The Machine, by Scott Nye
Blockbuster film trilogies have fallen into a fairly dependable cycle.* The first film will introduce us to a cast of characters, typically involving an origin story in some capacity. Once that’s a success, the money men pretty much let that same creative team do whatever the hell they want, resulting a second film that’s usually pretty idiosyncratic; sometimes more emotionally and thematically ambitious, sometimes just absolutely bananas, but – most importantly – infused with a genuine, palpable personality. This will sometimes be acclaimed as a masterpiece (your The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back), sometimes decried as one of the worst films ever made (your Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). Regardless, somehow it always seems to then give rise to a third film that, although certainly “bigger” in scope and sporting more exciting action scenes, is only kind of vaguely satisfying, much less esoteric, and feels very engineered. The Iron Man franchise is a perfect example of this, and Iron Man Three (and yes, this is how the title appears onscreen) is the ultimate third film.
Even after saving the world in The Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) still isn’t happy. Sure, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has moved into his posh oceanside home, and is running his former business so he can focus on superheroics, but something’s nagging at him beyond repeated threats by a mysterious man known only as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and the sudden appearance of fellow brainy industrialist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has his eye on Tony’s success, both professionally and romantically. Haunted by his near-death experience, Tony can’t sleep, so he does what he does best – develops technology, and how. Some 42 different Iron Man suits, a sight at once impressive and slightly alarming, adorn his basement lab. Things only get worse when he starts to suffer rather extreme panic attacks, and after an early (and quite spectacular) attack on his home by the Mandarin’s forces, Tony is forced off into the wild blue yonder (well, the South, anyway) with a suit that doesn’t work. Stripped of much of his identity – his wealth, his technology, his girlfriend – the thrust of the film is the now-familiar story in which the defeated superhero must build himself back up from nothing, forcing him (and us) to reconsider what really makes him Iron Man.
This is a theme especially well-suited to Tony, whose superheroics have relied on a super-suit, certainly, but one which has been constantly changing as the demands of his work (and Marvel’s action figure line) have developed. Moreover, his suit is linked with everything else in his life – his home, his car, his office – through a computer system, Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), making his “powers” very much an external thing. Even as we acknowledge that nobody else could truly be Iron Man, the practical application of that is difficult to literalize, and writer/director Shane Black has found a rather lovely way to explore that while also invigorating the film with driving, engaging plot. Toss in a handful of great action scenes that are not only pretty damn exciting in their own right, but truly explore the film’s emotional and thematic tones – that attack on Tony’s house has nothing on an airborne rescue or the finale, which pushes that driving theme to its breaking point – and all the best ingredients and intentions seem in place.
Whereas Iron Man 2 effortlessly cemented Tony’s narcissism, addiction, denial, and general disregard for even those closest to him through its structure and his actions, Iron Man Three makes sure someone (usually Tony) tells us all of his flaws, usually as he’s in the process of atoning for them. There are a few beats in the opening that nicely remind us how thoughtless he can be (challenging the Mandarin to an attack by giving out his home address, accidentally enabling his alarm system to attack Pepper while they’re both asleep), but before long, Black concocts a plot whereby none of Tony’s flaws ever have to interfere with his work. After he’s isolated, his “arc” is essentially over – he realizes that he probably shouldn’t have put Pepper in dangers, apologizes to her for that, and…well, that’s it, basically. There’s nowhere else for him to go, nothing left to do, except find the bad guy and defeat him.
Whereas Iron Man 2 was all about Tony struggling with himself, his challenges in Three are, after the first act, all external. And because Tony’s actually in control of himself this time – he even finds a way around those pesky panic attacks – the danger is far less palpable. Those battles are spectacular, but not enough to eclipse the spectacular character work – and, by extension, cinema – we’d seen previously. If Marvel is going to insist all of these films build upon one another, then they have to actually build, deepen, and develop. Most of this film is one big stall, and, as a result of its context, what is otherwise mostly a middling, decently entertaining picture ends up feeling far less than the sum of its parts.
Oh, and seriously, I love 3-D, but the 3-D in this is completely worthless.
*Obviously, not every single franchise follows this cycle, but it is surprisingly frequent.