"Iron Man 3" finds new and refreshing ways to present Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire industrialist, incorrigible quipper and wearer of all-flying, all-knowing Iron Man suits.
But the fourth Iron Man movie (including last year's "The Avengers") also leans hard on tried-and-true Stark/Iron Man traits such as constant jokiness and compulsive equipment tinkering, resulting in an often entertaining yet exhausting film.
Director and co-writer Shane Black (screenwriter of "Lethal Weapon") takes over from "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau and gives our hero more dimension.
Black puts Stark in casual, real-world settings such as a small-town Southern bar that's part of an attempt to smoke out the terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
These scenes tweak Stark's rarefied persona and usually opulent surrounding, providing a counterpoint to the movie's big set pieces, one of which involves a threat to Stark's giant Malibu pad.
Stark enters "Iron Man 3" hobbled by heavy anxiety engendered by all that alien fighting in "The Avengers." He's a "hot mess," as he tells his live-in girlfriend, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow).
And thank goodness, because Downey's arrogant-clever shtick as Stark had grown old. Here, Downey augments Stark's resting state of cockiness with displays of vulnerability. It's nice to see Downey the actor instead of Downey the personality.
The heavy emphasis on Stark's emotional evolution proves the smart approach, even though the larger story, which pits Iron Man against two villains (Kingsley and Guy Pearce), mostly plays out as comic-book-by-the-numbers.
A flashback to a 1999 tech conference reveals that Stark was cruel to a nerdy superfan played by Pearce a display of callousness that will return to haunt Stark and no doubt inspire revenge fantasies among audience members who have been blown off by celebrities at Comic-Con.
But Stark's later, present-day interaction with a boy (the wonderfully natural Ty Simpkins), with whom he must join forces in the Southern town, shows Stark's growth. He takes the perfect approach to the boy, teasing him but also treating him as an adult, because that is how the smart kid wants to be treated. (It's also a measure of Downey's largesse that he allows Simpkins to deliver the movie's funniest line.)
Simpkins and Kingsley make the strongest impressions among the supporting cast. Kingsley drawls and savors the dastardly ways of the Mandarin, a showy terrorist with a bin Laden beard and a penchant for taking over the television airwaves.
Pearce, by contrast, plays it straight as a think-tank owner with unique ideas about the human body's capabilities. Pearce seems vaguely villainous even when he plays decent guys, and he offers nothing new here.
Don Cheadle appears occasionally as Stark's buddy Col. Rhodes, whose suited-up superhero alter ego War Machine has been redubbed Iron Patriot by the government. Paltrow appears less often but, like Cheadle, brings a wryness to her role and fulfills her character's purpose of further humanizing Stark.
For Oscar-caliber actors in their 40s, Cheadle and Paltrow also show off highly toned physiques. But Paltrow's display of abs is so overt that you wonder if she had it written into her contract to promote her health website Goop.
But back to Downey because the movie always comes back to Downey, who appears in about 80 percent of the scenes even if you don't factor in scenes where it's just the suit.
Downey is Iron Man. Not just the character, but the franchise. His charm turned "Iron Man" into a hit and led to the making of (the inferior but also charming) "Iron Man 2." Whereas "Thor" could exist with a different huge, handsome lead, Iron Man would wither without Downey.
Black's clear awareness of this elevates but also troubles "Iron Man 3." As complex as Stark becomes in "Iron Man 3," he also never stops his signature quips. Downey delivers them expertly, but their sheer volume drains.
So does the suit altering, a hallmark of the "Iron Man" films that Black takes too far. Some of the most thrilling scenes in the first film involved Stark's trial-and-error discoveries of the suit's powers.
In his worried state in "Iron Man 3," Stark hardly sleeps and keeps playing with suit technology. As his advances are tested in the field, parts fly on and off and malfunction so often that it's hard to keep up.
Like Stark, the movie thinks and does too much. The inundation of jokes and iron parts crowds the story and diminishes the impact of a truly incredible set piece in the latter part of the film. Taken in segments, "Iron Man 3" delights. Taken as an anxious, busy whole, it disappoints.
IRON MAN 3
Two ½ stars
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle, Ben Kingsley, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Ty Simpkins
Director: Shane Black
Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi violence throughout, and brief suggestive content)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.