Since meeting his new superhero chums in Marvel Studio's Avengers Assemble, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) has changed. In fact, everything has changed. All of a sudden, he lives in a universe in which some people have real super-powers (unlike his own, which derive from his mechanical armour). His ego – which, along with his intelligence, had been his defining character trait –has taken a battering.
This is no bad thing. Iron Man 2 was a placeholder of a film, and the character's incessant quipping was losing its charm. But here, the character expends more brainpower staying a step ahead of his foes than he spends on snarky rejoinders. And even his sarcasm has a purpose: it's a defence mechanism, with which to deflect the sentimentality that weighs down so much mainstream Hollywood product.
Here he is befriending a cute fatherless kid, for example: "[It] happens. Fathers leave. No need to be a pussy about it." This re-invigorated writing is the work of Shane Black, whose scripts for slick action films such as Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight made him a major player in early-Nineties Hollywood. He hadn't directed anything on the scale of Iron Man 3 before.
But save for a couple of minor editing glitches, the action is as spectacular and thrilling as anything Marvel has shown us to date. More importantly, it has some weight and consequence. With sequels of this standard, the studio's ongoing project to translate the serial, long-form nature of comics into the cinema suddenly seems possible.