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Avenged: 'Iron Man 3' may be Marvel's best

Friday - 5/3/2013, 7:34pm  ET

Iron Man (AP)
This film publicity image released by Disney-Marvel Studios shows Robert Downey Jr., left, as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in a scene from "Iron Man 3." (AP Photo/Disney, Marvel Studios)

Downey at his Comic Best

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley digs 'Iron Man 3."

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Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON - "Ever since the guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety kind of went out the window."

In one line, "Iron Man 3" captures the Marvel Universe with a refreshing self- awareness. On the one hand, the comics offer countless characters with compelling stories. On the other, they're catnip for tent-pole studio execs, many of whom are more businessmen than movie lovers, having never even seen some of history's most famous flicks.

Last summer, "The Avengers" (2012) marked the culmination of Marvel's "Phase One" business plan of "Iron Man" (2008), "The Incredible Hulk" (2008), "Iron Man 2" (2010), "Thor" (2011) and "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011). It also marked the launch of "Phase Two" in "Iron Man 3" (2013), "Thor: The Dark World" (2013), "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014)" and "The Avengers 2" (2015). Don't worry, Merrill Lynch has already agreed to fund "Phase 3," at which point the transformation from Hollywood to Wall Street will be complete. I guess "greed is good."

Needless to say, this strategy was a ripe target for a young critic who, fresh off a master's dissertation and a month of Oscar coverage, was ready to take a blockbuster to task. The result was a 2 1/2-star rating for what became the smash hit of the summer and the No. 27 grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). Was I so out of touch, or had the business changed that much?

Staring through the egg on my face, I remembered Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" lyrics: "Has he lost his mind? Can he see or is he blind?" Perhaps my ratings system needed to be properly calibrated, like one of Iron Man's suits.

And so, a year later, this addicted cinephile found "Iron Man 3" blissfully therapeutic, as Tony Stark suffers from the same "Avengers" PTSD I've felt the past year, a temporary paralysis each time I see a 2012 Dodge Avenger, a dizzy reminder of the Von Trapp that snared Pauline Kael, the cold sweat of a critic's guilt complex for giving a popular favorite a resounding "meh."

As I walked out of the theater, I wanted to confirm that my enjoyment of the flick wasn't the result of overcompensation or extra-buttery popcorn. So after rewatching "Iron Man" (2008) and "The Avengers" (2012), I can honestly say that "Iron Man 3" is my favorite Marvel flick yet.

The story picks up after the finale of "The Avengers," as billionaire tech-wizard Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) works on his Iron Man suits over sleepless nights, suffering anxiety attacks every time someone mentions New York (today's escapist audiences may suffer similar post-9/11 anxiety).

Stark's insomnia causes a rift with soul-mate Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is wooed by biotech genius Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Killian has developed an explosive genetic regeneration process called Extremis, allowing the human body to heal itself, but it's not yet ready for primetime and is abused by a Bin Laden-style terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

The fresh faces of Kingsley and Pearce make "Iron Man 3" feel brand new. Pearce is formidable as the scorned nerd, who harnesses "Memento" as he creates a holographic brain map to discuss the need for a human upgrade. Still, it's Kingsley who steals the show as The Mandarin, a much more memorable foe than Jeff Bridges in "Iron Man" or Mickey Rourke in "Iron Man 2." All three are Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning actors, more than Tom Hiddleston can say as Loki in "The Avengers."

Grounding the new cast members are such familiar faces as Jon Favreau (director of the first two movies) as Tony's tech-challenged bodyguard, and Don Cheadle as Rhodey Rhodes (a role begun by his "Crash" co-star Terrence Howard), who has since taken a sidekick role as The Iron Patriot.

The most important supporting character is, of course, Paltrow as Pepper Potts, fresh off her distinction as People magazine's Most Beautiful Woman in the World. While I'm surprised she got that title 15 years after her prime period of "Se7en" (1995) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1998), Paltrow is way more than just a pretty face here, donning Iron Man suits in trailer-made action.

Still, all this would fall to iron pieces without Downey Jr. While Heath Ledger's Joker remains the best super-villain of the 21st century, Downey Jr. will go down as this era's best superhero. His Tony Stark is smarter than Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, tougher than Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man and funnier than Christian Bale's deep-throated Batman. It's a shame that living comedy/action stars rarely get noticed come awards time, because Downey has really created something special with Stark.

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