What to make of “Iron Man 3,” the third film in its own series and the seventh film in Marvel’s larger “Avengers” franchise?
The first “Iron Man,” in 2008, launched Marvel on the path toward “The Avengers.” It showed there was a way to make a comic book movie that had some depth alongside a sense of humor (standing in stark contrast to “The Dark Knight,” which came out two months later, and which was famously Dark and Serious). This movie was its own entity, existing as a flashy comic book adaptation, a well-reviewed summer blockbuster and the comeback for Robert Downey Jr.
By the time “Iron Man 2″ came out in 2010, things had changed. It was no longer a would-be superhero series; it was part of an overall entity with multiple franchises, with hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into the various parts of the machine. Marvel had “Captain America,” “Thor” and “The Avengers” on deck. “Iron Man 2″ had to somehow balance being part of this overall story with being its own thing, a difficult trick for a movie that was already burdened with trying to match or exceed a successful, popular first film.
It didn’t work. Jon Favreau’s sequel was messy, overstuffed and rambling. There were quite a few problems with the film (most notably the way it seemingly lumbered between storylines, establishing no real narrative momentum while repeating the character arc from the first film), but one that seemed ominous was the fact that much of the movie was bogged down in “Avengers” prologue. We had to meet Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and we had to learn more about Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and S.H.I.EL.D., and we had to get certain ducks in a row. (Cementing the notion that “Iron Man 2″ wasn’t a movie truly focused on its central character was the post-credits scene, which was merely a preview for “Thor,” the next Marvel movie.)
And now “Iron Man 3″ arrives with Marvel’s fortunes having shifted yet again. Since “Iron Man 2,” both Captain America and Thor have starred in solo films, after which came the astonishing, record-breaking success of “The Avengers.” The third “Iron Man” will certainly be a financial success, acting as the de facto follow-up to “The Avengers,” but there remain several big issues. Will people be as interested in a solo Iron Man movie after seeing how much fun it was pairing the character with the other Avengers? What kind of arc could the character have in his fourth movie? Is there another interesting Iron Man story to be told? And can they manage following this character in a solo movie without letting him be subsumed by the larger story?
The first sign that good things were possible came when Marvel hired Shane Black, the writer-director behind “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (the delightful 2005 movie that helped reestablish Downey’s career, three years before “Iron Man” transformed him into a superstar). And now comes this trailer, which shows that this movie has quite a bit of promise. They are dealing with the character’s on-screen history by making it part of his story, having him have to react to the things he saw and did in “The Avengers” (when he fought aliens and nearly sacrificed his life to save Manhattan). They are also magnifying the things that make this character different and special, both in his personal life and in his quest to evolve and improve.
And, yes, they are taking a page out of the Christopher Nolan playbook by having the character seemingly brought low by an opponent (The Mandarin, a horrifically offensive caricature in the comics, but a villain we are assured will become an actual character played by Ben Kingsley). Things look serious and somber, with the hero seemingly defeated and needing to find himself in order to go on. Nolan explored this with “The Dark Knight Rises” (and, quite frankly, his other two Batman movies). It’s an interesting shift for Marvel’s movies, which have been colorful, cartoonish and largely bereft of real darkness. This movie will be followed by “Thor” and “Captain America” sequels before “The Avengers 2,” so it will have to continue to be part of a larger story. But it looks like Black is delivering a movie that stands on its own and uses the other elements as in service to a particular story, and not just another as another reminder “The Avengers” exists.
The movie arrives on May 3, 2013.