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JESSICA ZAFRA | Iron Man 3: It's not the suit, it's the man
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Serious adults, a group we try to avoid, tend to dismiss superhero comics-to-film adaptations as infantile garbage. (Although they adore Christopher Nolan's solemn Batman movies, where the hero is extremely smart, good-looking and filthy rich but doesn't have any fun. Joylessness is the mark of high seriousness.)

Those adults have a point. Superhero movies, and action movies in general, work very hard to stay exactly the same. The heroes battle the villains. There are huge explosions, scenes of mass destruction, and shots of fleeing civilians. Just when all seems lost, the hero summons up a final burst of strength to defeat the bad guy and save the world. Everyone must go home feeling that everything is okay. Can't deviate from the formula, there's too much money at stake.

Iron Man 3, the latest from the ridiculously lucrative Marvel franchise, stays within the formula, but takes full advantage of its best asset: Robert Downey, Jr. He is not as physically imposing as other actors in superhero roles, maybe not as handsome, but he crackles with an un-fakeable intelligence. You believe he is a genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist (Fine, I saw The Avengers 5 times at the cinema), because a lesser mortal would not be so charmingly and infuriatingly sure of himself. Put it this way: if he were stupid, poor and unattractive, he'd just be an ass.

Tony Stark is not the kind of role that wins awards - Downey will certainly bag his Oscar for something else - but it is a triumph of casting. Seldom has an actor melded so completely with his fictional character; it's shocking to find that when he first auditioned for the role, he was rejected. From the moment he emerged as the wisecracking, back-talking, insult-spouting arms dealer in the first Iron Man, he made it impossible for anyone else to play the part.

Method actors are said to be possessed by their characters; Tony Stark is possessed by Robert Downey, Jr. If he seems more substantial than the typical comic-book character, it's because he mines the actor's notorious personal history for material. Stark’s personal excesses seem more real because we know of the actor's past drug addiction. We put up with the character's arrogance because we know that the actor has been punished for his misdeeds. (This is not an endorsement of drugs. Drugs don't make you fascinating. Drugs only make boring people even more boring.)

Most of all, Stark/Downey is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. There's a reason they're called comic books, you know.

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, is a General Patronage movie with surprising depths. It's like Carl Jung's idea of individuation - the process by which the different elements of the personality integrate into a functioning whole - illustrated with powered suits of armor. Following the events in The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: he can't sleep, has anxiety attacks, and is compulsively building suits of armor. His Iron Man suit is the most important thing in the world to him (Sorry, Pepper Potts/Gwyneth Paltrow). He can't live without his suit: the armored façade he presents to the world threatens to overwhelm his true self. But what is his true self?

The threat posed by a terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) forces Stark to confront his anxiety on a very literal level. Two scientists - Stark's ex-girlfriend Maya (Rebecca Hall) and potential rival Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) add complications. Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and former chauffeur Happy (former director Jon Favreau) reappear like trusty back-up dancers, and Pepper Potts demonstrates how to look fabulous while someone is trying to turn you into ash. Of course there are huge explosions, scenes of mass destruction, and shots of fleeing civilians. At several points the hero seems doomed. We've seen all these before, and the filmmakers know it. So they mess with our expectations.

When victory seems assured, the gadgetry fails. The suit runs out of power, or into something bigger. Finely-calibrated weapons miss their targets. It becomes the running gag of this witty, snappy movie: the dangers of over-reliance on technology. A movie about a metal-clad tech wizard that mocks our love of gadgets! Self-awareness is not usually this funny.

We especially like the scenes between Stark and the little kid who helps him out. In action movies, cute wide-eyed children are convenient instruments of emotional blackmail.  Screw that. Here, grown-up geek faces young geek, and they try to manipulate each other. Serious adults, that is how to speak to smart children.

Our main, minor complaint about the earlier Iron Man movies was that we didn't see enough of Robert Downey, Jr - he was always in the suit. In Iron Man 3, the hero spends a lot of screen time without his armor, being all too human. The man is way more interesting than the machine. And much as we love The Avengers, we're happy that this movie is not merely a set-up for Avengers 2. Iron Man 3 gives us hope for the future of the blockbuster movie.

The credits take a long, long time, with enough visual effects and digital artists to populate a small country. Marvel movie fans know the drill: wait until the very end. It pays off.