Tony Stark must deal with serious chinks in the armour in Iron Man 3 - and not only of the mechanical kind. After a frivolous second instalment, writer/director Shane Black (replacing Jon Favreau) strips him of his suit and burdens him with panic attacks as a new terrorist threat emerges in the shape of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Essentially, Black is taking the superhero back to zero, but he doesn't pause for too much navel-gazing, instead using those malfunctions to deliver great crash bang fun.
Picking up after The Avengers, Stark is tinkering with Mark 42, a prehensile suit that flies to his body on command, but there are gremlins to wrestle with, as evidenced early on when he's nearly decapitated by the rocketing parts. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't impressed either as better half Pepper Potts, now CEO of Stark Industries - especially when Stark uses one of those suits to fake quality time with her. His technology may have evolved, but emotionally, Stark is regressing.
Years later, they've developed a biotechnology that heals flesh but generates explosive heat and The Mandarin seems to have harnessed this power, the effects of which leave Stark's old pal Happy (Jon Favreau) in a coma.
Stark's next biggest mistake is daring The Mandarin to come get him, brazenly giving out his home address on live television. His cliff-top pad is promptly destroyed in spectacular style, but then life gets a little quieter. He is presumed dead and hides out in a small town to rebuild his suit and try to overcome the post-traumatic stress which is beginning to cripple him. Meanwhile, Don Cheadle is suiting up as Iron Patriot to smoke out The Mandarin, but it's not too long before Iron Man is back in action - albeit sputtering through the skies with faulty hardware.
One of the great surprises of the movie is Kingsley's turn as the Bin Laden-ish bad guy, hamming it up and giving Stark a reality check on who's to blame for all this. Their scenes together are sparky and the film overall is a witty, well-oiled entertainment machine that bears the hallmarks of Black's action movie past - most notably, the Lethal Weapon series and the rat-a-tat humour of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (his 2005 film starring Downey Jr). It is comical and exhilarating, exemplified in a sky jump from Air Force One.
Black's screenplay (co-written with Drew Pearce) captures the zeitgeist, too, in a way that recalls the first movie. It feels geared towards a slightly older, shrewder audience, as opposed to the simple boys-with-toys approach of the last entry. It's also more focused, with Stark recovering his sense of purpose and hurtling towards a grand finale that delivers on the requisite fiery blasts and dizzying stunts. Potts is the guiding light, but she plays a dynamic role in saving Stark from himself. Once again, however, Downey Jr is the lynchpin with an engaging performance that reveals all the soft spots beneath that hard shell.