Third movies are very important in the life of a franchise. A good movie can survive a lackluster sequel and become a classic, with it’s devotees happy to wave away something like a “Ghostbusters II” with nostalgic resolve and continuing to demand that “When someone asks you if you’re a god…you say YES!!!”. For reasons that lie in the collective unconscious however, once a third movie issues forth, the quality of a film is averaged with sequelae and the later fate of beloved characters and muddling of narrative structure and meaning is fed back into the enjoyment of the first. The Matrix was a great movie, and it’s gnostic-messianic sci-fi mysticism hoodoo held up very well for it’s 136 minutes. After watching “The Matrix: Reloaded” viewers, while profoundly confused, seemed collectively willing to give the Wachowski brothers a chance to finish. Finish they did, and my single DVD copy of “The Matrix” has collected dust ever since.
In addition, Spiderman 3, that is all.
Luckily for Marvel studios however, third movies also have an opportunity to provide a strong finish that firmly establishes a franchise and can even make up for inadequacies in a weak second film. Iron Man 3 does exactly this, telling an entertaining and thematically intact chapter in the saga of Tony Stark and company. When I began to learn preaching as a discipline, the first piece of advice I received was from the late William Craig who, when I asked if my sermon was adequate, asked me in return “Is it the truth, and is it worth hearing?” Whether it is Joss Whedon or someone else, there seems to be a shadowy angel floating over Marvel studios’ adaptations of the Marvel comics pantheon, asking those two very questions, and guiding each story with a deft finger on the pulse of post-modern American mythology that would make Joseph Conrad jealous.
In terms of production quality Iron Man 3 may be the strongest movie in the series so far. The script does an excellent job of building upon the franchise’s biggest strength, it’s charismatic ensemble. Especially nice is the use of Don Cheadle, who’s Jim Rhodes feels more natural, less forced, and did not leave me pining for Terrence Howard as I did watching the second film.
While the plot has a few holes that beg to be filled (perhaps with the 90 plus minutes of movie reportedly left on the cutting room floor) and there is occasional reliance on deus ex machina, including an encounter with a brilliant 10-year-old inventor from Tennessee (just go with it), my suspension of disbelief remained firmly intact throughout. Every time Marvel puts one of these things out I feel like special effects have taken another quantum leap forward, and this film is no exception.
Like most good comic book movies Iron Man 3 is an original story that borrows liberally from the best of its source material, in doing so it makes some bold and interesting choices with well known plots and characters that are sure to amuse or infuriate devotees of the comic.
As a recovering youth minister one of the things I am drawn to in any movie, especially one that will draw kids in by the bushel, is the broader thematic statements it brings to the table. Like the other Marvel films, Iron Man 3 makes some important and cogent statements about the nature of heroism and how we function in our relationships. First, the characters in the main cast love one another, it is just that simple, and as an audience we get to see the ways they try (not always successfully) to take care of each other. One of the most fun things about these films has been the evolution of Tony Stark. The “billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist” could be an icon of capitalistic independence to stoke the fires of Rand fans everywhere. Instead, with each movie we discover (as does he) that far more dangerous than the super-villain du jour are any illusions he holds that success is an individual endeavor, the real margin between victory and defeat is whether or not Stark can manage his own inner demons in a way that allows him to access his resources, not the least of which is the team of “heroes” that make up his supporting cast.
Another refreshing choice made by this film is the ongoing relationship between Stark and Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), who has gone from being his long suffering assistant to his de facto spouse and the CEO of his corporation. In franchise action films making room for a new love interest is an often abused way to “create drama”, the Iron Man films fly in the face of this trope with Tony and Pepper becoming more inextricably linked with each film. Stark and Potts are clearly shown to bring out the best in each other and each draws strength from the love and commitment they share. Even more illustrative to those who occasionally have to have awkward sex/relationship conversations with young people, Stark’s previously philanderous life is shown to be a symptom of time spent in a spiritual wilderness. Because of this, the sexuality in the film is rendered pretty benign. There is a gag in the film involving a giant stuffed bunny with boobs, and while some may find the mere presence of said boobs objectionable for young people, it occurs to me that one need not have a great deal of sexual maturity to fully appreciate that boobs on a giant stuffed animal are funny.
Iron Man 3 blazes a new trail in the superhero genre in that it addresses mental illness in it’s main protagonist not as a plot hook or driving force behind the character’s motives, but as a challenge that Tony has to work through like millions of real people. Throughout the film Stark experiences hollywood’s version of panic attacks as a response to his near-death experience in “The Avengers”, showing him to be a hero possessed of human frailty. With so many American heroes returning from two wars similarly scarred it is worthy to show that even superheroes don’t get away from horrific experiences unscathed. Unlike previous hollywood depictions of action heroes coping with post traumatic stress, it in no way turns him into a rage-filled killing machine. Stark’s discovery that his intelligence may someday not be enough to protect the people he loves (or even the world they live on) causes him to experience psychopathology that is both reasonable and authentic feeling from a narrative perspective, and neither glamorizing not histrionic in it’s contribution to the conversation about how America responds to those dealing with similar issues. It is also gratifying that no simple answer is offered the character to easily rid himself of these problems.
All in all, Iron Man 3 is action packed intergenerational fun, with plenty of themes worth discussing around the dinner table, or at a church coffee hour.