Downey pushes the suit in 'Iron Man 3'
Downey pushes the suit in ‘Iron Man 3’

Superhero movies have become very serious business, not only in the hundreds of millions of dollars that are at stake every time one of these suckers opens but in tone as well.

Now I am certainly not opposed to the genre taking on some weightier issues and I still consider “The Dark Knight” to be the finest superhero movie ever made. But even still, thank goodness we have Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man to lighten things up.

It’s hard to imagine a better marriage of actor and character than Downey as billionaire-industrialist-turned-iron-clad-hero Tony Stark.

How hard of a pitch is this, “Hey, Robert, we want you to deliver rapid-fire dialogue all while being handsome and cocky and we will pay you literally millions of dollars to do it.” That would be like me getting paid to watch football and nap occasionally.

The first “Iron Man” was a great introduction to the character and really set the bar and the mood for Marvel’s ambitious slate of superhero movies to follow.

“Iron Man 2” was fun but forgettable (I think Mickey Rourke might have been there with an electric whip?) and “The Avengers,” while technically not an “Iron Man” movie, still gave Downey enough room to do his thing.

Now we are back with “Iron Man 3,” which is usually about the time a franchise such as this is running on creative fumes.

This time, however, I am happy to report that conventional wisdom fails to be the case. “Iron Man 3” is as strong an entry as we’ve seen across the entire slate of Marvel superhero movies.

While much of the credit for the film’s success has to go to Downey, who is as invested in the character as ever, the series does have a new writer/director, Shane Black, who takes over for Jon Favreau (Don’t feel too bad for the guy, Favreau reprises his role as Stark’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan, and will make millions of dollars as an executive producer of the film.)

Black is best known for writing “Lethal Weapon” and directing Downey in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”

Black does some interesting things here by finding some space to push the character and the conventions of a superhero movie plot into new territory without upsetting the applecart in regards to what has made this a billion-dollar franchise.

Knowing that Downey is a pretty solid actor, Black isn’t afraid to nudge him out of his comfort zone and give Stark some formidable anxiety issues thanks to the events that occurred in “The Avengers” (inter-dimensional alien invasions have a way of unnerving a guy), and forces him to make due for large stretches of the movie without the protection of his trademark iron suit.

Then just to keep things interesting Stark meets his match in intellect and ambition in the form of sinister scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce), and he has to take on a relentless international terrorist, who goes by the name The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley in a truly outstanding performance).

The movie really shines when Stark has a buddy to play off of (which is kind of Black’s wheelhouse), such as fellow iron suit enthusiast Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Haley (Ty Simpkins, who shares the screen with Downey like a pro), an industrious kid who gives Stark a place to stay in a time of need.

The action is top-shelf as you would expect and the stakes always seem high even though there’s some stuff that doesn’t quite work, like Stark’s relationship drama with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the army of self-healing bad guys who can melt metal with a single, fiery touch.

More than anything though, I’ll remember “Iron Man 3” for being witty and flat-out funny. I probably laughed more during this movie than I have at any comedy that’s come out in the past year.

Let the other superheroes fret over the state of civilization, Iron Man just wants you to have fun and from the look of things, there are no signs of rust to slow him down.

“Iron Man 3” is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content.

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