Robert Downey, Jr. in 'Iron Man 3'
Robert Downey, Jr. in 'Iron Man 3'

Marvel's "Iron Man 3" finally opens stateside--after breaking box office records overseas-- on May 3. This one marks a huge improvement on the disappointing second, which had to carry water for the upcoming "Avengers," and was, director Jon Favreau has admitted, like "juggling chainsaws." 

The latest installment, directed by ace writer-actioner Shane Black ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang") is so pixel-heavy that it's certainly heading for several tech Oscar nominations, including VFX. Wisely, the well-constructed script gives iron-clad billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) some human-scale time to rely on his wits and abilities as a "mechanic"--most satisfyingly, with a great kid (Ty Simpkins) who helps him out while his beat-up Iron Man suit is recharging--before (SPOILER ALERT) all his obsessive-compulsive tinkering in the form of multiple smart robot Iron Men arrive like "Transformers"-inspired cavalry for the climactic battle.

The script satisfyingly finds time for loyal buds Happy Hogan (Favreau), Stark's overzealous security guard, and Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), love interest Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) and a brainy scientist (Rebecca Hall) as well as terrorist villains Guy Pearce (who is menacing without resorting to the over-the-top pyrotechnics he deployed in "Lawless") and Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, who warns: "You know who I am, but you don't know where I am." (On the negative side, Black and Drew Pearce's terrorism plot veers perilously close to "The Dark Knight" on several fronts.)

Marvel overlord Kevin Feige (who spoke at the EW screening series Capetown) has masterfully managed the fast-moving multiple incarnations of his comics universe, now based at Disney, but 2008's "Iron Man" illustrates why originals are so often more brilliant than their sequels--unless they closely follow existing literary material. "Iron Man 3" was the first time he oversaw a Marvel Studios-controlled third movie, he tells Geoff Boucher.
“Phase One was about convincing moviegoing audiences that this universe is connected,” he explained. “Phase Two, especially at the beginning with 'Iron Man 3,' is to show that they’re just as cool by themselves.

Back in 2011 at another Boucher Q & A, Favreau described the ideal scenario in which he and Downey Jr.--who had to test and fight for the role of Tony Stark that made him a global star--were creatively free, flying by the seat of their pants, dreaming things up, yet still working within the constraints of the Marvel universe. The minute Downey came on board everything changed, said Favreau, his personality informed Tony Stark, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges wanted to play opposite him. On the first, added Downey, "when you have nothing to lose, you sometimes take risks. You might as well really make it trippy."

Favreau believes strongly in hanging on to a real-world grounding, mixing CG with practical effects, and telling his story from the point-of-view of his protagonists. "You have to use CGI to augment reality," he said, "and not drift to fantasyland...the minute it becomes spectacle it's no longer a subjective experience." Favreau liked starting off the movie with Stark in deep trouble, because it builds good will for the character.

There was no down time at all between the first and the second "Iron Man," which had to follow all the crazy stuff they invented in the first one. It was harder to ground the second film in reality, said Favreau: "When it's not real, you're juggling chainsaws." They could no longer do whatever they wanted on "Iron Man 2," including two irreverent openings, one written but rejected and one filmed, because "now we had something to protect," for Marvel and the studio, and had to fit in superhuman The Hulk and SHIELD elements to advance Joss Whedon's upcoming "The Avengers."

See review sampling and trailer below.