Since it's in the bizarre position of being the third film in one series and the seventh in the larger Marvel Comics movie universe, the average viewer will probably enter Iron Man 3 with at least two questions: With its focus on a solo superhero, can it possibly outdo the over-the-top team geekfest that was Joss Whedon's Avengers? Or will it at least be better than the property-management-obsessed mess that was Iron Man 2? The answers: Of course not, and, oh my God, so much better.

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New Iron Man writer-director Shane Black treats Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark as less of a superhero than a jittery cross between James Bond and Thomas Edison, a wholly American, tech-obsessed adventurer. But he's got a sensitive side: Stark is suffering anxiety attacks after saving the world at the end of The Avengers, and his nervousness manifests as a lack of sleep, a compulsion for building dozens of new suits of armor, and an inability to be close with his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, surprisingly likable). Along the way, he faces off against a menacing terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and a mysterious rash of American soldiers who have somehow been transformed into weapons of mass destruction.

Iron Man 3 is a very funny movie, too, with Downey's gift for can-you-believe-this-shit quips exploited to its utmost. Are there problems? Of course: We never get a good reason why Stark can't call on his Avenger buddies to help him with his troubles, Black's script occasionally glosses over character beats in order to cram the movie into an acceptable two-hour-plus running time, and the 3-D is notably abysmal. But after the wreck that was Iron Man 2 and the operatic insanity of The Avengers, this CGI-festooned summer blockbuster practically feels like an intimate character piece, a showcase for Black's screenwriting talents and Downey's ability to bring life and charm to the comic-bookiest of comic-book characters. recommended