Iron Man's third outing is something to marvel

After the disappointment that was “Iron Man 2,” a shot in the arm courtesy writer-director Shane Black was just what the Marvel series needed to get back on track, and this third film lives up to the original in its regard for empathetic characters, exciting spectacle and an implicit commentary on worldly affairs. It’s a superhero movie with enough intelligence and personality that it should appeal to plenty outside its intended comic book demographic.

Taking place after the events of “The Avengers,” in which Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) saved the world from a race of inter-dimensional aliens, “Iron Man 3” sees the unlikely hero at the end of his psychological rope, his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) suffering for it. The rise of a media-savvy terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) doesn’t help, and when the latest in a series of deadly bombings affects Iron Man’s inner circle, Tony’s temper – as well as a forgotten moment from his past – nearly gets the best of him and his loved ones.

In the 2008 original, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) turned from his war-profiteering ways when he learned of the corruption he’d been inadvertently funding, and the result was an unexpected call for responsibility in America’s military involvement overseas. The emphasis of “Iron Man 3” moves to corporate responsibility, one of several ways in which the story touches on recent events. Burned-out public squares ravaged by The Mandarin’s attacks can’t help but bring to mind the attacks in Boston, and it’s to the film’s credit that such violence is treated with enough weight that these images don’t smack of exploitation. A twist in the plot speaks volumes to the role media plays in the War on Terror, and how easily that influence can be manipulated.

Ultimately, “Iron Man 3” is less about these heavy subjects than the fall and rise of its hero, who must realize his own capacity for greatness with or without his suit. Shane Black, writer of the first two “Lethal Weapon” films and writer-director of the sleeper hit “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (also starring Mr. Downey), brings a nearly perfect balance of comic timing and acidic snark to the proceedings, an ideal fit with the series’ smart aleck attitude. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that Tony’s panic attacks comes off as a forced plot device, but this is the only weak link in an otherwise accomplished and exciting summer spectacle.

Robert Humanick is a contributing writer for Slant Magazine.