Iron Man 3: Not so super

Tin man: Downey wears nice suits, but where's the heart?

Where has Robert Downey Jr. gone? There's no doubt he's the star of Iron Man 3; he sprints through the picture like a neurotic panther. And yet he's absent, detached in a Zen-like way from the whole affair. The nakedness that defines his best performances — in any role, up to and including the first Iron Man, in 2008 — has become, paradoxically, a kind of mask, not unlike the sleek, airbrushed-looking one he wears as the superhero incarnation of cocky kajillionaire Tony Stark.

In the first Iron Man, Downey's performance wasn't so far from the one he'd given years before in Chaplin. Both characters shouldered enormous egos surrounded by shells of fragility — you had to love the whole egg. But today, Downey could play Stark in his sleep. The jittery self-doubt, the look-at-me hubris, the Boy Scout cluelessness about women: He can dial up whatever he needs. He's become so proficient in his believability that you can hardly believe a minute of it.

Maybe you don't need to believe much in Iron Man 3. This is the first in the franchise to be directed by Shane Black, and only the second picture the prolific action screenwriter has made. (The first was the marvelously nerve-jangling Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starring Downey.) On the plus side, Black has a puckish sense of humor, and he shows a healthy resistance to the comic-booky self-seriousness of the Batman movies. The villains in Iron Man 3, for example, include the Mandarin, a pointy-bearded sage who's half Osama bin Laden, half Ming the Merciless. He's played with bug-eyed hamminess by Ben Kingsley, and the movie is spooky, silly, or both whenever he's onscreen.

But the big problems with Iron Man 3 are less specific to the movie than they are characteristic of the hypermalaise that's infected so many current mega-blockbusters — too much plot, too much action, too many characters, too many pseudo-feelings. The movie opens with a flashback to 1999, before Tony Stark suffered the near-fatal injury that led to his becoming a superhero. He's a playboy having a fling with a nerdy-gorgeous scientist (played by a beguiling but underused Rebecca Hall) who has discovered a breakthrough nanotechnology that, in the wrong hands, can turn human beings into flaming weapons. The wrong hands, it turns out, belong to Guy Pearce's sleazy-debonair Aldrich Killian, who, in the movie's present, plans to use this fancy science to kidnap the president. Along the way Killian tries to seduce Stark's now-live-in girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Stark is called on to fend off a fusillade of special effects, including bad guys whose flesh glows fiery orange, the usual explosions, and the destruction of Stark's futuro-groovy seaside home. The gratuitous grandness of these effects shouldn't be underestimated: They're big, all right. And yet all this adds up to so little. There's no real drama here, or if there is, Black gives us no time to let it sink in before moving on to the next cataclysmic signpost. The picture's climax, especially, strives for emotional grandeur: Black and Downey even toy with the idea of a tragic ending.

But Downey may have taken Tony Stark as far as he can. He's as fine an actor as we've got, which is why it's strange to watch a Downey performance and to feel nothing. He has a great deal of swagger and more physical agility than ever. But perhaps even he is exhausted by the too-muchness of

Iron Man 3 and its ilk.

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