

Jon Favreau ("John Carter"), who was one of the sequel's co-executive producers, plays Happy Hogan, Stark Industry's security director with a quite personal and in-your-face presence that contains more quirk than elan. Don Cheadle "The Avengers," "The Guard"), as Colonel James Rhodes, maintains his position as Stark's second in an Iron Man suit and the guy who has Iron Man's back, Cheadle's literal, military manner is a contrast to his friend and boss's light and dilletantish approach to everything, and makes for a stream of subtle word games and gags.

Young Ty Simpkins plays 10-year old Harley Keener, a kid who seems to come out of nowhere to help Tony in times of injury. This character's attitude and precociousness feels like a writing afterthought, maybe for the sake of achieving a certain running time. Or, maybe Black thought Stark needed a boost as the role model of the younger generation.

Downey is as much a hero of the acting trade as a super one onscreen. His uncanny ability to juggle concerns and emotions within the same sentence, without losing his connection to the audience, is a wonder and a feat. With an underlying melancholy, he quips and takes a setback that would be a mortal wound to anyone else and makes it fun. I'm once again charmed by the man I find here who is a little less self congratulatory than he sometimes is.

Speaking of connections, it's small wonder that the emotional tie with Pepper Potts is alive and well. It's hard to say or, even, to suggest that this isn't among Paltrow's most admirable work and a serious draw for the series. As the woman in charge of the company and the moderator of its founder's rash tendency to ignore his own impairments and mortality, her emotional contribution is a vital part of what makes the series one you most look forward to.

As intimated, the action and effects are quite enough in their devastating way to satisfy the most ardent teen clamoring for their fix of violent fantasy. Here, the sound waves, which are propelled to your ear by clangs of iron on iron, will shake your bones and threaten your balance even as you rest on your comfortable theatre seat.

While there's much invention in the plot, revelations that come as clever twists and villainous acts that come from unexpected directions, so, too, does the trademark humor of the series, upped a bit by a director and star who clearly have an affinity for each others taste for ironic and sardonic playfulness. They put a swell spin of wit into it and, in a time of superhero saturation, take a back seat to no one in reserving marquee space for their guy. Moreover, they leave you wanting more of the same, please.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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