Tony Stark

Tony Sark (Robert Downey Jr.) is challenged like never before in "Iron Man 3." (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

The law of diminishing returns is the bane of Hollywood executives’ existence and often pushes them to stuff sequels to the point of bursting simply because audiences expect the spectacle to get more expansive and grandiose with every film in a franchise. Finding a way to follow up the massively successful “The Avengers” is no easy task for Marvel, and “Iron Man 3” responds by telling a scaled-down, intimate story about a Tony Stark in peril, while still pushing the scope of the franchise to grander heights. 

After his close call with death in “The Avengers,” Tony Stark is a broken man for the first time, wracked with anxiety. His girlfriend and assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is being courted by mysterious scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Even worse, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a ruthless terrorist with an agenda, is wreaking havoc on the nation.

Robert Downey Jr. defines Iron Man, and he’s so comfortable in Tony Stark’s skin at this point that he could effortlessly coast through “Iron Man 3.” In the first two films, Tony Stark was a brash freight train of charisma, barreling through every problem in his path with an offhand barb, a smile, and occasionally his collection of Iron Man suits. But here, Downey Jr. plays Stark with unusual anxiety and fear. “Iron Man 3” gives Downey Jr. heftier dramatic material than he’s been asked to shoulder thus far, and he turns in a series-best performance, bringing Stark’s arc home with grace, humor and the same unflappable confidence that made him so great for the role in the first place.

Shane Black directed Downey Jr. on the criminally underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and it’s a delight to see him working on the massive scope that Marvel can afford. Black is one of the sharpest writers in Hollywood, and “Iron Man 3” has an excellent script that is endlessly witty and clever. By exploring how the presentation of a hero, or villain, can be just as important as his actions, Black incorporates the “Iron Man” iconography in new and surprising ways. Black also stages some grand moments of spectacle, particularly the thrilling destruction of Stark’s mansion.

Unfortunately, Black’s directorial voice occasionally chafes against the guiding hand of the Marvel franchise hive mind, especially in his handling of the film’s multiple villains. Aldrich Killian is a scientist who’s been developing a limb regeneration program, and his Extremis project is an ill-defined utility belt for bad guys, giving villains invincibility, super strength and even the ability to breathe fire. While Marvel’s films have delved into some pretty outlandish concepts, from demigods to alternate dimensions, Black never figures out if he should handle this as science fiction or supernatural fantasy, which results in a sloppily-executed threat for Tony Stark to battle.

Even if the villains don’t necessarily work in concept, one of “Iron Man 3”’s most pleasant surprises is Kingsley’s performance as the terroristic Mandarin. Kingsley is all bluster and threats in his terroristic dispatches, but when he and Stark come face-to-face, Black’s wry sense of humor comes into play in an unexpected but hugely entertaining fashion. James Badge Dale plays one of Killian’s cronies, and he brings a menacing intensity to some of the film’s most harrowing sequences.

Despite moments of charisma and competence, Pearce is a much less effective antagonist. As his character becomes more brazenly evil, Pearce gets increasingly hammy, and by the time “Iron Man 3” arrives at its rousing fireworks show of a finale, he’s swinging for the fences with his delivery of every line, missing more often than he connects. While “Iron Man 3” handles its multitude of villains better than most films, this may be an instance where Black gets a little too clever for his own good, and it’s hard not to wish he had given Kingsley more to do.

Although “Iron Man 3” isn’t Marvel’s best effort, it’s a strong outing and another exciting, hilarious collaboration between Downey Jr. and Black. While the film suffers from the same overstuffed syndrome as many other comic-book sequels, it’s the rare comic book film that’s able to explore new territory for its hero in a roundly compelling, well-acted fashion, making for an impressive start to the summer movie season.

The Avengers

Thor portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, left, and Captain America, portrayed by Chris Evans, are shown in a scene from “The Avengers” (Photo courtesy of Disney).

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson poked his eye-patched head in for the post-credits stinger in “Iron Man,” audiences have been looking forward to the inevitable “Avengers” movie. In creating this film, Marvel Studios had to launch four separate franchises and establish four superheroes worth caring about in the process. One misstep, and it could have been a disaster. Not only did they do it, they absolutely nailed it. “The Avengers” is the best film in the Marvel canon, a massively entertaining summer blockbuster and a huge success for writer/director Joss Whedon.

Thanks to their respective setup films, we already know Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It would be easy to say Whedon had all the tough work done for him since each of these heroes was established in their own film (or two), but juggling these big, distinct personalities could have been an equally foreboding challenge. Whedon doesn’t disappoint, and he crafts a true ensemble, even as each character gets his own big moment.

Each of the films preceding “The Avengers” had its own issues, but if there’s one thing Marvel has done right on a consistent basis, it’s casting. Chris Hemsworth has had a great month between this and the Whedon-scripted “The Cabin in the Woods,” and his Thor is much more layered and interesting as he is forced to battle with his brother, the nefarious Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hiddleston is fantastic here, full of anger and insecurity, and his chemistry with Hemsworth gives the film’s conflict an emotional complexity that many comic book good vs. evil stories lack.

Evans and Downey are the characters who chafe the most often as Captain America’s unflappable optimism clashes with Iron Man’s shielded cynicism, and “The Avengers” is smart in the way it incorporates Tony Stark’s daddy issues into their relationship. Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers is relocated to a time period he doesn’t understand, and Downey’s Tony Stark comes so naturally at this point that it’s impossible to discuss the character without thinking of his portrayal.

The only major cast member who didn’t get a chance to establish himself in a previous film is Mark Ruffalo, but he’s a perfect fit for Bruce Banner, and the Hulk ultimately ends up walking away with the movie. Ruffalo plays Banner not as an emotionally conflicted scientist, but as a man who’s come to terms with his unusual condition. When the Hulk finally comes out, it’s equal parts inevitable descent into madness and joyous celebration of destruction, and many of the best beats in Whedon’s sprawling Manhattan climax focus on the green force of nature..

For “The Avengers” to work, Marvel needed not only someone who could write well for its heroes, but someone who could deliver action scenes on a massive scale, and Joss Whedon turns out to be the perfect man for the job. His setup is quick and easy, and starting with the opening assault on a military base, Whedon stages his action scenes with incredible scope. From there, he just goes bigger and bigger, while never losing sight of his characters and infusing the most intense moments with a sharp sense of humor.

The film’s final action set piece, a sprawling alien invasion in Manhattan, is a climax in the truest sense of the word. Whedon finds a way to pay off character dynamics that have been simmering the entire film while staging one of the most impressive, massive action scenes to hit screens in far too long. Imagine the epic final battle in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” but this time, you actually care about the characters, and you have an idea of how insanely exciting and satisfying “The Avengers” is.

“The Avengers” is the event movie that every summer blockbuster wishes it could be, the final result of a grand, multi-franchise experiment that works better than anyone ever dreamed it could. Thanks to Joss Whedon, the strong cast and the undeniably smart people pulling the strings at Marvel, “The Avengers” is a resounding success and a wonderful start to what promises to be an unforgettable summer of movies.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: 'Avengers' blasts off with solid cast, staging