For some strange reason, Iron Man 3, more than any other superhero movie sequel, has made me realise just how tiring sequels in general can become. I don’t really know what it is that triggered this train of thought, but there’s only so much pushing one can do to keep a movie franchise feeling fresh. You can hire a new director, you can hire a wonderful veteran actor to play a villain, or you can simply enlarge its scale to match the scale of its popularity, but then that’s it. The franchise is still what it is.
Or maybe it’s the dismal Iron Man 2 that has forever plunged this particular franchise into a bottomless pit. Because everyone just looks tired. Even the newcomers seem lethargic and disinterested. Tony Stark’s nonchalant attitude towards danger takes on a whole new level of ridiculousness as he barely has to break a sweat to defeat the enemy. All the new directors in the world and all the greatest visual effects can’t really save a movie when its leading actors have become puppets under new management. Yes, you can attempt something new by giving Tony and Pepper a reason to live, and by opening up Tony’s inner child with an actual child, but the results of such measures are risky at best.
Thankfully though, they work for this film. Not entirely, but at least they help to give an iron man a little three dimensional depth, instead of constantly making jokes and thinking he has everything under control. Iron Man 3 gives us a superhero who’s not in control. Not in the beginning anyway. In the first Iron Man, Tony’s villain is someone he knows dearly, and so he knows his weaknesses. In the second one, his villain reveals himself at the very beginning. Again, this gives Tony enough knowledge to remain in control. This time, however, his villain is unknown to him, and his house is destroyed. His enemy has a head start. And he also has a loophole to his personal life. But still, do we really fear for Iron Man’s safety the way we do for Batman’s in The Dark Knight Rises? Definitely not. We know he will save the day.
The villain this time is an enigmatic figure called The Mandarin, and according to my very limited knowledge about the Iron Man comics, he is supposed to be Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) arch nemesis. But he doesn’t have the gravitas of an arch nemesis, and that leads me to my conclusion that no arch nemesis can inflict the kind of damage an arch nemesis is supposed to inflict over the span of one movie (perhaps Heath Ledger’s Joker is an exception). There just isn’t enough time for non-fans to realise the importance of the character. Without any prior knowledge, The Mandarin is as menacing as an ice cream cone (especially since Tony Stark is indestructible).
Iron Man 3 takes place after the events of The Avengers. It’s featured in a little dream sequence and its events are referred to by a number of characters. Tony claims to be unable to sleep, that witnessing aliens and gods descend from space has messed up his noggin. While Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) enjoys the paradise of slumberland, Tony stays awake in his high-tech lair tinkering — as he calls it — with new and improved iron suits. We never get to see the full extent of what he’s working on; the only suit we witness being made is a clever little version (the Mak 42) that breaks itself up into numerous pieces, each powered by some jet propulsion, and is programmed to fly to Tony’s aid — wherever he is — attaching themselves, one by one, to form a whole. Perhaps he got the idea from watching Thor summon his mighty Mjolnir. It’s a nifty invention, unless you’re on the other side of the world being threatened by two armed thugs.
And in that respect, Iron Man has never looked cooler (except when Tony Stark donned the suit of armour for the first time some five years ago). His suits have been heavily modified and engineered to be swifter, more efficient, and more powerful. It’s a nice bit of irony then that his Mak 42 prototype constantly fails to operate at optimum level. Technology will always have the capacity to let us down, even if it’s been manufactured by a boy genius like Tony.
But it’s clear that while Shane Black has put a whole lot of emphasis on new technology and big budget visual effects (I think 85% of the movie’s end credits are dedicated to vfx), his real goal here is to reveal a more human side to Tony, hence the Pepper Potts peril and the young kid who warms his heart. Perhaps the kid is Tony’s fatherhood test. After three movies about Tony getting to grips with a new career and a new love life, it is finally time to see whether or not he’s capable of living as a human being rather than a monument. It’s tricky finding that balance between a cold hard exterior and a warm interior, but Black manages to pull it off, even if it’s just barely. Tony brings out his new creations in style; they’re flashy, numerous, and deadly. But he also allows us the rare privilege of seeing his vulnerability.
Nevertheless, I’m getting tired of Iron Man. I don’t know if it’s because this is the fourth time I’m seeing him in a lead role, or if it’s because Iron Man 2 let me down so badly. How much further can they push him? We’ve seen Tony progress with his suits: first, he could compress it into a suitcase, and then he could walk while having it removed, then he could summon his suit while free-falling, and now he can control it without even being physically present and have it fly around in numerous parts. What’s next?
Best Moment | It’ll have to be the arrival of Tony’s backup while he and Rhodes fight off the countless Mandarin henchmen. I thought it’d just be two. I was so wrong.
Worst Moment | Why can’t Pepper just die? I’m gonna pick her rather lackluster resurrection when she whacks The Mandarin with a giant rod. Yes, we all knew it was coming. But to have it not come would have made it so much better.