"Iron Man 3" has one great strength and one liability:
At times the writing is deliciously smart, pulling rabbits out of a cinematic hat with surprising facility; somewhat less often, it doesn't quite connect the dots, leaving us feeling confused or cheated.
This film publicity image released by Disney-Marvel Studios shows Robert Downey Jr., left, as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in a scene from “Iron Man 3.”
Fortunately, there's enough laughter and excitement - along with several nifty twists - to explain the movie's smashing success (second-highest opening weekend ever - $175 million).
Granted, one could wish that truly deserving films like "The Impossible" or "Life of Pi" would sometimes mop up the way "IM3" has; but few viewers will leave this superhero spectacle feeling like they wasted their money.
In the third installment, Robert Downey's Tony Stark, brash and likable as ever, goes up against "the Mandarin," an appallingly cruel terrorist played with delightful bravado by Ben Kingsley.
To make matters more interesting, this maniac has allied himself with another madman (Guy Pearce) who's designed a bold new weapon while working with human DNA.
Chief among "IM3's" assets is a larger part for our hero's girlfriend, played once again by the capable Gwyneth Paltrow. As a nice change of pace, she actually gets out of the house and board room to take a key role in the central plot strand.
And as the movie's ending suggests, Stark finally sees just what it would cost him to lose this woman who remains faithful despite his foibles, flaws and occasional condescension.
Another triumph is the addition of Rebecca Hall, who reprises her success lighting up "The Prestige" and giving "The Town" a surprisingly deep emotional resonance.
Action fans will also relish the slam-bang climax on a massive dockside loading station: lots of acrobatics and explosions, without sacrificing too much in the way of character or intimacy.
Furthermore, the movie has a booming, larger-than-life score; specializing in action films, lesser-known composer Brian Tyler will likely be in high demand after his rousing work in this film.
There's much pleasure too in watching Iron Man team up with a scrappy middle-school boy - and without his famous suit.
Topping it all off is a particularly tasty post-credit scene.
On the downside, "IM3" is hampered by trite dialog in many spots - especially the very end.
And as I already suggested, several plot strands aren't explained too clearly - such as how Stark made the "fix" referred to in his epilogue, and just exactly how the bad guy was finally defeated when so many similar attempts had failed.
Oops - I just gave away the ending.
Well, so what. How many times does a comic-movie superhero fail to emerge victorious, anyway?
I can't think of any. And for that matter, I can't think of many recent ones that failed to rake in a pile of money.
Seems like in these times of fear and uncertainty, something in our collective subconscious needs these guys.
And I say - more power to 'em.