After a major stumble with Iron Man 2 and an enjoyable resurgence in The Avengers, the Iron Man brand is fully back on track with director Shane Black’s zippy, witty Iron Man 3.
And yes, I chose the easiest possible title for this blog post.
(No spoilers until the end of the post, and they’re clearly marked.)
The original Iron Man is among the best superhero movies I’ve ever seen: fun and exciting in all the ways that an action movie should be, but also surprisingly astute in its portrayal of the complex hero Tony Stark. With a rich, energetic performance from Robert Downey, Jr. (one of the best couplings of star and character to come along in recent years), that movie was a gem all the way through. It was also an enormous commercial success, raking in nearly $600 million worldwide.
Unfortunately, the sequel squandered a great deal of its predecessor’s strengths. In attempting to juggle several new villains, played by Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell; the introduction of War Machine and franchise newcomer Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard from the original; several token appearances from the Black Widow and Nick Fury; and Tony’s budding romance with Pepper Potts, director Jon Favreau and his writers bit off far more than they could chew. If memory serves, the movie was intermittently fun but bloated and disappointingly generic. Even Downey seemed worn down by the chaos.
Iron Man 3, armed with a new director in Shane Black and new co-writers in Black and Drew Pearce, represents a far more successful expansion of the Iron Man universe, and it also manages to juggle the events of The Avengers effectively and unobtrusively. Tony’s traumatizing experience in New York City reverberates throughout the movie with poorly timed panic attacks, and there’s a sly reference to that guy with a hammer. For the most part, though, this story is about Tony Stark, who continues to grapple with his role as a public hero and technological pioneer. In some ways, Tony’s biggest superpower is his huge ego: it keeps him confident and refreshingly free of the depressing guilt and angst that have plagued threequels like Spider-Man 3. He spends Iron Man 3 contemplating Iron Man’s role in the superhero universe, even as the villains do everything they can to keep him active.
Downey banters well with everyone in this movie, from the unfairly maligned Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s supportive but frustrated lover Pepper Potts, to the deceptive villain the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, unexpectedly hilarious) and even a little kid who helps Tony in a time of need. And the banter itself is evidently one of Black’s strengths; he never lets the action and high stakes overwhelm the conversations.
(My favorite line: “I loved you in A Christmas Story, kid.” Runner-up: “It’s Christmas. Take ’em to church.”)
I also enjoyed that the Iron Man suit itself is a character in these movies, and it’s constantly changing, as quickly as Tony Stark can invent new versions (Marks). These new designs differentiate the battles in this movie from those in the earlier movies. Otherwise, it’d be a bunch of robots fighting each other over and over again, and if I wanted that, I’d go watch “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” again. (On second thought…no, I wouldn’t.)
It seems strange to compliment this movie for its good performances when Iron Man 2 boasted Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell, for heaven’s sake. At the same time, though, Black has the good sense to let the performances shape the characters, rather than simply letting our goodwill for the actors suffice. James Badge Dale is a particular discovery here, both intense and amusingly casual. (He was also great on the short-lived AMC drama Rubicon and in a single scene as a world-weary cancer patient in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight.) Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall also fit nicely in this world, and it’s exciting to see this series finally tap into Don Cheadle’s excellence for more than a few brief scenes of Tony and Rhodes squabbling. (More on Ben Kingsley in the spoiler section.)
Iron Man 3 is the ideal summer popcorn movie, one that puts characters, dialogue and story on an equivalent plane with action and spectacle. Despite a few minor flaws in logic and a slightly protracted climactic action sequence, Iron Man 3 works.
As mentioned above, Iron Man 3 presents a compelling argument for refreshing the talent behind the camera for each new sequel in a franchise like this one. In the same way that comics frequently change writers to reflect new sensibilities with existing characters, the best franchise newcomers simultaneously capture the qualities that made the first movie worth watching and bring their own visions to complicate the mix. Here are some other notable examples of a new director enlivening an existing franchise:
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: After two competent but predictable Harry Potter adaptations, Alfonso Cuaron dared to take creative liberties with the source material and imbue the series with a darker and more mature visual palette. These changes and Cuaron’s sure storytelling hand made for the most distinctive Harry Potter film of the eight.
The Mission Impossible series: Though these movie can be broadly categorized as “implausible showcases for Tom Cruise’s recklessness and bravado,” each director has brought a different energy to his installment, justifying each subsequent sequel despite the stories’ utter disposability. I particularly enjoyed Brad Bird’s insanely clever “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” which overcame a ridiculous title and introduced the series’ best ensemble (Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner).
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: Mock me all you want, but this third movie in the insipid Twilight series was the first to openly poke fun at itself, and the only one to include memorable imagery. Slade could only do so much with the tired melodrama in the central love triangle, but he deserves credit for making an involving film despite the story’s inherent limitations.
Upcoming examples: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Frances Lawrence replaces Gary Ross), Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor replaces Kenneth Branagh), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo replace Joe Johnston)
For the most part, the director is not wedded to the franchise even if he had a hand in creating. While there are certainly examples in which replacing a director for a sequel has backfired (Brett Ratner for Bryan Singer in X-Men springs to mind), I’m generally not bothered when a new director tries his hand at an existing franchise. After all, many franchises start to blend together after a while. Why not at least try to distinguish between them?
I liked the controversial Mandarin twist. It turns out that Ben Kingsley is actually playing an actor named Trevor Slattery, hired by Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian to play the part of the Mandarin for audiences around the world as a diversion from the real threat. The movie effectively avoids telegraphing this twist, but it provides enough subtle hints that the twist is both jolting and plausible. The movie risked coming across as too clever by half with this reversal, but I was impressed by the effort.
The twist is also a conversation starter. I detected an underlying commentary on audiences’ expecations for superhero villains. After all, Kingsley’s performance is the most overtly threatening for the movie’s first two-thirds. The pre-release speculation revolved around Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin, so it was interesting to see the movie play with our expectations. Is this twist also a commentary on race? After all, Kingsley’s “Mandarin” bears a superficial resemblance to Osama Bin Laden – perhaps Black and Pearce are calling attention to our tendency to assume that evil has a particular appearance.
Or maybe they just thought it was funny! Either way, any risk-taking in a summer blockbuster is fine by me. In fact, I encourage it.