A Stark contrast: Iron Man 3 – review

Iron Man 3. Image Supplied.
Iron Man 3. Image Supplied.
Iron Man 3. Image Supplied.

Iron Man 3
Dir. Shane Black

In the first film, the hero is born, and battles an enemy who was essential to his creation. In the second film, the hero looks through a mirror darkly and fights twisted reflections of himself, all while his personal life comes crashing down around him. In the third film, the hero falls, hits rock bottom, and drags himself back up again, defeating his greatest enemy: himself.

Sound familiar? It’s Iron Man 3, but it’s also Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises, blockbuster ‘threequels’ who clearly share a dog-eared copy of Joseph Campbell. Here’s the difference, though: Iron Man 3 is good.

Spider-Man 3 was always doomed by studio meddling and leaden, nonsensical dramatic structure, but TDKR and Iron Man 3 are hugely similar – and the latter plays like a direct criticism of the former, a “here’s how it’s done, kid” that slots right into the effervescent swagger of Tony Stark. And Stark is the key: the reason Iron Man 3 works and TDKR doesn’t is that both are films about their leads, and only one of them has an interesting lead. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is not likeable. Full stop. We like Batman but we don’t like Bruce Wayne; hence the superiority of the first Keaton movie, because there was an honest-to-god character there. Iron Man 3‘s answer is simple, and underlies the fundamental difference between two superficially similar genius-billionaire-playboy-superhero franchises: there is no difference between Tony Stark and Iron Man.

The man in the suit. Image supplied.
The man in the suit. Image supplied.

That’s Iron Man 3‘s big secret. Everything else – Ben Kingsley’s wonderful turn as yellow-peril pastiche the Mandarin (which I won’t further spoil), a kid sidekick who completely works, (mostly) entertaining and economical supporting characters, top-notch ultra-kinetic action, the familiar razor-sharp humour, the manly construction montage – is just window-dressing, because the core of the film is Tony Stark, and they get him right. The anxiety-attack subplot isn’t particularly convincing, true, but here’s what matters: TDKR unintentionally separates Bruce Wayne and Batman, thereby compromising the narrative of ‘fallen hero rebuilds himself from the ground up’, but Iron Man 3‘s whole theme is that Stark and Iron Man are one and the same. We never quite buy that TDKR‘s Batman exists without the suit and the car and all those wonderful toys, while Iron Man 3 shows us exactly why Tony Stark is so special when we see just how much he can do without it. The shots of his face inside the helmet serve as a visceral connector between the two identities where Batman’s mask and ridiculous growl divide them; the Batsuit disguises and alters, but the Iron Man suit merely augments what is already there.

And that’s all it needs. The emotional, character-driven engine of the film is there and purring, and even the film’s obvious flaws (jarring wipe transitions, a secondary female character who seems completely irrelevant, a dodgy understanding of mental health) don’t seem to matter that much. Although Iron Man 2 had similar flaws on the surface, its problems ran much deeper, offering us a self-pitying, reactive hero rather than the more driven, proactive Stark we get in 3. The little features are inconsistent, but it’s far better to have a patchwork body with well-oiled innards than a gleaming shell over an unsound core, perhaps the defining visual theme of the film.

Lastly, it does scale right. It’s not simple empty scale; it’s also the emotional, thematic ante that gets thoroughly upped for the requisite big final battle, and the more I think about it the more I realise how slickly it all fits together as a climax to the Stark arc. Compare the absurd, meaningless, clashing-armies look that The Dark Knight Rises goes for, and you’ll see the difference. Iron Man 3 is a rare beast: a threequel which never loses sight of itself, never forgets what it is and what’s gone before, and never fails at anything big. It doesn’t necessarily succeed everywhere, but it avoids the big pitfalls that plagued other threequels, and that’s all I ask for.


  1. To be fair to Christopher Nolan’s Batman he was trying to create a sense of an ending to the whole trilogy which would not happen in the comic form. Would Bruce Wayne really give up being Batman? Never. Nolan tried something quite original for a comic book hero – he tried to end the story when the usual story is to carry on to the next villain.

    On the other hand Iron Man 3 is not the end of a franchise. There will be an Iron Man 4, maybe without Downey Jr., but the franchise will carry on just like the Bond films do. Ultimately, this makes Iron Man 3 a completely different threequel. It doesn’t have the pressure of a grandstand finish like TDKR did.

    Nonetheless, Iron Man 3 is a superb film.

  2. I really felt that the film needed to be scaled back completely as they ignored the existance of SHIELD and The Avengers. (My review can be read here:http://goodmoviesbadmovies.com/2013/04/26/iron-man-3-is-a-disapointing-mess/)

    Thankfully Captain America: The Winter Soldier is set to have SHIELD, The Black Widow, Fury, The Falcon and Maria Hill as read here: (http://goodmoviesbadmovies.com/2013/04/29/captain-america-the-winter-soldier-is-avengers-1-5/) which I think is important as Marvel has spent so many years to unify their movie Universe.

  3. I agree with the second poster; Iron Man 3 was a mess. What about the final scene was anything other than “absurd, meaningless clashing armies”? We get empty suits – where were they the whole film? – fighting against hastily-introduced, poorly-explained, characterless supermen. Sure, the “hollow suit” theme is meant to be meaningful, but it’s way too heavy-handed, and the desperate reach for slapstick humour throughout the film weakens Downey Jr.’s brilliantly-rendered struggle with himself… His performance (and maybe the kid’s) is the saving grace of a visually spectacular, utterly directionless, intellectually inferior (to the first film for sure), painfully self-consciously directed smorgasbord of tropes and confused themes.

  4. The reason the use of empty suits in particular is so resonant is that it represents a thematic extension of Stark’s character. He is Iron Man, and they’re his tools. The final battle shows him slipping effortlessly between them on the fly as the need arises, with the sheer number and specificity of some of the models showing us the core ready-for-anything spark of his character. The whole film is a deliberate rejection of the second film’s idea that Iron Man is a technological construct; he’s still Iron Man even without any of his suits or even the miniature arc reactor in his chest, because Iron Man is a state of mind. That’s why the last battle works so well for me; it’s a complete reflection of what makes Tony Stark special. He uses every tool at his disposal in inventive, brilliant ways, and he does the whole thing while mostly completely exposed. The way of dispatching the villain (the first time) was particularly masterful.

    I just think the film does a pitch-perfect job of the break-the-hero-down-to-his-core-and-see-him-rise-stronger theme. Every scene in the movie is geared towards that precise theme; the narrative direction and propulsion is exemplary for a superhero film. TDKR tried to do the same thing and, I would argue, failed, because Batman and Bruce Wayne are such disparate entities in the Nolan trilogy that the emotional connection just isn’t there. Iron Man 3’s ultimate achievement is the way it maintains that thematic focus throughout where it would be so easy to let it get lost in bloat and Spider-Man style loss of direction. I don’t think the themes are confused or the direction hazy; in fact, more even than the first film, it knows exactly what it’s doing from start to finish, and it more or less achieves it. I’d say that’s pretty damn good for a superhero threequel directed by a relative neophyte.


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