iron-man-3What happened next to billionaire Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, after facing an alien wormhole over Manhattan in last summer’s hit The Avengers? Writer-director Shane Black (of Lethal Weapon fame) with screenwriter Drew Pearce co-pens the answer in the latest of the Iron Man franchise, a sequel to The Avengers, showing Stark as more vulnerable and likeable than ever before.

Ignore the idea of this film being in 3D as somehow adding anything additional for your admission fee to the fore – it doesn’t. Merely take it at face value as a highly enjoyable character exploration of one of Marvel’s best loved superheroes with a lot more eccentricity, bags of humour and a hint of Warren Ellis’ famous Extremis comic book mini-series thrown in.

After facing the alien invasion with his fellow Avengers, Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is back to his confident and arrogant self, only cracks are beginning to appear in his cool façade. Not only has the man who has everything started to suffer from panic attacks in public, but he’s also screwing up in his work, research and his love life, leaving despairing partner Miss Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) looking after business and pleasure. When Potts is exposed to the power of DNA-altering science from new villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), while a global terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) threatens further bombings via chilling TV broadcasts, Stark lays down the metal gauntlet and comes out fighting as Iron Man once more.

The thrill felt in 2008 at the first Iron Man film is back, after the fan-boy centric sequel in 2010 that required previous knowledge of the first as well as details about the comic novel character to fully appreciate its pointers and in-jokes. Admittedly, apart from needing to know the ending of The Avengers film, Black and team have certainly opened up the franchise with this third film, combining big-action moves and sci-fi wizardry by injecting lots of nods to previous big-screen hits, including Lethal Weapon and Terminator. Extremis fans finally get to see the cyborg technology in the making, too.

iron-man-3+1That said this curious mix of action, sci-fi and comedy spoof may not sit particularly comfortably with the Iron Man faithful, flitting between the three at any one moment. However, rather than being distracting, this keeps things stimulating, almost replicating Stark’s own frenetic thought process as he figures out what’s important to him. As expected, Downey Jr embodies the spirited role with relish, never ceasing to delight, though making Stark less of an anomaly and more human and emotionally raw than ever before. This doesn’t mean the priceless one-liners are missing in favour of more cerebral thought – the former come thick and fast at rapid Stark pace. There’s also plenty of high-tech gadgetry in the Stark pad to wonder at.

On the action front, Black fondly replicates his winning Lethal Weapon 2 crime-busting duo, Riggs and Murtaugh, when Stark and James Rhodes – aka War Machine, solidly played by Don Cheadle – pair up for the showdown with the bad guys on a freight ship. This CGI-heavy climax also transforms a lacklustre Potts from Stark’s arm candy into a strong character with potential all of her own.

iron-man-3+2Iron Man 3 benefits the most from some excellent villains in the form of both Killian and the Mandarin, with Pearce coming into his own, and being far more convincing here than in his bizarre dabble at sci-fi enigma in last year’s Prometheus as Weyland. Nevertheless, Iron Man 3 will be remembered for its portrayal of iconic Iron Man nemesis Mandarin as one of the most surprising villains to date. Kingsley is a glorious triumph in this, delivering one of the best gags of the film about our very own Croydon – for once reaching beyond the standard stateside jokes that usually have the rest of us scratching our heads.

Talking of comedy – of which this film is more abundant in than before, stay put until the very end of the credits for one last grin, too. Black nicely gives us lighter and darker moments, all wrapped up in one satisfactory standalone Iron Man story that will endear more to the Marvel magic of this metal-clad crusader, as he openly dissembles the parts that make him, whilst stirring our curiosity about the dawn of a new age of sci-fi terror.