'Iron Man 3' a great ride

As resourceful as industrialist-inventor-superhero Tony Stark is, he’s frequently tested to his limits in Iron Man 3. Not just tested, Stark is defeated in a spectacular series of bruising losing battles.

Stark’s gargantuan struggles against a mysterious, overwhelming enemy known as the Mandarin, fly by in a flash of fight and action sequences. It’s difficult to believe that the constantly engaging Iron Man 3 really lasts 2 hours and 14 minutes. But then there’s so much going on, so much frenzied, eye-engaging activity. For anyone looking for a great ride at the movies, the temptation to look at a watch or a cellphone likely will be nil.

Amidst the movie’s frequent action and the Mandarin’s looming threats of doom, the story is lightened by self-effacing slapstick comedy at the flawed hero’s expense. Stark gets banged up a lot.

The quick-pulsed Robert Downey Jr. returns in one of his signature roles, the once self-centered mega-rich industrialist, Stark, a man transformed by hardship into a self-made superhero, Iron Man.

Always an actor with edge, Downey’s Stark is even more edgy than usual in Iron Man 3. Plagued by anxiety attacks, Stark’s periodic bouts with the debilitating condition are not convenient when the Mandarin, a seemingly untraceable Osama bin Laden-style terrorist, is mercilessly exploding bombs on soft civilian targets such as Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theater.

Oscar winner Ben Kingsley co-stars as the Mandarin, a self-righteous, throne-sitting enigma who gains control of satellites to broadcast his terrorist messages.

“Some people see me as a terrorist,” the Mandarin says. “I consider myself a teacher.”

As if Stark doesn’t have enough to worry about from his anxiety attacks and the Mandarin, he and Pepper, both his girlfriend and CEO of Stark Enterprises, have hit a rough patch. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper has had enough of the sleep-deprived Stark and the squadron of Iron Man suits he gives most of his time to.

Iron Man 3 matches pit Stark against a second villain, a former weakling who has discovered a way to upgrade the DNA of human beings. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) has already treated a series of human test subjects with his aptly named product, Extremis. Extreme things, destructive things tend to happen after Extremis is injected into people.

The movie lacks much of a storyline, but the script does throw Stark far out of his Malibu mansion comfort zone. Following a disaster that strikes close to home for him, he’s marooned in a snowy small town in Tennessee. There Stark must work with the locals, including Harley (Ty Simpkins), a fatherless 10-year-old who, like Stark, has a gift for gadgets.

Don Cheadle, another of the returning cast members, easily slips back into the comic spirit of things as Col. James Rhodes, a character who has his own flying superhero suit. The whole film, despite the carnage that the Mandarin so guiltlessly inflicts upon innocents, has a frenetic, animated pace that makes Iron Man 3 more breezy fun than any film centered upon terrorism has a right to be.

Summer doesn’t officially start in the Northern Hemisphere until June 21, but the summer movie season starts Friday, May 3, when Iron Man 3 soars into theaters.