‘Iron Man 3’ good start – and ending

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I thoroughly enjoyed “Iron Man 3,” although I’m not sure it tops the 2008 original, as some reviews have suggested, and it definitely doesn’t displace “The Avengers” as my favorite Marvel movie.

But “Iron Man 3” manages to do what might have been impossible: Follow a blockbuster, multi-superhero movie with a story that’s smaller in scale and personal for its protagonists. But still loaded with action and humor.

Spoilers ahead, but I’ll warn you when we get to them.

As anyone bothering to read this knows, “Iron Man 3” finds Tony Stark suffering from PTSD after the events of “The Avengers.” Even as he is paralyzed by anxiety attacks, Stark tinkers with a new type of armor and confronts a new enemy, a TV-savvy terrorist known as the Mandarin.

Along the way, we find out about some of the people that pre-Iron Man Tony Stark met and abandoned along the way, as Stark finds that his past can come back to confront him as surely as an invading alien army.

Maybe there was a little too much effort to make “Iron Man 3” a stand-alone. There was a mention of SHIELD and, yes, I enjoyed the references to the events of “The Avengers.” But I think I wished for a little more Marvel movie universe continuity. The post-credits stinger was a pleasant exception, however, to the lack of shared Marvel movie goodness. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Some fans have expressed surprise at the way the movie depicts Mandarin, Iron Man’s best-known enemy from the comics, here played by Ben Kingsley. I don’t have any qualms about the turns of the plot. The comics were the comics and the movie is the movie.

In addition to the new players, Tony’s supporting characters are all here and, for the most part, get good roles. Don Cheadle, who joined the series in “Iron Man 2” as Tony’s longtime friend James Rhodes – known as the armored hero War Machine – has what’s probably the meatiest role. Co-writer/director Shane Black – who wrote the classic action movie “Lethal Weapon,” turns a couple of sequences into a “buddy cop” movie, notably later sequences with Tony and Rhodey out of armor but still taking on the bad guys.

And there’s a lengthy and greatly enjoyable sequence in the middle of the movie when Tony teams up with a youngster played to great effect by young actor Ty Simpkins. Tony’s caustic treatment of the boy more than offsets any hint of treacle.

Random observations:

The movie did fool me (spoiler here) about the fate of Pepper Potts. For a little while.

The end credits, with scenes from all three movies set to a hard-driving tune, seem like the credits for some forgotten 70s “Iron Man” TV show.

And here’s the end-credits spoiler if you haven’t seen the movie yet: Mark Ruffalo does indeed show up as Bruce Banner. It turns out that Tony’s recounting of events that frames the movie is for the benefit of Bruce Banner. The comrades-in-science left together at the end of last year’s “The Avengers” and fans have been wanting more of the pairing. As post-credits stingers go, it was the rare instance that didn’t advance the story toward the next Marvel movie but established, like Marvel Comics always did, that this is a shared Marvel universe.

Related observation: For a comic book fan all grown up, seeing trailers for movies featuring Thor, Wolverine and Superman before an Iron Man movie is more than a little mind-boggling.

In some ways, “Iron Man 3” feels like the finale of the series. It is, in reality, the first movie in Marvel’s planned Phase 2, a series that culminates in the “Avengers” sequel in 2015. There’s a sense of finality about the movie however. If this was the last “Iron Man” movie or the last featuring Downey, it wouldn’t be a bad exit.

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