Comic-strip superhero movies are not exactly noted for intelligence, wit or humour. Iron Man 3 is the welcome exception.

The big asset of the series has always been Robert Downey Jr as the billionaire playboy, talkaholic and unrepentant sex addict Tony Stark. He is a nerd’s bedsit fantasy, a brilliant scientist and inventor who’s impossibly wealthy and irresistible to women.

The director and co-writer is Shane Black, who — way back in the Nineties — was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood but now ranks as Tinseltown’s most underrated talent.

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Magnetic hero: Robert Downey Jr. as eccentric genius, billionaire, philanthropist Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man

Magnetic hero: Robert Downey Jr. as eccentric genius, billionaire, philanthropist Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man

He’s hardly a household name and seems to have done nothing for the past eight years, so a few reminders of his quality may be necessary.

He burst onto the scene in his early 20s with screenplays for Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, unpretentious buddy movies that skilfully mingled action with laughs.


He followed those up with The Last Boy Scout, another comedy action-thriller which, though underrated by most critics because of violence and foul language, provided Bruce Willis with some sharp one-liners.

Black’s next big movie, Last Action Hero, was too clever for its own good, and suffered from that rarity in Hollywood, a surfeit of ideas. It was obvious that originality and coherence had been sacrificed in pursuit of manufacturing a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A much better effort (and one of my favourite action films of the Nineties) was The Long Kiss Goodnight, which took a preposterous premise — a housewife with amnesia (Geena Davis) who is really an assassin — and turned it into a memorable buddy picture, as a black private eye (Samuel L. Jackson) awakens her to the truth.

Busy gal: Gwyneth Paltrow is 'given something to do' as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3

Busy gal: Gwyneth Paltrow is ‘given something to do’ as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3

Even better was Black’s directing debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), which teamed Robert Downey Jr with Val Kilmer as wise-cracking crime-fighters. It’s a great little movie, cruelly ignored by too many critics on release.

The same effervescent wit and invention are clearly visible in Iron Man 3, which Black has co-written with promising Briton Drew Pearce, who wrote the ITV2 comedy No Heroics, about under-achieving British superheroes. Black and Pearce obviously reckon, as I do, that most movies based on comic strips are too solemn.

In terms of irreverence, Iron Man 3 has more in common with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers Assemble than with the first two movies in the series.

I suspect Black’s previous collaboration with Downey on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may have landed him the gig, and he rewards the star with plenty of funny one-liners, droll acting opportunities and chances to subvert audience expectations.

Classy casting of non-Americans helps. Rebecca Hall adds sincerity as a scientist who was one of Iron Man’s earliest one-night stands.

Guy Pearce is suitably malevolent as a nerd-turned-megalomaniac. Ben Kingsley offers a never-to-be-forgotten caricature of a foreign terrorist.

Black takes delight in knocking down screenwriting cliches, such as the idea that all loners are really looking for surrogate sons.

another hero: Actor Don Cheadle hides behind the armour as Iron Patriot

Another hero: Actor Don Cheadle hides behind the armour as Iron Patriot

He shows us that rarity, an unnamed evil henchman who opts out of the big action piece before it’s too late. ‘Honestly,’ he tells Iron Man, ‘I hate working here — they are so weird!’

Black even gives the normally peripheral Gwyneth Paltrow something to do as Iron Man’s inamorata, Pepper Potts. My favourite moment came after an action set-piece involving Pepper beating the living daylights out of a bad guy.

‘Oh my Gahd!’ she says, with the surprise of a vegetarian discovering the pleasures of steak, ‘that was really violent!’

One aspect that lets it down is the relentless flippancy. This is characteristic of all Shane Black movies, and it tends to become wearisome when it extends, as here, to over two hours. A hundred minutes of it would have been plenty.

The big action set-pieces struck me as more commercially than artistically inspired. Black just isn’t interested in them, and they’re not his strong suit. They feel like sops to the fanboys, and they do go on a bit.

As with most plots to take over the world, the tactics of the bad guys don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Anyone searching for depth of characterisation or a clever take on the modern world will be disappointed — but hey, what do you expect from a superhero movie?

Iron Man 3 is a lot more fun and imaginative than its two predecessors, and at least comparable with The Avengers Assemble, which I liked and was a huge hit.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, and many people — even those under 40 — will find it noisy and meaningless.

But if you have a sense of humour and like this kind of thing anyway, you’re in for a treat.