It's 'deja-view' all over again. Just like last May, it's Marvel that kicks off the popcorn movie season with a superhero franchise. And if the global box office is any indicator, the new "Iron Man 3" (already nearing a quarter-mill gross worldwide) might just topple some of the billion-dollar box-office marks set by last summer's "The Avengers."
The foremost question, though, is of quality: Whether the third time's a charm for Iron Man -- even if Robert Downey Jr.'s titular hero is always charming.
As the film arrives in theaters Friday, here's a breakdown of "IM3" from a fanboy's perspective. Here are six questions that many fans have posed for months -- offering (mostly spoiler-free) answers. As in:
1. After "Iron Man" 1 and 2, "The Avengers" and now "Iron Man 3," do we suffer from any Iron fatigue in "IM3"?
Not at all. Downey Jr.'s third go-round reminds us: Few lead actors in superhero movies can pull off the illusion of a character leaping to life out of a comic-book panel quite like Downey as Marvel's billionaire playboy. And if you care about the hero when he's out of the suit just as much as when he's in it, you've probably got a winner. In "IM3," Downey again excels when both armored and vulnerable.
Tony Stark is at a mental crossroads: He's still dealing with the events following "The Avengers" and it's taking a toll. Watching Downey fight his way back into shape, temporarily without the help of the Iron Man armor, is a treat to see.
2. Is 'Iron Man 3' better than 'Iron Man 2'?
"IM3" is leaps and bounds better than "IM2" -- which was somewhat of a letdown after Jon Favreau's great franchise launch.
3. How does the Marvel Studios version of the Iron Patriot hold up?
Anyone who reads the comics knows that the Iron Patriot is not James "Rhodey" Rhodes (aka War Machine), but in fact, Norman Osborn -- aka the Green Goblin of Spider-Man fame. But with Sony still owning the rights to all things Spidey-film related, we get Rhodey in the red, white and blue Iron Patriot armor.
"IM3" does a decent job of explaining why Rhodey decides to change his name and get a new paint job, but deep down, he's still the same ol' War Machine -- and that's a good thing. Don Cheadle gets a lot more action as Rhodey here, and just like Tony, proves his worth both when donning the armor and doffing it.
4. The Mandarin. Extremis. How are the baddies here?
The Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley gives a brilliant performance as the Mandarin -- among the most memorable of the Marvel movie villains. When the Mandarin says, "You'll never see me coming," you believe him. And as for Extremis: One of Iron Man's more popular comic-book storylines looks great on film.
5. How is Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) this time -- and how is Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau)?
The uber-toned Pepper is so winning here, she should be an honorary member of the Avengers. Now, she's no damsel in distress.
And Favreau is no longer directing the Iron Man franchise, but he does resume his role as bodyguard Happy Hogan; his interactions are as funny as before. And speaking of Favreau's not directing.
6. How does Shane Black do in the director's chair?
We may never know why Favreau really didn't direct "IM3." (Franchise fatigue? Money? A burgeoning Marvel universe?) Whatever the reason, Favreau is owed a lot in terms of helping to build the Marvel movie brand, as well as the character's template. So how does Shane Black's film perform in Favreau's shadow? Well, it more than holds its own -- and could be considered the best of the three. It's possible we may only see Iron Man on the big screen again in future Avengers movies.
Yet if "Iron Man 4" ever is greenlit, Black has certainly earned another go at ol' Shellhead.