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Why Iron Man, a playboy with panic attacks, is our best superhero

Four major superheroes have new movies this year. Superman gets a reboot in June's "Man of Steel," the deadly claws of "The Wolverine" spring back out in July, and Thor will swing his hammer in November's "Thor: The Dark World." But the liveliest of the current superhero franchises arrives Friday, as "Iron Man 3" hits theaters.

Paramount Pictures file

Iron Man feels like a more human, relatable superhero than most of his type.

Thanks in no small part to its star, the can't-take-your-eyes-off-him Robert Downey Jr., the "Iron Man" movie series has soared. With Downey in the suit and smart writing and directing behind the scripts, Iron Man/Tony Stark has transformed from his comic-book portrayal as Captain America's billionaire buddy to the most super of superheroes. Here's why.

He's got problems
Superman and Captain America are so goody-two-shoes you could bring them home to mother, even if she's Mother Teresa. Iron Man, like Downey himself, has a bad-boy rep. In his real identity as Tony Stark, he drank too much, he spent too much, he slept with too many women. He's a little more on the straight-and-narrow now, but he still has crippling anxiety attacks that leave him hyperventilating by the side of the road in a most un-heroic fashion. And he's not above dancing like a dork in his super-secret lab.

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Don Cheadle, aka War Machine/Iron Patriot, is Tony Stark's pal. Unlike Robin, he's no fawning sidekick.

He's got the coolest friends
Col. James Rhodes, aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), is a much more entertaining sidekick than Batman's Robin. In his real life, he's a full-on military man, and in his suit, he's just about as tough as Iron Man. But he and Tony have the greatest just-bros relationship outside of Joey and Chandler. ("It's not the '80s, nobody says 'hacks' anymore," Tony chides him in the new film.) And we also love Tony's pal Happy (Jon Favreau), who's head of security for a global corporation but still has no idea how to work an iPad.

He's not ashamed of his suit
Captain America has his super-soldier serum, the Incredible Hulk his dose of gamma radiation. Iron Man is a smart and buff billionaire, but he wouldn't be a superhero without the powerful suit he himself invented. And who cares? Batman's just a regular billionaire too, with a really cool arsenal of Bat-gadgets. Tony's never hidden the fact that he needs his suit -- in fact, he almost revels in it, displaying his different outfits in his mansion and even giving them names.

Sometimes his stuff fails
Does it ever. Like a smartphone, sometimes Iron Man's suit is crying out for a charge at the most inconvenient moments. Other times, Tony tries to call the pieces of the suit to him, and gets smacked in the face for his troubles. In the third film, it even zips to his aid while he's sleeping, which really freaks out Pepper.

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Gwyneth Paltrow is neither a babe nor a wimp as Pepper Potts.

His girlfriend is neither a wimp nor a babe
Whatever you think of World's Most Beautiful Woman Gwyneth Paltrow, she does a decent job as Tony's girlfriend, the goofily named Pepper Potts. She doesn't slink around in gowns cut down to there like a Bond girl, and she doesn't cower in the background and wait to get kidnapped either (although it has happened). She and Tony have an easy rapport and you do believe they care about each other. Tony's lost a lot of things through his own stupid fault, and it's clear he doesn't want Pepper to be one of them.

He's up on pop culture
Tony, and his entire film series, doesn't live in the 1940s, like Captain America, or in some grim and somber Gotham, like Batman. He's a part of our world, with all its bad TV and fast food and cheesy products. He wears a Black Sabbath shirt (in sly tribute to their "Iron Man" song).  He references Barrel of Monkeys during a mid-air rescue. In "Iron Man 3," he finds himself donning a Dora the Explorer watch, and learning that his pal Happy is addicted to "Downton Abbey." Tony lives in Malibu, not Made Up Ville.

He knows how to be rich
Tony Stark is a billionaire, and he knows how to be one. He bought himself a space-age stunner of a mansion on the cliffs of Malibu, and he drives fancy speedsters like the all-electric concept car, the Audi R8. He sweeps in to fancy dinners and balls in a tux and occasionally breaks a paparazzi's camera -- just as we like to think we would do if our bank account were a whole lot fatter.

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