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The blockbuster "Iron Man 3" shows that it's not the hardware that matters in a giant summer action movie, but the software.

The software deployed here is the brainpower of director/co-screenwriter Shane Black and the on-screen charms of star Robert Downey Jr. They collaborate smartly to flesh out the character of Tony Stark, the billionaire inventor and industrialist who created and wears the Iron Man suit.

Stark isn't the same irresponsible playboy he was when the first "Iron Man" rolled off the Hollywood assembly line in 2008. He's in a committed relationship with his former gal Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He's upgraded the Iron Man suit so that its parts will fly to him and assemble around him. And he's tormented by memories of New York and the glimpse into the cosmos he got fighting extraterrestrial baddies in last year's "The Avengers."

So when a mysterious terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) starts broadcasting dire threats and setting off explosions — including one that badly injures Stark Industries' security chief and Stark's former chauffeur, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) — Stark makes it a personal mission to go after the guy.

But, as third chapters in superhero franchises often do (think back to "The Dark Knight Rises," "Superman 3" and "Batman Forever"), "Iron Man 3" also is about what happens when our hero battles inner demons and explores the very nature of being a superhero. Figures from Tony's past — notably the ambitious scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and a comely plant geneticist, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) — pop up unexpectedly, and as they do, Stark's whole world flies apart. Left for dead with a busted suit, Stark must regroup and rebuild, with assistance from a plucky kid, Harley (Ty Simpkins).

Black is a bit green as a director to take on such a huge franchise, having directed only one move before. That movie, though, was "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," a sharp and clever crime thriller that employed Downey's snarky nonchalance brilliantly. Here, Black (who also wrote "Lethal Weapon") and co-writer Drew Pearce give Downey some juicy one-liners and plenty of room for sarcastic asides. The script also gets good mileage out of Stark's friendship with Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), whose "War Machine" suit has been renamed "Iron Patriot," and by providing one clever plot twist midway through.

In the film's second half, the hardware takes over, in the form of the usual special-effects spectacle required in a summer blockbuster. The action sequences are technically flawless, and sometimes quite clever — such as when Stark fights armed guards with only a few pieces of the Iron Man suit. But the way Black surrenders the movie's edginess to the generic onslaught of flashy visuals is a mild disappointment. "Iron Man 3" delivers the expected thrills, more than "Iron Man 2" did, but falls short of any real surprise.

Twitter: @moviecricket


'Iron Man 3'

Tony Stark fights a terrorist, as well as his personal problems, in this sturdy installment of the franchise.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens today.

Rating • PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content.

Running time • 130 minutes.

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