By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 03, 2013 at 5:05 PM

The first question I had walking out of "The Avengers" last summer was, "How freaking awesome was that?" The second question – a bit more difficult to answer – was, "How is any comic book superhero movie ever going to be able to compete with that?"

After all, "The Avengers" pulled off the impossible, combining several characters, storylines and years of anticipation into a shockingly satisfying summer blockbuster that managed to be just as good as the sum of its costumed parts. Seeing all of our heroes fight and interact together on the big screen turned out to be just as wondrously nerd-gasmic as we hoped. How could audiences go back to watching just another superhero movie?

Pretty easily, as it turns out. "Iron Man 3" may not fly as high as its star-studded combo platter predecessor, but it makes for a great start to the summer, as well as to Marvel Studios’s dorkily named Phase Two.

Robert Downey Jr. returns as metal-encased billionaire playboy Tony Stark, fresh off of his dramatic rescue of New York City in "The Avengers." Though the heroics made for great cinema, he’s still haunted by his near-death experience, tinkering incessantly with his numerous Iron Man suits and suffering from occasional anxiety attacks. His continually evolving humanity – for better or worse – is also fraying his sweetly snippy romance with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Memories of New York aren’t the only demons from Tony’s past making an unwelcome comeback. Aldrich Killian – once an awkward, crippled science nerd teased and taunted by Stark in an amusing ’90s prologue, scored by Eiffel 65’s "Blue" (Da Ba Dee)" – returns in the form of the handsome, slick-haired Guy Pearce, flaunting a new regenerative treatment called Extremis.

Meanwhile, a terrorist of by the name of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, half hilarious and half terrifying) is hijacking television signals for public executions and initiating suicide bombings across the U.S. leaving a frustrating lack of evidence for investigators – or Iron Man – to go on.

When another bombing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre hospitalizes Tony’s bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who also directed the first two installments), Tony makes revenge on the Mandarin personal and blurts out his home address on TV. I didn’t think Tony’s swanky ocean-side pad was exactly a secret – what with it being a massive modern mansion – but his public declaration of revenge does bring the Mandarin knocking with a couple of helicopters and missile strikes.

Pepper gets kidnapped (she’s no damsel in distress, though), and Tony ends up in Tennessee, rebuilding his broken suit and investigating a mysterious Mandarin-esque bombing in town with the help of a chipper 10-year-old local (Ty Simpkins, a.k.a. the creepy unconscious kid from "Insidious").

Downey Jr. and the sharp dialogue were always the real stars of the series, and new writer-director Shane Black continues that tradition. Black’s signature whip-snap smart banter (minus the profanity in this case), which helped make "Lethal Weapon" a late ’80s hit and resurrect Downey Jr.’s career back in 2005 with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," is on clear display.

Stark dishes out witty barbs (he tells one precocious youngster that he was great in "A Christmas Story" and pesters another for food) like most people use oxygen, and his friends return the favor with equally hilarious aplomb. There’s even a few cute auteur touches (it strangely takes place at Christmas because when else would a Shane Black film take place?) for amusement’s sake.

When the film does get around to the requisite blowing stuff up, Black is a solid upgrade from Favreau, who never seemed to get a hold of the pace and rhythm of an action scene. Black isn’t a brilliant action director – he films too close for my taste, and the climactic final battle has a bit too much flying around for its own good – but he’s got great energy, and he delivers the satisfying set pieces the series has lacked.

The attack on the Stark mansion and a mid-air airplane rescue are wildly impressive and intense summer spectacle moments.

Despite the improved action, there’s not as much Iron Man in "Iron Man 3" than one might expect. The script’s focus is more on the man when he’s outside the suit rather than inside it.

It’s not quite as dark and probing as it thinks it is but it’s still a surprisingly intense and emotionally potent superhero story about inner demons and not just Tony’s. It’s fitting the weapons of choice for our Al Qaeda-esque villain – who isn’t as much of a foreign threat as expected – are spontaneously combusting U.S. war veterans.

No worries though. Though "Iron Man 3" has no problem subtly nodding at America’s inner demons along the way, it is undoubtedly summer escapism. Black’s film just has a greater emphasis on its character than expected from a summer blockbuster – maybe even more than it can handle.

The movie’s uneven pacing sometimes struggles to give all of its characters their due. Paltrow disappears for large periods of time. They give her more to do, but at the same time she seems less necessary. Don Cheadle barely gets to leave a mark (besides on a triumphant Superman punch) as Stark’s sidekick Iron Patriot, and series newcomer Rebecca Hall is a welcome addition but underdeveloped. Add two villains, and the story strains to fit them all.

Amongst all those parts, however, is the franchise’s glowing, blue core: Tony Stark. With him on board and Black at the helm, even with the story and pace issues, "Iron Man 3" is the best, most complete and entertaining entry in the series. It’s everything great about the first two (well … the first one) with everything bad mostly improved. It seems that even without the rest of his superhero brethren, Iron Man still soars pretty high. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.