Tony Stark, drunk on his own magnificence, throws himself a birthday party and shows up in the Iron Man suit he built to save the world. "The question I get asked most often," he tells the crowd, "is 'How do you go to the bathroom in that suit?'" Pause. Smile. "Just like that." Tony's in celebrity decline, making a fool of himself and thinking he's cool. He's like a rock star trashing a hotel room, too stoned to realize it's his home.
A Marvel comic-book hero with no superpowers except a Mensa IQ, preternatural confidence, a sharp wit and an unlimited bank account, Tony made 2008's Iron Man the decade's smartest action film. It must also have been the one closest to the movie industry's heart, for Tony--all mental muscle and verbal elbows in Robert Downey Jr.'s acute personification--had the sense of mission and the ruthlessness that define a Hollywood mogul. Or any American titan.
In the bolder, less satisfying Iron Man 2, director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux had to figure out what Tony would do once he had it all. If they don't quite pee in Iron Man's suit, they do turn Tony corrosive: the inevitable residue of triumph, they posit, is decadence. As in Superman III, the hero has become his own evil twin.
The new movie arrives at a moment much bleaker than the dear, dead May 2008 of its predecessor. Back then, Tony was a dream zillionaire: Howard Hughes updated into Richard Branson. In the wake of the Great Recession, his excesses can seem toxic. Appearing before a Senate committee whose chairman (Garry Shandling) wants the U.S. government to control the Iron Man "weapon," Tony blithely boasts, "I have successfully privatized world peace." Even if this is true--can one flying man becalm Iran, North Korea and al-Qaeda?--he sounds as arrogant as a Wall Street CEO. Hubris has felled many high flyers, and Congress won't vote this one a bailout.
All right, Marvel doesn't have a hero named Blankfein. And Tony has the excuse of a bum ticker; his mechanical heart is wearing out. More important, he makes something besides money: his Iron Man couture, which rogue nations--and a rival arms merchant, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell)--have been unable to duplicate. But in Russia, someone has improved on the original. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, with parchment skin, Mongolian fierceness and more tattoos than "Bombshell" McGee) is the son of a disgraced physicist who worked with Tony's father, and Vanko nurses a hatred for all Starks. In the film's neatest set piece, the iron-suited Russian invades the Monaco Grand Prix and thrashes Tony with chain whips of electricity. Hammer secures Vanko's services, thus subsidizing the film's climactic hero-villain face-off.
All Over but the Shooting