Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) Credit: Zade Rosenthal

In Theaters: Friday, May 3 

Rating: ***/4

Who needs the Hulk, Thor and Captain America anyway? Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man can carry a superhero franchise all by himself AND do it with nimble, appealing ease.

This super-satisfying installment kicks off in the aftermath of The Avengers' climax: Self-assured Tony Stark (Downey) remains unusually rattled, but must gear up for duty when a lunatic terrorist threatens the president. Plus, some biotech maverick (Guy Pearce) is gunning for Tony, blah-blah.

Like most flicks in this genre, the plot is an illogical mishmash leading to a dizzying special effects-palooza. The true strength here is snappy, whip-smart wit. Downey lands every sardonic quip, jamming in references to Downton Abbey and A Christmas Story and, at one point, likening his image on a tattoo to a "Hispanic Scott Baio."

And while Tony's banter with love Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) sparkles, he has more palpable chemistry with a boy who comes to his aid during a crisis. The two even take an action time-out to discuss Tony's need for antianxiety meds! Your move, Thor.