Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) may have been born with a few silver spoons in his mouth, but as of late, the guy has had a rough time. After being held captive in an Afghan cave, he created his Iron Man alter ego only to almost die at the hands of his mentor, face a vengeful psychopath with electrified whips, and defend New York City against an alien invasion. To top it all off, he ended last summer’s Marvel’s The Avengers by selflessly propelling himself into a massive wormhole to the other side of the universe, only to plummet unconsciously back to Earth. Needless to say, the guy is due for a mental breakdown in 3, 2, 1…

This brings us to Iron Man 3, a brilliantly conceived and expertly executed thrill ride that shows off a newly introspective Stark, one who must battle the inner demons chipping away at his psyche and a new arch-nemesis nipping at his heels. If 2008’s original Iron Man was about introducing us to the selfish Stark, then Iron Man 3 showcases his mature struggle to keep from crumbling under the duty and responsibility that now rests on his superhero shoulders.

At the beginning of Iron Man 3, we find an insomnia-stricken Stark spending his days and nights tinkering with different versions of his iron suit, the latest of which he can remotely call upon to assemble on his body (an invention that conveniently comes in handy more than a few times). He finds comfort and protection (both physical and emotional) in his army of suits, much to the chagrin of his now live-in girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

The illusion of Stark’s grandeur is shattered, however, when an ominous terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and his suave sidekick (Guy Pearce) set their sights on, you guessed it, world domination. The strategy of choice: a procedure that can regrow limbs for those permanently disabled. Only thing is the patients tend to end up as raging super soldiers with the ability to muster fire at will and, in some cases, breath it. As their maniacal leader, The Mandarin can only be described as an Osama Bin Laden-style terrorist with an unnervingly low voice that could rival Nixon. His brand of terror plays on that “I’m everywhere and nowhere at the same time” kind of fear that leaves citizens dead-bolted in their homes. But, as we learn, there is more to the puzzle that is the Mandarin.

Finding satisfaction in a threequel, let alone one this dark and unflinching, is rarely as easy as it is in Iron Man 3, thanks, in large part, to Downey’s seemingly effortless return as Stark. Sure, the lightning-fast sarcasm, boyish charm and methodical mind that Downey breathes into Stark are appealing as ever, but the true mark of growth in this franchise comes from witnessing the genius billionaire succumb to the demons he buries so deep. It’s oddly intriguing to watch the never-breaks-a-sweat Stark struggle with crippling anxiety attacks that leave him only a step above crouching in the fetal position. He also must deal with being separated from his protective suits for a good portion of the film. It’s a bold move for a franchise that banks on its lead’s high spirit and exciting gadgets, but the story is better for it. Maturing beyond the crutch of his suits, Stark is brought down to our level. Thanks to this transformation, what once was a character guarded by iron walls and a giant ego is now one layered in relatable humanity.

It’s also director Shane Black’s fresh eyes on the franchise (having gained the reigns from Jon Favreau, who directed the first two installments) that lend a hand to its rejuvenated feel, especially after Iron Man 2 jammed in more plot than it knew what to do with. Having worked with Downey on 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black has a palpable repertoire with his lead, even though one can only assume Downey is pretty self-sufficient at being Stark by now. The action is where Black truly thrives though, skillfully capturing stunning sequences that put to bed any doubt that Iron Man 3 wouldn’t be able to top the epic scale of Marvel’s The Avengers.

By pumping intensity and fatality into every second of action, Black gives Stark’s decisions a do-or-die feel. An utterly breathtaking aerial sequence and an ambitious climax that turns a stockyard into a makeshift jungle gym are just a few instances of the amazingly taut and sharply edited sequences that fill Stark’s redemptive journey. Black even excels at shooting the small-scale action when Stark is separated from his high-tech suits and must resort to his MacGyver-like intellect.

Black does justice to his talented and respected supporting cast waiting in the wings to play off Stark’s massive personality. Paltrow’s role is substantially beefed up this time around, which gives her a chance to get in on the action and show off her durability and washboard abs. Don Cheadle returns as Stark’s pal, Col. James Rhodes, who now sports the Iron Patriot, the government’s own iron suit courtesy of Stark, while Favreau is back as Happy, Stark and Pepper’s hilariously overprotective bodyguard.

Youngster Ty Simpkins plays an inquisitive sidekick of sorts for Stark while he is stranded, sans suit — leading to some hilarious banter and more than a few mini-Tony moments. Almost reverting to a child himself without his suits, Stark initially approaches the kid with a passive-aggressive, crossed-arms pout, but eventually takes a liking to the fatherless kid and lets him in on some buddy cop-esque missions.

As for the nefarious side of the cast, Kingsley and Pearce hold their own while being pawns in Black’s increasingly complex examination of the idea of villainy. The movie spends a great deal of time sorting out what it means to be a villain, thanks to a blindsiding twist that purists may hate but everyone else will love because they don’t know any better, and it’s that good of a surprise.

What is great about Iron Man 3 is that it exists in a post-Avengers, post-alien-invasion world, but never forgets that its hero is a technological genius at heart. Never incorporating the other worlds and species of Stark’s newly expanded universe, Black instead focuses on the human evil and the value of science and technology that Stark knows a thing or two about.

With Downey’s future as Iron Man wrapped up in contract negotiations, many things are unclear about either’s place in Marvel’s future endeavors. However, one thing is for sure: if this was Downey’s swan song as the ironclad superhero, he went out with one hell of a show. Iron Man 3 is a spectacular and satisfyingly self-reflective return to form for the pioneering franchise of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. With more heroes slated to release their sequels in the near future, Downey’s fourth outing as his eccentric alter ego is a wildly entertaining reminder why he deserves a place at the head of the superhero pack.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

Featured image: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in “Iron Man 3.” Photo: © Marvel Studios 2013.

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