From the earliest days of his appearances in Marvel Comics' 'Tales of Suspense,' Tony Stark has always been modeled after aviator/inventor/industrialist Howard Hughes. With 'Iron Man 3,' Stark assumes a new dimension of Hughes' persona: that of the paranoid shut-in who, in his later years, became notorious for roaming his private floor of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas, freaking out about invisible germs and collecting jars of his own urine. 'Iron Man 3's' Tony Stark, played once again by the inimitable Robert Downey Jr.isn't quite that bad, but he's getting there.

After the events chronicled in 'The Avengers,' where Manhattan was nearly leveled by invading aliens and Tony himself was almost killed, he's become obsessed with upgrading his armor -- leaping all the way from the Mark VII to the Mark 42 in a matter of months. When anyone mentions New York or aliens, Tony gets panic attacks. There's a reason Daredevil, not Iron Man, is the Marvel hero known as "The Man Without Fear." Poor Tony is terrified.

Having proven him practically unkillable in 'The Avengers,' 'Iron Man 3' quickly, brutally brings Tony Stark back down to the land of mere mortals -- which is precisely why the movie is such a satisfying success. Despite Tony's alter ego's title billing, this movie is really 'Tony Stark 3' -- and even amidst some impressive super hero action sequences (and one less impressive but highly combustible finale that might best be described as "Iron Mania"), the focus remains squarely on the dude inside the armor, who is wonderfully fallible. Maybe more than ever.

His problem begin this time around back on New Year's Eve Y2K, when he first meets Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a botanist working on a new self-healing technology called Extremis, and Aldrich Killian, a socially awkward dweeb who wants to recruit Tony for a new think tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics. Tony blows off Killian and beds Maya, then forgets both.

Flash forward to 2013. Tony is Iron Man, but he's maybe 5 months tops from walking around his swagged out Malibu pad and armory in silk pajamas and tissue box shoes. Even with the Mark 42 armor, which responds to his mental commands, he's terrified he won't be able to protect his beloved assistant-turned-Stark-Industries-CEO-turned girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Being a superhero ain't what it used to be; now Iron Man feels like a weight he has to carry instead of a cool gig he can flaunt -- an idea literalized by a scene near the midpoint of the film where a battered Tony hauls his dead, lifeless armor through a snowy field. Meanwhile, Killian returns, looming in the background, ready to sell his refined Extremis technology. And a shadowy terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) keeps sending the civilized world threatening messages, promising to teach everyone watching lessons of the most violent kind.

It's enough to keep a hero awake at night -- no wonder Tony can't sleep. Having already nailed the swaggering, cocksure alpha male in three previous films, Downey Jr. adds a new layer to his Tony Stark -- a warm, neurotic worrywart. Give the guy credit: he may earn somewhere in the high eight figures for these Marvel movies, but Downey doesn't treat 'Iron Man 3' like a paycheck gig. He's totally present in the role, charming, lovable, and surprisingly relatable, and he gives Tony's panic attacks a spooky and believable edge (says the guy who has occasionally suffered from them in his life).

Downey's lively performance is certainly helped by a new presence behind the camera, Shane Black, inheriting the director's chair from Jon Favreau (who still returns as Stark's bodyguard buddy Happy Hogan). Black, who made his directorial debut with Downey in 2005's 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang') and enlivened countless '80s buddy cop movies with his witty screenplays, gives his cast plenty of his trademark, deadpan one-liners, and even supplies (with co-writer Drew Pearce) some genuinely surprisingly plot twists. Black's action directing may not be quite as assured as Favreau's, but with so much of the story focused on Tony and Pepper and Maya and Killian, it hurts the movie less than you might expect.

Some crab apples will complain that 'Iron Man 3' is a comedown from 'The Avengers,' and they'll grouse about the lack of cameos from Tony Stark's other costumed crime-fighting chums. These people are not to be trusted. Too much focus on The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. sank 'Iron Man 2,' turning it into a piece of a larger franchise first and a movie second. By minimizing all of Iron Man's extra-curricular activities, Black keeps the focus squarely on this story and its stakes. It's a smart decision -- even if, yeah, it's kind of hard to figure why Thor or Captain America don't show up during some of the movie's darkest moments.

As is often the case in late model superhero movies, there are a surplus of villains and supporting characters (I haven't even mentioned Don Cheadle as Rhodey, Tony's brother in armors, which should tell you how crucially he figures into the plot). I'm also not entirely sure, after one viewing, whether Killian and The Mandarin's plans make any sense whatsoever -- and even if they do, they're still generic comic book baddies of the kind who plot world domination in the broadest and least interesting terms while trading cliched patter like "You're a maniac!" "No! I'm a visionary!" And as restrained as 'Iron Man 3' feels at times, it's still a gigundo mega-mega-million dollar blockbuster; any sense of small, character drama goes right out the window in a finale that is beyond excessive and chaotic.

Still, 'Iron Man 3' is a vast improvement over 'Iron Man 2' and a worthy, quirky, entertaining follow-up to 'The Avengers.' Even if the climax is overblown, even if the epilogue scenes seem like exactly the sort of franchise-service that doomed 'Iron Man 2,' it's hard to complain too much. It means we'll get to see more of Tony Stark. And what fun it is to spend time with him at the movies, even when he's a nervous wreck. If Howard Hughes were around, I'm sure he'd raise a glass in his honor -- a glass of what, I'd rather not know.


‘Iron Man 3’ opens in theaters on May 3.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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