“Iron Man 3″ strips character and conflict to bare essentials, and is superior to its predecessors for it.

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This genre’s totally gonna go to shit in the near-future, you guys know that, right?

For a little over a decade, superhero opuses have totally been slaughtering it at the box-office and have gained a more prominent spot in pop-culture consciousness. But in a post-Dark Knight world, there’s not much melding of legitimate social commentary with escapist, heroic thrills anymore, with studios choosing to focus on the latter category  – making many comic-book films these days into bright, bursting spectacles that are also a total shit-show of character and narrative cohesion. They don’t have to be troubling, near Dickensian visions of urban anarchy and despair, much like Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But dude, where’s the damn effort?

The superhero film in my eyes can go in two directions from here — either bigger and bigger, aiming for an action extravaganza with the scope and sweep of an Avengers (note: this is the popular option), or retreating into tighter, more character-based territory.

Iron Man 3 is a fairly refreshing middle-finger to the direction of the genre — and summer escapism at large. Rather than blowing up the scope of the film’s action, writer-director Shane Black makes a clever left turn — making the conflict of the film smaller and more focused than past installments, and greatly limiting what Tony Stark, our billionaire-playboy-philanthropist-genius protagonist is capable of.

These limitations come in clever packages. The lasting appeal of the Iron Man franchise is the character’s constant smug confidence and endless array of clever weapons and gadgets. So when 20 minutes into Iron Man 3, Stark’s entire toolkit is torpedoed (literally) and he’s banished into the North Carolinian wilderness, the film becomes a fairly minimalist detective story, emphasizing Iron Man’s intellect far more than his fists for much of the running time. It’s a tighter, smarter picture than anything out of Marvel in years.

Wise move on the studio’s part to let Shane Black guide this one — a famed Hollywood screenwriter renowned for his melding of action escapism with snarky meta- elements (see: Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). His rapid-fire dialogue is a natural fit for Robert Downey Jr.’s famed snark, and in classic Black fashion there are genuinely unexpected reversals and twists to be found here.

This is also much more of an ensemble piece than one would expect — Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow continue their successful rapport as Downey’s best/girl friend, respectively, and Guy Pearce lends a fair bit of reality to a villainous role that literally requires him to breathe fire. But Iron Man 3′s highs are often when Ben Kingsley is on-screen. Playing the ‘lead’ villain The Mandarin, Kingsley taps into a nutty energy that’s both completely hilarious and unlike anything he’s done in his long, storied career.

To see Downey so comfortable in this role, contrarily, isn’t quite as large a joy. Yes, he’s excellent as Tony Stark — what else would you expect? — but I’m beginning to fear that if he doesn’t ease off his comfortable niche within mega-million-dollar spectacles, we may never get the same interesting character work that defined his career at its explosive start and especially in the early 2000′s. Tony Stark is only Robert Downey, Jr. His excellent work within his franchise has ensured that no other actor could capably occupy this mantle. But after this long, I just hope Robert Downey, Jr. isn’t only Tony Stark. B+

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