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Superhero movies often display the physical danger through which the title characters put themselves, but none really show the lingering mental and emotional effects of the wars being fought. Iron Man 3, the latest and best installment of Marvel Studios’ most successful individual franchise, explores the traumatic consequences of super-heroics like never before while still delivering the biggest laughs of any Marvel film to date.

Iron Man 3 opens as a clear sequel to The Avengers with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after battling aliens in New York and nearly dying in the process. Superheroes generally limp away from such affairs and move on, but Tony cannot this time. He buries himself in his garage, tinkering away at his newest suit, the Mark XLII, and all those other armored suits shown in the trailers.

Oddly enough, Tony is not actually doing anything constructive with his time, hiding his problems from his love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), until it is already out of control. Pepper, by the way, finally carries herself like a chief executive and an equal partner in a committed relationship. Her newfound professional and personal strength allows Paltrow to deliver her finest performance in the series.

The strain on Tony and Pepper’s relationship is very real, adding yet another consequence to Tony’s life as Iron Man. There is simply no walking away unscathed, as director and co-writer Shane Black puts forth the idea that emotional wounds do not heal as fast as most physical injuries, if at all.

The unique, fresh emphasis on consequences makes the danger more real when a new villain calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) launches devastating surprise attacks on American soil. Kingsley’s presence is undeniable, making good on his character’s threat of, “You’ll never see me coming.” As Tony Stark searches for the Mandarin and the source of his weaponry, a detective story unlike anything seen in the first two films (or a Batman film, for that matter) unfolds.

As the Mandarin attacks his homeland, literally at one point, Tony is somewhat oblivious to the emergence of an unexpected romantic and corporate rival in Aldrich Killian, played in devious, despicable fashion by Guy Pearce. With his eyes cringingly set on Pepper, Killian’s role in the film initially seems like a less comical iteration of Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2. Killian goes far beyond that, however, once he proves his ability actually matches his ambition.

The setup for the film is very heavy, with a tight script that gives the actors so much more to chew on than in previous installments. Robert Downey, Jr. proves Tony Stark’s wit is as sharp and hilarious as ever, especially when he is befriended by an inquisitive young boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). At the same time, Downey is free to explore a much broader range of emotions with the character and the film is the better for it. His anxiety is convincing, but the strongest aspect of Downey’s performance is the more subtle erosion of his character’s well-established bravado from within. This is unquestionably Downey’s best outing, as Tony Stark’s vulnerability makes his heroism far more meaningful.

Shane Black, who helped with a few writing roadblocks in the first two movies, put his fingerprints all over this film with great effect. The humor is sharp and always well timed. The surprises are covered up well and arguably the most shocking in any comic book film. The pacing is always on point with smooth transitions from pulse pounding action to heart wrenching drama. It all builds to a truly spectacular finale that is absolutely thrilling and makes a 3D ticket price worthwhile.

Black and co-writer Drew Pearce showed courage in starting Marvel’s Phase Two with something not seen in the first phase. There is a genuine sense of finality to the story. Iron Man 3 is far more interested in exploring and resolving the issues plaguing its main characters than it is in setting up the rest of Marvel’s upcoming slate.

Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige promised more personal stories in Phase Two. Iron Man 3 upholds that promise. Its relative freedom from future crossover obligations is a key strength of the film, answering the call to go deeper now that the audience is already aware of the series’ coexistence with other franchises. A complete journey through the unique qualities and challenges of each hero will make for a richer, more satisfying experience in each Marvel film going forward.

It certainly worked in Iron Man 3, and that bodes very well for Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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