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COLUMN: I’d rank ‘Iron Man 3’ best of series

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By ERIC HARRIS
Film Reviewer

The Marvel comic book movies truly began with “Iron Man” back in 2008. That film not only introduced us to billionaire playboy-turned-hero Tony Stark, but also kicked off a series of films that would culminate with “The Avengers,” last year’s hugely successful superhero team-up movie.

“Iron Man 3” is a rebirth in that this is the first Marvel film since “The Avengers.” The question is where does Marvel go from here? How does a stand-alone film address the events of “The Avengers?” Apparently, it has a panic attack.

That is not a put-down of “Iron Man 3.” Tony Stark literally has panic attacks in the film when the events that took place in “The Avengers” are mentioned. It’s almost as if the writers of the film wanted to tell the audience through Stark that this is a movie of its own. This is not “The Avengers 2.”

This is “Iron Man.” And that’s a good thing.

I’m not all that into ranking films in a series, but if I had to, I would say “Iron Man 3” is the best of the series. This is, of course, only one man’s opinion. Many have taken issue with the film – just check the miserable cesspool that is the IMDb message boards for examples – and I actually slightly agree with their critiques. There are complaints (nitpicks) about the villain, the logic, and the lack of, well, Iron Man. I understand these complaints, but none of it bothered me that much because I was thoroughly entertained.

“Iron Man 3” worked for me more than the first two films for one simple reason: Shane Black. Marvel has made some interesting, and great, choices when it comes to directors. Giving Jon Favreau the job on the first two “Iron Man” movies, hiring Kenneth Branaugh for “Thor,” and allowing geek-god Joss Whedon to write and direct “The Avengers” have all been masterstrokes. Bringing in Shane Black, best known for writing “Lethal Weapon” and writing-directing “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” might be their best decision yet. Black may not be known for big-budget action, but he has proven himself many times over that he can write witty dialogue. Team him up with renowned improviser Robert Downey Jr. and you end up with a very funny, entertaining film.

In many ways, “Iron Man 3” is similar to the earlier Black-Downey team-up in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Both films take place at Christmas, feature a witty voiceover from Downey Jr., and involve the main character solving a mystery. That is what I liked the most about this third installment; Tony Stark basically becomes a detective for the bulk of the film. Normally, a sequel to a comic book movie is simply more action as loud as possible. In this film, Tony Stark is in the Iron Man suit shockingly few times. As stated earlier, this might bother some people, but I liked it.

The mystery Tony has to solve involves massive domestic explosions that a terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is taking credit for. The Mandarin is a mysterious figure that no one can seem to track down, which is why Tony must play detective for the most part. It’s interesting because The Mandarin is such a combination of cultures you really want to know what his story is. He has a bin Laden beard, Chinese robes and a Southern accent. He’s brutal and strange. Thankfully, the promotions for the film have kept him mysterious, and his origin story is quite effective – though comic book fans are up in arms about it.

The mystery element of the film does not mean there is no action. Shane Black proves he has an eye for large-scale action with “Iron Man 3.” The big events are spaced out quite a bit, but when the suit comes on, you know something awesome is about to happen. There are some truly exhilarating moments in the film, most notably a complicated air rescue, and it’s surprising that there is still a fresh way to show the action in the series after so much screen time with the character.

Of course, the “Iron Man” series has always been more about the character than the action, and this incarnation embraces that. With the suit off, Downey Jr. gets to have a lot of fun. His interactions with a kid in the middle of the film could have easily ended up being clichéd, but his sarcasm and wit liven the scenes up.

Robert Downey Jr. simply makes these films work, but he’s not alone. Ben Kingsley definitely adds some allure to The Mandarin. Gwyneth Paltrow continues to make Pepper Pottsmore than just a damsel in distress.

James Badge Dale is perfectly cast as a villain you would like to punch in the face. Don Cheadle works well with Downey in their few buddy-cop scenes. And Paul Bettany’s voice work makes the A.I. computer program Jarvis feel like a real character.

“Iron Man 3” is vastly different than what I expected it to be. Perhaps that why I liked it so much, while others will hate it. It is the funniest of the three films, features some of the most memorable action sequences of the trilogy, and, more importantly, it surprised me. And in the land of sequels and big summer blockbusters, it’s rare, and good, to be surprised.

A Cannelton resident, Harris is a movie buff and blogger who posts reviews of films at www.canneltoncritic.com.