It turn out The Incredible Hulk movies were just a pre-game show, Captain America: The First Avenger was for the “serious” crowd, and Thor? Well, let’s just forget that ever happened, shall we?

Through it all, though, the Iron Man franchise has entertained like nothing else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not counting The Avengers itself, of course– but that’s a little like a greatest hits album; does it really count?). Since the first iteration in 2008, the series has brilliantly mixed comic book action and comic strip humor, and it’s ridden the broad shoulders of Robert Downey Jr. all the way to the bank.

Glorified mechanic Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has a heck of a bank account, and an ego to match. This go-round begins with a flashback to 1999, where we learn how Stark blew off a nerdy, disheveled scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and instead spent the night with scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), unintentionally setting in motion the events that unfold in Iron Man 3.

Fast forward to present day, where we find the world is being terrorized by a maniacal bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kinglsey). Through a series of airwave-jacking messages he promises his attacks will keep escalating, but it’s only when one seriously injures Stark’s buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) that things get personal. Stark, as Iron Man, vows revenge.

Before he can get going, though, The Mandarin destroys Stark’s Malibu compound, forcing Stark to run and regroup, while his now-girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) heads off in the other direction with Hansen, who had come to warn them about the attack.

Killian, we learn, has developed (with Hansen) a technology that helps people recover from disabling injuries. Being the resident bad guy, though, Killian has turned it into a weapon and is working with The Mandarin to use it and wreak all the aforementioned global havoc.

Writer-Director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and first-time feature screenwriter Drew Pearce team up to create arguably one of the best entries in the Marvel movie universe so far. With a script that’s loaded with rock-solid action and gut-busting comedy, it’s as entertaining as anything to hit screens so far this year. And that’s saying something, seeing as Paltrow is featured so heavily.

This is, first and foremost, the Robert Downey Jr. show, though, and had the franchise been trusted to anyone else, it’s highly doubtful it would have been so fun to watch. In the five years since he first took on the role of Stark, Downey Jr. has honed his performance brilliantly. He may have started out as a cocky, brash egoist, but Iron Man 3 proves that he’s developed the character into a multi-dimensional hero– the best thing Marvel has to offer.

The action sequences are incredibly big and loud, the script (including a gargantuan twist with a colossally fun payoff) is first-rate, and the laughs (obviously you know to stick around for a hilarious post-credits scene) come fast and furious.

If The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor were the appetizers, The Avengers was the entree, and Iron Man 3 is a very sweet dessert. And that’s a meal worth sliding up to the table for.

(And you can come back for seconds when Thor: The Dark World hits theaters this fall. Followed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014 and The Avengers 2 a year later.)

4.5/5 stars