Iron Man 3 (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ashley Hamilton, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Stan Lee, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, Dale Dickey, Yvonne Zima, and Ashley Hamilton.
“Third time is the charm,” the old saying goes. In Hollywood, however, the long standing tradition maintains that, where film franchise is concerned, the third time is often a second attempt to get a good film wrong, if not dead. Well, dead if we are lucky. Both of the original Batman and Superman franchises made it past terrible third outings, with fourth films that made us all throw up in our mouths, a little. Lessons were learned, it seems, with third act busts like “Spiderman 3” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” resulting in reboots, and Christopher Nolan refusing to make another fourth Batman film– even though his third was a success. So the question becomes: does the third outing for “Iron Man” warrant a fourth, a reboot, or a graceful exit?
“Iron Man 3” sets itself up as a finale, of sorts, with a somewhat cryptic (if not morbid) voice-over monologue, played over images of the Iron Man gallery being destroyed. This serves as a lead-in to a flash-back scene, that goes to extensive lengths to not just show how indifferent and stand-offish pre-heart damaged Tony Stark was to the people around him, but, more importantly, how clueless he was about the key roles some of them would play in the previous films. This, in turn, allows the audience to make an easy assumption that further acts of flip callousness, by Tony, will lead to very grave consequences in this one; consequences like, say, the Iron Man gallery being destroyed, and Tony Stark being forced into introspective monologue. So, Ghosts of Christmas Past: check, explosively iconoclastic breaks from the present: check, and talk of fresh starts for the future: check; sounds like the makings of a finale. Does it work?
As I see it, any serial/ franchise-worthy story needs to be conceived with an ending in mind (or Joel Schumacher may show up). Showmanship means saving the best for last. It can be argued that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy peaked at “The Dark Knight,” but I say anyone beyond a fanboy hard-on for The Joker (brilliant portrayal aside) knows that Bane is the greater villain. Ras al Ghul is the greatest villain with a satisfactory (if blasphemous) Batman conclusion the result. In the case of “Iron Man 3,” the villain is The Mandarin and he is, historically, Iron Man’s arch nemesis. A good call, so far as big close-outs go, but not a guarantee.
Formula can work for, or against film makers– particularly in the blockbuster business. The villain double-team in “Batman Returns,” a real crowd-pleaser of a novelty at the time, wore out it’s welcome over the course of two more films. Well Iron Man has been following a similar formula, though I’m not sure anyone has noticed. Tony Stark as a protagonist is unique in that his adversaries alternate between super villains and mega corporations, occasionally with joint interests. The first film opened with The Ten Rings militants but closed with the more recognizable Obediah Stane of Stark Enterprises and his Metal Monger. The second Iron Man film brought together Iron Man villain Whiplash and Stark rival Justin Hammer. It only makes sense that for the third Iron Man film, Stark Enterprises’ greatest brain-trust rival (and S.H.I.E.L.D. foil), Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.), shares the stage with Iron Man’s nemesis. This is where my hopes went through the roof… unfortunately.
The Mandarin was the engineer of Iron Man’s comic book origins and there was some disappointment over his absence from the first film. I shared some of that but given The Mandarin’s trademark is a set of ten super-powered rings, I had hoped he was behind the militants– with them bearing his trademark for their organization’s name, and all– and that his coming out for the third film would be to tie all previous events together. Ah, no. A.I.M. takes center stage on this one, with The Mandarin literally playing a supporting role. The plot is drawn primarily from a Warren Ellis Iron Man story called “Extremis,” where militiamen harness superhuman abilities through bio re-engineering; so no rings of power need apply. “The Mandarin reveal,” as it has become known on the forums, left me deeply disappointed at what seemed like a lost opportunity to satisfactorily wrap up a cohesive trilogy.
This is why comic based movies should not be entirely subject to the demands of fans devoted to canon. Being faithful to the original material does not always work on screen (Watchmen) and despite the fact that a) Ras al Ghul minus Lazarus Pit immortality isn’t Ras al Ghul, b) Bane without Venom isn’t Bane, and c) Talia– not Catwoman– is supposed to be the love of Bruce Wayne/ Batman’s life, Nolan pulled off a general crowd-pleaser that die-hard fans have mostly embraced. Go beyond it’s blasphemies and “Iron Man 3” is an effective effort. Not only are all the tried and true elements that kept the franchise alive up to now still evident, they have evolved. War Machine has moved out from Iron Man’s shadow to fill a new role, just silly enough to be entirely plausible. Pepper Potts’ relationship with Tony has gone from handler to partner (in every sense); while Tony has found a new source for his particular brand of prickly wit: PTSD. Tony Stark’s narcissistic snarkiness, masking any number of personal demons, has been every bit the draw as his techno-gasmic alter ego. In the first film, he was driven by guilt; in the second, overburdened by responsibility and legacy; in this film, he suffers from the effects of his near-death experience in The Avengers movie– and this is what ultimately redeems the film.
Even without Jon Favreau at the helm, the cast still did well with what they had to work with (Favreau included) and each other. Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark, he is a joy to watch in any interaction, and risks taking the franchise with him, if/ when he leaves the role. Gwyneth Paltrow balances personal strength with maternal concern well and Don Cheadle makes up for a lack of physical presence (I actually preferred Terrence Howard, in this regard) with acting chops. On the other side of the aisle, Guy Pearce brings a charisma to his character’s hyper-expanded role (virtually a non-entity in the comic, with no connection to A.I.M.) that actually allows him to share scenes with Robert– even if that expansion makes his motives seem that much more shallow. Once we are allowed past his bizarre Walter Cronkite meets Richard Nixon impression, Ben Kingsley delivers (through The Mandarin) some of the film’s genuine laughs (at least to an audience not too pissed over his plot twist).
“Iron Man 3” fails to bring the trilogy home for long-time fans; but it does try to tie things together on it’s own terms. Once again, long forgotten slights and old grievances come back to strike at Tony Stark; only this time, they strike early and hard enough to leave him for dead, his shop of technological wonders destroyed. With his support structure gone (War Machine– now The Iron Patriot– on a wild goose chase and Pepper captured) and no working tech, Tony is forced to survive on intellect alone. Nothing new there but unlike his turn as a prisoner of The Ten Rings, where everything he needed was provided to him, this time he really has next to nothing to work with. He does, however, find a new support figure but in the form of 10 yr old Harley. Too smart and precocious to dismiss but too young to appreciate Tony’s interpersonal style, the boy serves to deny him his last line of defense: his sophisticated wit. Stark makes it far enough to regain both his tech and his supporting players, just in time for the big showdown (with an army of Iron Man suits, to compensate for the film’s humanist turn), but the lesson has been learned.
Given the themes of broken tradition, redemption, renewal, and a new awareness of self and others for Tony Stark, I am prepared to declare “Iron Man 3” a finale (this is how the filmmakers decided to close the overall story). I had mentioned Tony’s PTSD as redeeming for the film. Well, beyond the sheer delight of watching Tony and Harley dance around the subject (it cannot be overstated how humor sets these Marvel joint universe films apart from the very dark tones of DC’s recent direction), the shadow of The Avengers suggests a handing off of Iron Man from stand alone franchise, to an extension of an Avengers franchise. Even the after-credits Easter Egg (that ties into the opening monologue) supports the notion that Iron Man has run it course as a solo act. Not the best ending for a self contained trilogy; but a decent way to end Iron Man as a stand alone entity.
Not as good as the first, better than the last, Iron Man 3 left me optimistic about future projects and with enough suspension of disbelief, is a fun ride.