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.
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.