Photo by Zade Rosenthal - © 2012 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2012 Marvel

Sequels are a tricky business. I thought Iron Man 2 squandered much of the good will the original 2008 film, and its oddly inspired casting of Robert Downey, Jr., engendered. His performance as the impudent industrialist Tony Stark crossed a line from snarky to simply cocky, and the actor seemed to be coasting on autopilot. Fortunately, Downey and his collaborators have made a significant course-correction for Iron Man 3, a much more satisfying and enjoyable picture.

Stark is appealingly vulnerable this time around, in more ways than one. At key moments in the narrative, his Iron Man suit doesn’t function properly and his all-purpose A.I. helper Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) can’t help him solve crises in a nanosecond. What’s more, Stark is now in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), so he has more than his own life to protect. When a megalomaniac called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) starts making threats, Stark isn’t able to respond as a literal man of steel—even though he tries.

I don’t want to give away more than I should—plenty of other people seem to be doing that—but other characters, well played by Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall, also figure in the unfolding storyline.

Director Shane Black (who wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce) maintains a lively pace, and balances superior action and visual-effects set-pieces with passages that depend on the acting chops of its talented cast, including the ever-reliable Don Cheadle as Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes.

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Photo © Marvel Studios

I must admit that I found some early scenes involving terrorism to be disconcerting, given recent events. I suppose even comic-book escapism can’t shut out the real-world fears that affect us all, even children. If only the real world could put a comic spin on the matter as Iron Man 3 manages to do…but then, that’s why comic books (and the movies they inspire) attract such a huge audience. We all need a little wish-fulfillment in our lives, now more than ever.