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Tony Sark (Robert Downey Jr.) is challenged like never before in "Iron Man 3." (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

The law of diminishing returns is the bane of Hollywood executives’ existence and often pushes them to stuff sequels to the point of bursting simply because audiences expect the spectacle to get more expansive and grandiose with every film in a franchise. Finding a way to follow up the massively successful “The Avengers” is no easy task for Marvel, and “Iron Man 3” responds by telling a scaled-down, intimate story about a Tony Stark in peril, while still pushing the scope of the franchise to grander heights. 

After his close call with death in “The Avengers,” Tony Stark is a broken man for the first time, wracked with anxiety. His girlfriend and assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is being courted by mysterious scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Even worse, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a ruthless terrorist with an agenda, is wreaking havoc on the nation.

Robert Downey Jr. defines Iron Man, and he’s so comfortable in Tony Stark’s skin at this point that he could effortlessly coast through “Iron Man 3.” In the first two films, Tony Stark was a brash freight train of charisma, barreling through every problem in his path with an offhand barb, a smile, and occasionally his collection of Iron Man suits. But here, Downey Jr. plays Stark with unusual anxiety and fear. “Iron Man 3” gives Downey Jr. heftier dramatic material than he’s been asked to shoulder thus far, and he turns in a series-best performance, bringing Stark’s arc home with grace, humor and the same unflappable confidence that made him so great for the role in the first place.

Shane Black directed Downey Jr. on the criminally underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and it’s a delight to see him working on the massive scope that Marvel can afford. Black is one of the sharpest writers in Hollywood, and “Iron Man 3” has an excellent script that is endlessly witty and clever. By exploring how the presentation of a hero, or villain, can be just as important as his actions, Black incorporates the “Iron Man” iconography in new and surprising ways. Black also stages some grand moments of spectacle, particularly the thrilling destruction of Stark’s mansion.

Unfortunately, Black’s directorial voice occasionally chafes against the guiding hand of the Marvel franchise hive mind, especially in his handling of the film’s multiple villains. Aldrich Killian is a scientist who’s been developing a limb regeneration program, and his Extremis project is an ill-defined utility belt for bad guys, giving villains invincibility, super strength and even the ability to breathe fire. While Marvel’s films have delved into some pretty outlandish concepts, from demigods to alternate dimensions, Black never figures out if he should handle this as science fiction or supernatural fantasy, which results in a sloppily-executed threat for Tony Stark to battle.

Even if the villains don’t necessarily work in concept, one of “Iron Man 3”’s most pleasant surprises is Kingsley’s performance as the terroristic Mandarin. Kingsley is all bluster and threats in his terroristic dispatches, but when he and Stark come face-to-face, Black’s wry sense of humor comes into play in an unexpected but hugely entertaining fashion. James Badge Dale plays one of Killian’s cronies, and he brings a menacing intensity to some of the film’s most harrowing sequences.

Despite moments of charisma and competence, Pearce is a much less effective antagonist. As his character becomes more brazenly evil, Pearce gets increasingly hammy, and by the time “Iron Man 3” arrives at its rousing fireworks show of a finale, he’s swinging for the fences with his delivery of every line, missing more often than he connects. While “Iron Man 3” handles its multitude of villains better than most films, this may be an instance where Black gets a little too clever for his own good, and it’s hard not to wish he had given Kingsley more to do.

Although “Iron Man 3” isn’t Marvel’s best effort, it’s a strong outing and another exciting, hilarious collaboration between Downey Jr. and Black. While the film suffers from the same overstuffed syndrome as many other comic-book sequels, it’s the rare comic book film that’s able to explore new territory for its hero in a roundly compelling, well-acted fashion, making for an impressive start to the summer movie season.

Michael Ian Black's book “You're Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations” is a harshly honest, moving new memoir from the seasoned comedian, actor and writer.

“You're Not Doing It Right” is a collection of short essays based on Black's intensely personal memories of his childhood, marriage and fatherhood. Although Black does sometimes mine these familial experiences for stand-up material, this is the first time he's ever written in such a frank, confessional style — it's more of an emotionally raw memoir that just happens to be incredibly witty than a straight comedy book.

For those not embedded in the comedy-nerd renaissance that pop culture is currently experiencing, Black's face might be most familiar from his creepy, deadpan appearances on various VH1 nostalgia clip shows like “I Love the ’80s.” This over-the-top, faux-serious intensity, apart from becoming the best part of an otherwise hit-or-miss series of wacky, rapid-fire jokes, has become a trademark of Black’s delivery over the course of his career.

However, Black is far more than just a sardonic, blank-face pop culture TV pundit. He's also an entertainment jack-of-all-trades, and as it turns out, an incredibly gifted writer. His ultra-ironic tone has bled over into his writing in “You're Not Doing It Right” with great success. Black's talents lie in the juxtaposition of abrasiveness and poignancy, evident in his recollections of his mother's transition into a lesbian lifestyle following his parents' divorce, the sudden death of his father and his antagonistic marriage to his wife, Martha.

In typical Michael Ian Black style, “You're Not Doing It Right” is refreshingly blunt and caustically self-conscious: the book opens on Black's recent bout of professional ennui, as he proclaims to his wife that he'd like to retire. Black is fearful that he'll end up like FKF (Fat Kevin Federline), with whom he's become obsessed: “a guy who does not know who he is, what he is supposed to be doing or how he wound up in the unexpected circumstances of his own life.”

For a man who went to acting school in New York and once prided himself on his brilliantly arty group of friends, Black is constantly grappling with this bafflement at his own life, especially regarding his eventual metamorphosis into a domestic suburban “every-dad” — except that not many dads are as delightfully sharp, scathing and insightful as him.

Black's repeated expressions of his contempt, boredom and frustration with his wife and young children are actually strangely charming in their honesty. Readers are used to schlocky, super-treacly memoirs glorifying the beauty, wonder and preciousness of marriage and parenthood. Black seems to deliberately subvert this sub-genre by directing his acidic mockery at his family, even while he begrudgingly acknowledges his love for them.

Of course, the near-constant snark Black applies to everyone around him, including his loved ones, make his few lapses into sentimentality all the more affecting. In a particularly moving passage at the very end of the novel, Black even tackles the subject of faith and his marriage to his Catholic wife in a thoughtful and tender way (especially as Black considers himself an atheist): “So yes, I would do it again. I would do it, because as confused as I am about matters of the heart (and pretty much everything else), I do have my small earthly faith in this life I chose, this ‘deja who’ life I sometimes do not recognize as my own.”

Printed on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 as: Comedian's distinct style reflected in memoir