Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Iron Man 3" Avoids the Usual Third Part Problems of Film Series

Third installments are very hard to do.  So hard, especially in film, that the third part of a film series is often the worst by far.  Some run into the problem of being overstuffed with ideas and characters and therefore can't muster a coherent narrative (also known as: The Spiderman 3 Syndrome).  Meanwhile, films like The Dark Knight Rises are simply plagued by having to follow the legacy of previous installments.  Iron Man 3 doesn't have to live up to Iron Man 2, which is much better than the power of internet hyperbole has led people to believe, but still riddled with problems.  No, the real film that the third installment in this series has to live up to is The Avengers, which was a satisfying culmination of years of Marvel bricklaying.  Iron Man 3 is no Avengers, but it manages to be a success by scaling back the latter's scope but not its capacity for adventure.

Continuing its trend of hiring cult writers/directors to man these large summer blockbusters, Marvel decided to hire Shane Black to head up this film.  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite movies of all-time and Black's famous Lethal Weapon work made him the perfect candidate to handle such a zippy action film.  For those in fear of such a big production dulling an artist with a signature style, the film is replete with Black-isms: a Christmas setting, the buddy-cop bantering between Stark and Rhodes, book-ending narration, and a sequence that takes places in a boatyard.  He's also certainly much better at directing action than Jon Favreau ever was.  Iron Man and Iron Man 2 are both solid films, but their action sequences never seemed to reach the full potential of the character, particularly in their respective anticlimactic final battles.  Black, on the other hand, fully realizes the inherent "coolness" of Iron Man and is able to stage setpieces that are smartly constructed and visually satisfying.  There are big CGI-heavy scenes, but Iron Man 3 truly sings when it focuses on smaller scale battles, which play into the underlying theme of the film showing just how capable Tony Stark is without the famous suit.

Where Iron Man 2 was burdened by its connection to The Avengers, trying to tell its own story while building up a larger narrative and occasionally faltering, Iron Man 3 is helped by its ties to The Avengers.  Instead of trying to introduce its own internal conflict, the film wisely uses the fallout from The Avengers as an arc for Tony Stark.  However, the emotional material works on an intellectual level, but it doesn't always work on the screen, especially when stuffed between all of the comedic scenes that fill the rest of the movie.  Fortunately, these comedic bits work much more often than they don't.  Hollywood summer blockbusters frequently attempt to fit comic relief in between the action and fail miserably (see: the Transformers series), but perhaps unsurprisingly, the script in this one is pretty funny.  It takes a while to get started, but right as the second half hits, the film becomes a rollicking good time.

Iron Man 3 threatens to fall apart at any moment with all of the elements it introduces.  There's a Classic Cute Kid, the bane of every film series' existence, and your initial impulse will be to groan when he shows up.  Once the plot kicks into high gear, the multiple moving pieces cause things to get a bit claustrophobic.  There are a ton of great character actors in the movie, and while some make the most of their supporting roles (James Badge Dale!), others are wasted (Rebecca Hall!).  Luckily, the film rides on Shane Black's relentless forward momentum, and any minor quibbles are quickly forgotten as soon as the next setpiece comes along.

The series has never deeply prodded at its modern world implications, but it deserves kudos for even touching upon them in the first place.  Iron Man exists in a world full of self-interested billionaires and tenuous foreign politics, and it's not hard to make real life parallels.  Even though the series is likely to suffer from fatigue if it goes on any longer, the film plants interesting seeds for the future.  Iron Man 3 comes with the inherent dubiousness of any third part of a film series, but it winds up being the best installment nonetheless.

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