1008725-20130426-EdXKnsWith Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and Pacific Rim all due it’s a promising summer for sci-fi and superhero spectacles. First out of the gate is Iron Man 3, which, for me, had the air of a false start. I wasn’t all that keen on Iron Man (2008), and you weren’t all that crazy about Iron Man 2 (2010). Fact is I didn’t really cotton to the whole Marvel thing until the superior Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and he and the rest of The Avengers, including Tony Stark, earned their keep last summer. Well, what do you know–the third time’s the charm, and Iron Man 3 is the best of the trio, great fun, and the darkest, and the lightest, of the bunch.

All credit is due co-writer/director Shane Black, who gave Robert Downey, Jr. one of his best pre-resurgence roles in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), his clever directorial debut. Prior to that he was the spec script king, with Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight keeping the marketplace humming. These are slam-bang, machine-tooled, brutal entertainments, switching between hijinx and high body counts, that are difficult to turn off if you happen to run into them on late-night cable. Iron Man 3 adapts that formula to the PG-13 constraints of the Marvel factory, and it works splendidly, mostly because the preexisting parts have been given a good going-over and are allowed to shine.

Dropping the daddy issues from its predecessors, Iron Man 3 instead follows through on The Avengers, with the egocentric Tony Stark suddenly ill at ease at a world invaded by gods and aliens, where he’s no longer the main event. That gives Downey, Jr., something new to play, as the film takes Stark back to a typically piggish episode in the Y2K era, where he seduced, and abandoned, super-botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and simply abandoned nerdy scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) with world-changing aspirations. In the present, these two characters, changed in surprising ways, return to confront him, as Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) launches an “Iron Patriot” program at the behest of the government. And not a moment too soon, as a shadowy figure known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) launches a war of terror in the west. A Colonel Kurtz type swathed in chinioserie, The Mandarin is hands down the most sinister villain in the movie Marvel-verse to date, and the movie uses him to push Stark out of his comfort zone among the 1 percent into rural Tennessee, where his only assistant is a tech-savvy kid, Harley (Ty Simpkins).

[Maybe here is a good time to say that I disagree with the scolding New York Times review, which, for spoiler reasons, is obliged to be partial to the terror angle of the storyline. The tut-tutting is at least eight years too late, when Batman Begins and War of the Worlds were treading into 9/11 imagery, and there is a definite gamesmanship here, without apologies, in a world gone mad with security measures. The characters put on masks and put over plot twists with less angst than The Dark Knight or the Harry Potter movies that Manohla Dargis holds up as exemplars as how to handle terrorism in escapist entertainment. There are other ways to comment on our times, and this breezier film has found one.]

DownloadedFileAnyway…it’s a smart deployment, one that gives a series a new “daddy” story, with a little heart, or as much heart as Black can muster. (Theirs is an amusingly equal partnership, free of sentiment.) The other key move is making Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) more central to the story. I sat through two Iron Man movies and a spinoff waiting for her and Stark to catch fire, and here they do, so to speak. (I’ve left out the combustible super-soldiers and the regenerative tissue and all of the hardware stuff, which Black and co-writer Drew Pearce get through as expeditiously as possible.) Finally, these two gifted actors emerge as the romantic comedy couple you thought they could be, the William Powell and Myrna Loy of superhero franchises.

And Downey, Jr. soars. There’s not much gas left in the tank for a third Sherlock Holmes, though the indiscriminate international marketplace is bound to get one; Tony Stark, however, has been turbocharged. There are a lot of colors for the actor to play, and he delivers a full palette. A Lethal Weapon-ish scene of interrogation late in the story, to name one, is like a mini-masterclass in comic acting, and I was in stitches. I must add that it’s well-played as well by the minions. Other than a useless application of 3D (don’t bother), Black hasn’t dropped many balls here. There’s always something coming up, including the most breathlessly exciting action sequence yet devised for a Marvel movie, and touches I enjoyed, from veterans William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer cast as the president and vice president, Brian Tyler’s rousing rendition of the Iron Man theme at the end as the retro credits play, and the closing bit with Stark and another member of the team. A sequel I thought would at best amount to a gateway drug for the rest of summer turns out to a highlight of the year. All thoughts welcome as Iron Man 3 is poised for lift-off.

ADDENDUM: A Top Ten movie of the year has received top-drawer treatment on Blu-ray. No surprise; it’s a rare blockbuster that doesn’t get the royal treatment A/V-wise on home video, and Iron Man 3 is up to par–so good that I’m seriously considering an upgrade to my audio system, which needs to better handle a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround soundtrack like the one provided here. (It plays just fine, but I know there are bells and whistles in the mix that are just not coming through the way they would if I had a more up-to-date receiver and speakers.) The 2D presentation looks gorgeous, natch, with perfect colors and none of the digitized distractions you might fine with a lesser encode and transfer. That said, the disc isn’t “iron”-rich with features, perhaps because another box set edition is said to be in the works for ravening Marvel fans. What you get, however, is satisfactory: An informative commentary track with Black and co-writer Drew Pearce, a making-of, deleted scenes and outtakes, a funny gag reel, and–always be closing–a look at next month’s Thor sequel plus an amusing short film, the Haley Atwell-starring Agent Carter, prepping us for next spring’s second helping of Captain America. Best of all is a neat behind-the-scenes examination of Iron Man 3‘s Air Force One centerpiece and its amazing aerial acrobatics, which will leave you as breathless at home as it did in the theater.