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Under the armor, Iron Man is just a man

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in a scene from Marvel's "Iron Man 3." (Credit: AP)

Just because he's a superhero, it doesn't mean he's superhuman. And so, after nearly losing his life during the alien invasion in last year's Marvel Comics movie "The Avengers," it's not surprising that in "Iron Man 3," Tony Stark suffers from PTSD: Post-Traumatic Superhero Disorder.

It's a logical culmination for the character's fourth film outing, opening Friday. Unlike Spider-Man or the X-Men, Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., has no superpowers -- he's a glorified Wright Brother who simply took airplane technology to the next level with a flying suit. But meeting first-contact aliens? Fighting them alongside a cryogenically preserved super-soldier, a mythological being and the Hulk? That's enough to fry anyone's transistors.

Director and co-writer Shane Black says Marvel Studios wanted this third "Iron Man" film to be "about the next step in Tony Stark's evolution -- what his life would be" after those earthshaking events. "In the third movie in any kind of a sequel franchise, you've got to go back to the character," he told overseas media in a news conference. "What is the next step in his psychology?"

"I did notice that the character was not in his suit as much," says Larry Lieber, who co-created Iron Man in 1963 as the scripter to his brother Stan Lee's plot, "and I thought that was good. thought maybe it was dull, him always in the suit -- let's make him more human. 'Ohmigod, he's without the suit! What's going to happen?!' That held my interest," he says by phone from his Manhattan home. "These movies, they have to evolve."

As does Stark, as he fights through sleepless nights and panic attacks that alarm his girlfriend, Virginia "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his best bud, U.S. Air Force Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Fueled by restlessness, Stark has created an array of new armors -- yet ironically finds himself armorless and counting on his wits alone after a devastating attack by a terrorist whose public face is called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

"When we started developing 'Iron Man 3,' we knew that it would be coming out a year after 'The Avengers,' " producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige says in a video interview conducted and supplied by distributor Walt Disney Pictures. "And while 'The Avengers' hadn't come out yet -- we hadn't even finished it yet -- what was important to us was that ["Iron Man 3"] worked on two levels: as a capper to an 'Iron Man' trilogy, but also as a direct follow-up to 'The Avengers.' " Black and co-writer Drew Pearce, Feige says, "let the massive repercussions of 'The Avengers' reverberate."

"Tony becomes overwhelmed," co-star Cheadle told Newsday by phone. "Like, wouldn't you be? He has to learn who he is" in this new, changed, superpowered world that "The Avengers" introduced.

And he'd better: Joss Whedon has already finished a draft of "The Avengers 2," due for release in 2015.

 

THE REVIEWS

In his 2 1/2-star review, Rafer Guzmán wrote that "Iron Man 3" has "just enough energy and imagination to keep it from feeling overly slick and easy." (Read the whole review at newsday.com/movies).

Here's what four other critics had to say:

* "Last year's 'Avengers' delivered the bombastic goods more efficiently than this year's Marvel." -- Chicago Tribune

* "The third 'Iron Man' movie is the jokiest and cutest of them all." -- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

* "The movie proves that there's still intelligent life on Planet Marvel." -- Time magazine

* "The heavy metal action could never sink the irrepressible Robert Downey Jr., but it weighs down the otherwise light joy of 'Iron Man 3.' " -- Associated Press

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