Robert Downey Jr. portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man in "Iron Man...

Robert Downey Jr. portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man in "Iron Man 3," out in theaters May 3. Credit: Zade Rosenthal

Everyone likes the "Iron Man" movies, right? The metal-clad billionaire-hero, also known as Tony Stark, has become so popular that even the people in his movies treat him like a movie star. "I'm your biggest fan!" some guy gushes, getting a little too close to his idol. One young boy even brings up Iron Man's supergroup, which hit screens last May: "What about The Avengers?" he wants to know.

Call it self-promotion or just realism, but "Iron Man 3," with Robert Downey Jr. reprising the swaggering title role, takes place in a world where superheroes are the new normal. Back in the quaint 1970s, Superman amazed Lois Lane simply by hovering outside her high-rise apartment, but "Iron Man 3" is way beyond such wide-eyed wonder. "Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky," says one villain, "subtlety's kind of had its day."

So what's left in this postmodern Marvel universe? Well, action and comedy still work, and director and co-writer Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon") combines them skillfully in "Iron Man 3." The self-amused winks and nods can be grating, but the movie also has just enough energy and imagination to keep it from feeling overly slick and easy.

Don't worry too much about Iron Man's anxiety attacks (brought on by those "Avengers" memories), the execution videos broadcast by anti-American terrorist The Mandarin (an enjoyable Ben Kingsley) or the gruesome lab experiments of bioengineer Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Iron Man is still the anti-Batman, all zip and zingers. He's also, suddenly, rather family-friendly. Some of the movie's best moments are shared by Stark and latchkey kid Harley (Ty Simpkins), who mock their budding father-son relationship while acting it out.

There are some memorable set pieces, particularly a game of catch-the-passengers (after an airplane goes kablooey) and an acrobatic climax that even pulls in Pepper Potts

(Gwyneth Paltrow, showing off her impressive 40-year-old abs). It's not exactly emotionally involving, but that's never been this franchise's strength. "Iron Man 3" is an effective machine designed solely to entertain.

PLOT The metal-clad hero chases an elusive terrorist mastermind.

RATING PG-13 (bloodless violence)

CAST Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall


BOTTOM LINE The usual winks and snarks from Tony Stark, but this edition feels fresher and funnier, thanks to writer- director Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon"). The post-credits kicker is worth the wait.

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