(Note: this review may contain mild spoilers)

The short review: Iron Man 3 isn’t a perfect movie, but it may just be the best Marvel movie yet thanks to its blend of humor, whipsmart dialogue, high octane action, and Shane Black’s slick direction.

The long review: In 2008, Iron Man made waves amongst audiences, not because it was a particularly great movie, but because it was one of, if not the best, translations from comic book to silver screen that they had seen. Thanks in large part to the success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios has grown into a global cinematic juggernaut, creating summer blockbusters left and right and, oh yeah, the third highest grossing movie of all time. The House that Robert Downey Jr. built suffered a bit of a misstep in 2010’s Iron Man 2, a hollow affair that missed the mark and thoroughly wasted Mickey Rourke. Thankfully, the third time is the charm for Tony Stark, thanks in no small part to writer/director Shane Black. Whether this is a Shane Black action-comedy disguised as a Marvel movie or vice versa, the fact remains that Iron Man 3 proves that even after 5 years of the franchise, we aren’t getting too old for this shirt.

Based on Warren Ellis’ fan favorite “Extremis” storyline, Iron Man 3 takes place in the present, but is very much mired in the past. Marvel has carefully laid the groundwork for the Mandarin’s inclusion in Iron Man’s third outing, but even the new characters, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian (founder of a little think tank called  Advanced Idea Mechanics) and Rebecca Hall’s Dr. Maya Hansen have connections to Tony’s past. Stark has always been the kind of hero who is very much in the moment, using his intellect to come up with solutions on the spot; he’s never been much for introspection, a character flaw which comes to bear in Iron Man 3.

After being spurned by Stark at a tech conference in 1999, Killian has developed a system called Extremis, a nanotech serum which rearranges DNA to repair damaged tissue, and which is quickly employed for more sinister purposes. Unfortunately for the test subjects, the reaction is rather unstable, leading some to overheat and explode in what is sure to be an  autocombustophobe’s worst nightmare. Add in a crazed terrorist mastermind with a seeming hard-on for taking down Tony Stark and you’ve got a recipe for disaster (especially if you’re Stark’s Malibu mansion).

In the wake of The Avengers, screenwriters are faced with an inherent problem: how do you reasonably produce a solo hero film without the looming question of “why doesn’t Tony just call his superpowered friends for help?” Shane Black and Drew Pearce neatly circumvent this issue with a simple, smart fix that instantly adds more depth to our put-upon protagonist: Tony is suffering from PTSD from the events that transpired in New York. Prior to The Avengers, Tony was, as far as he knew, the only superpowered kid on the block. The status quo has changed – The Avengers proved that – and now Tony is forced to reconcile his place in the world, his inability to explain the unexplainable (e.g. gods and murderous extraterrestrial armies exist) and the fact that he murdered an entire alien armada with a nuclear weapon. Worst of all, Tony is concerned that he can’t keep the one who matters to him most, Pepper Potts, safe from harm. And if you can’t protect the ones you love, what’s the point of having repulsor beams in the first place?

Iron Man 3 is an action movie, yas, but it forces our charismatic crimefighter to look inward and be more than just the Iron. At the risk of sounding cheesier than a Doritos Locos Taco, he must also figure out what it means to be The Man. Much like DC’s Dark Knight, underneath it all, Tony Stark is just an immensely wealthy man in a cool suit with a lot of toys; he doesn’t possess super strength or a mythic hammer.  At the end of the day, it’s just him and his considerable wits, a fact which Black wisely plays up throughout the film. In fact, the film sees Tony spending more time outside of the suit than inside, a bold choice that pays off by forcing the often egotistical Stark to look inward and find the kind of hero he wants to be. At its heart, Iron Man 3 is a detective story, a fact which can be obscured by some of the more spectacular moments like the incredible final showdown or the much buzzed about  “Barrel of Monkeys” sequence.

Robert Downey Jr. may be the technical star of Iron Man 3, but it is Sir Ben Kingsley, playing a more modernized version of Silver Age supervillain The Mandarin, that steals the show. Cutting an imposing figure, Kingsley’s Mandarin is ethnically ambiguous, a fact which he plays up by appropriating cultural symbols from around the world and twisting them to suit his purposes. Dressed like a Chinese warlord, the Mandarin is a chimera of American fears and our conceptions of terrorism, creating propaganda videos starring himself as the ominous, low-voiced face of anti-Americanism. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he’s the best on-screen Marvel villain yet, which is saying something when you compare him to heavyweights like Loki or The Red Skull.

When his casting was first announced, there was  a bit of controversy surrounding the decision. In the comics, the Mandarin is of half-British, half-Chinese descent, so it isn’t too far outside the realm of possibility that Marvel cast the British/Indian Kingsley to play the role. Allegations of whitewashing aside, it’s easier to chalk it up to artistic license. Hell, John Constantine is supposed to be a blonde British man, but somehow we wound up with Keanu Reeves. Fortunately, viewers will all but forget about said controversy upon seeing Kingsley’s portayal. Despite the complete lack of laser-shooting alien space rings, Kingsley’s Mandarin cuts an imposing figure, creating a pastiche of our collective fears that rings true.

Regardless of your opinion of Paltrow (what’s in the box?!), her on-screen chemistry with RDJ is undeniable and their love story continues to ring true enough to keep the story moving. Cheadle also shines as Col. Rhodes and is utilized much more effectively than in the comparably limp Iron Man 2. At times, it almost feels like a buddy cop movie starring Iron Patriot and Iron Man, which makes sense considering that Black essentially invented the genre. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t devote quite as much effort into fleshing out Killian and his motivations, but given Pearce’s skill at playing misguided billionaires (‘sup, Weyland-Yutani Corp.?), it is an issue that is quickly forgotten.

With back-and-forth banter, over-the-top explosions, mystery aplenty and, yas, a Christmas scene, this is very much a Shane Black film, but one that touches on some surprisingly prescient issues like homegrown terrorism, the sometimes questionable ethics of massive biotech corporations, and environmentalism. One could even make the case that Don Cheadle’s Iron Patriot, wearing the War Machine armor as the U.S. government’s iron-suited enforcer, is the ultimate example of a manned drone. When crises arise, they send in their flying one-man militia to clean out. It is very much a film of the moment in its themes and the issues upon which it touches, but it’s easy to see how it will remain relevant as time passes. At the same time, it’s an over-the-top action movie with explosions aplenty and superpowered slugfests galore, so it’s easy for some of Black’s more salient points to get drowned out by the Dolby Atmos-powered explosions.

At the end of the day, Iron Man 3‘s best moments lie in its dialogue and its quick, rapid fire character interactions, which are consistently laugh out loud funny, but not in an overly hammy way. In particular, Tony Stark’s repartee with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a pint-sized sidekick who he meets along the way, provide for some of the funniest moments in the film. Normally, my eyes start rolling once they try to introduce a boy wonder into the mix, but Black and Pearce don’t pull their punches, especially when it comes to deadbeat dads. That isn’t to say Iron Man 3 is light on action – it’s not – but it’s refreshing to see a superhero story that gives equal weight to eye-popping explosions as well as the characters causing them.

Although it suffers on occasion from dull moments, uneven pacing and thin characterization, Iron Man 3‘s merits vastly outweigh its flaws, making this a true summer blockbuster and a film worth seeing for those who are interested in seeing the man beneath the suit (and the man inside the suit kicking ash and taking names). If this is to be Downey’s last solo outing as Tony Stark, he’s certainly going out with a bang.

What did you think of Iron Man 3? Let us know in the comments below! Stay tuned to  the Nerdist Channel for my behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew on Friday!