For comic book fans across the globe, the sensation of seeing their heroes assemble onscreen in The Avengers was, to quote Phoebe Buffay, like “being Santa on Prozac at Disneyland getting laid”. Here was a film that nailed everything right – plot, pace, performances, truly epic action set-pieces – and, most importantly, managed to appeal to those outside of the geek community.

Iron Man 3 (2013).

Iron Man 3 (2013).

But how do you follow up the most lucrative superhero film of all time? The most instinctive reaction would be to go bigger and up the ante to vertiginous levels, but thankfully Marvel has not hired Michael Bay to helm Iron Man 3, the first in line for the company’s “Phase 2” of superhero adaptations that will lead to Avengers 2. Instead the gig has gone to Shane Black, most renowned for his screenwriting credentials on action classics like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. An inspired choice, granted, but Hollywood execs would be forgiven for doubting he was the right man for the job, considering the budget and expectations involved.

They needn’t have worried. While Black has delivered in the set-pieces department (more on that later), it’s his work on the script with Drew Pierce that truly benefits IM3 as a whole, as they peel away our protagonist’s cocksure bravado and reveal a very different Tony Stark we are used to. It turns out Tony is struggling with a bad case of PTSD since his team-up with Earth’s mightiest heroes. “Big man in a suit of armor”, asked Captain America defiantly last time round, “take that away, what are you?” It’s a line that haunts Tony, who has become all too aware of his humanity and now spends most of the time holed up in his basement working on new Iron Man designs, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Pepper. So when The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a shadowy figure prone to orchestrating attacks on western civilization, picks Stark as their next target, matters take a turn for the worse.

After the intergalactic melee of The Avengers it is a smart move to go with terrorism as the big bad in IM3, especially as it is a threat that is made very real by the frequent reports broadcast on our news channels.  Factor in the presence of a serum capable of enhancing an individual’s biology with super strength plus accelerated healing (inspired by the popular Warren Ellis’ penned Extremis arc), and you’d half expect Lance Armstrong to show up as one of the henchmen. Even more intriguingly, Black has Stark spending most of the film sans armor and cut off from his technology, the moral being that perhaps he has grown far too reliant on his suits.

But in case you are now thinking the latest installment in the Iron Man franchise is pulling a Nolan with all this angst and gloom rest assured, this is also without doubt the funniest film Marvel has made so far. Virtually every major character gets a funny line in and comedy is found in the most unlikely of places, such as War Machine’s password or the last standing henchman’s reaction to Iron Man in full kick-ass mode. As for the aforementioned action set-pieces, there is some truly inventive stuff on display here, whether it is Tony taking on a room of goons with only a glove and boot from his suit, or a spectacular freefall rescue after some particularly nasty turbulence aboard Air Force One.

It’s not all smooth sailing, mind. The battle between the Extremis-powered soldiers and an army of remote-controlled Iron Man armors is less climactic showdown, more priceless toy merchandising opportunity; Don Cheadle is better served this time as Jim Rhodes, Tony’s straight-talking best pal, but hardly gets to shine when in his Iron Patriot suit; and finally, while the big-screen portrayal of The Mandarin will no doubt amuse the mainstream crowd, it is likely to infuriate avid readers of the comics. One way or another, it will have an impact on you.

But what we should all be wondering right now is whether this will be the last we’ve seen Robert Downey Jr. in what has become his signature role. After all, with Iron Man 3, his four movie deal with Marvel has officially expired… Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it too much, because what matters is RDJ’s accomplishment: he has single-handedly managed to bring to life a character that, prior to 2008, was unheard of outside comic book communities. Now good ol’shell head is Marvel’s most valuable property, second only to Spiderman. “They may take away my armor, but I’ll always be Iron Man” Tony says at some point. And he couldn’t be more right.

Iron Man 3 (2013) directed by Shane Black

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