May 8 2013 12:00 AM

Intelligent 'Iron Man 3' gets more than armor-deep


Since the superhero genre was reinvigorated in 2000 with the earnest “X-Men” flick, comic book movies have become, with a few exceptions, less laughable and more laugh-all-the-way-to-the-bankable — and attracting top-tier acting talent, to boot. 

The one-two punch of Heath Ledger’s posthumous Academy Award for playing the Joker in 2009’s “The Dark Knight” and last year’s $1.5 billion grossing “Marvel’s The Avengers” cemented the genre as something to be taken seriously. Suddenly you don’t have to check your brain at the door anymore if you want enjoy superbeings slugging it out over major metropolitan areas. 

In that vein, “Iron Man 3” plays more as a follow-up to “The Avengers” than an entry in its own franchise, but it’s not just reaping leftover goodwill; the third solo outing of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark as Iron Man actually takes the time to explore the mentality of a man who, in quick succession, learned of the existence of extraterrestrial life and proceeded to murder the hell out of it. 

Global self-defense or not, an experience like that has gotta take its toll on the human psyche, and the film deals with Stark’s emotional fallout from the experience in “The Avengers.” Sure, Spider-Man is plagued with doubt and Batman is haunted by his childhood, but when’s the last time you saw a hero grapple with the existential quandaries that come from saving the world? 

Of course, “Iron Man 3” has plenty of action, including a thrilling high altitude rescue of plummeting airline passengers and an eye-popping firefight finale, but it’s not all repulsor beams and snarky one-liners. Get this — it also works as a cogent examination of what it means to be an American living in an age of domestic terrorism. 

The film’s antagonist this time out is the Mandarin, Iron Man’s main foe in the comic books, but he’s no mustache-twirling ethno-stereotype anymore. Played by Ben Kingsley, the character has been updated to be a smoke-and-mirrors amalgamation of several real-world American enemies. The Mandarin instills terrorism’s fear of the unknown without copping to xenophobia. 

This is beyond a smart superhero flick; it’s a thinking man’s action film that just so happens to have a billionaire playboy zipping around in a flying metal suit. 

The story also does a couple of  inventive things that are surprisingly effective: First, the plot manages to keep Stark out of his armor for most of the movie, showcasing the character’s resourcefulness; he’s not just a thrill-seeking alpha male — he’s James Bond as his own Q. 

Ironically, “Iron Man 3”’s other notable feature is the prevalence of various iterations of the suits, and nearly all the supporting characters get a turn to don one. 

Sidekicks Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle shine in their respective subplots, and Guy Pearce, playing another of the film’s slippery foils, impressively goes toe-to-toe — and ego-to-ego — with Stark. 

This is only the second time in the chair for “Lethal Weapon” scribe Shane Black, who worked with Downey on his directorial debut, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black displays a mastery of crackly dialogue and the ability to incorporate action into a coherent storyline, which calls to mind the work of James Cameron and Joss Whedon. 

Fortunately, it doesn’t look like the steam’s running out of either the genre in general or Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise specifically — which includes Captain America, Thor and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man movies — leaving Black plenty of room to fire up those rocket boosters again someday.