In full defiance of the old maxim, the third time is not always the charm. Cinematically speaking, the third installment of any property has the greatest potential to be a disaster. That’s not to say that every part three is a dud, and in fact several second sequels have managed to excel. However, more often than not, these films fall victim to recurring pitfalls. As Marvel gets set to release Iron Man 3, we thought we’d examine those elements that tend to derail part-three’s in the hopes that Tony Stark’s latest adventure stays on track.
Iron Man 3 is in the supremely unfavorable position of not only being a second sequel, but indeed the second sequel of a superhero movie. Obvious facts? Perhaps, but if the overall track record for third installments is lackluster, the batting average for those within the superhero genre is utterly abysmal. The Caped Crusader took a decided turn for the worst with Batman Forever and Superman III was such a departure from the quality of the first two films in the franchise that it was downright farcical. Spider-Man 3, while boasting a few defenders, would also qualify as a mark against its series.
The principal issue with each of these less-than-super superhero movies has to do with their villains. Batman Forever cast Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, turning both into characters more cartoonish than they were in even Batman: The Animated Series. Superman III decided to follow up an iconic conflict with General Zod by having The Man of Steel take on…Richard Prior. Iron Man 3, in casting Sir Ben Kingsley and taking him in the direction the trailers would suggest, seems to be actively avoiding dumbing down of its chief baddie. Let us hope this turns out to be true; that Marvel continues to trust its audience.
Spider-Man 3 tried to pack far too many antagonists into a single story, with seemingly no concern for balancing their significance to the plot. Iron Man 3 will be adding more villains than any Iron Man film we’ve seen thus far. The trick for Drew Pence and Shane Black’s script is not to mathematically divvy out equilateral screentime to each of its bad guys, but instead to adequately construct a hierarchy of foes and use them as much or as little as the narrative demands. Say what you will about The Dark Knight Rises, but the third chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga utilized Bane, Talia al Ghul, and The Scarecrow in optimal measures.
Though the history of superhero thirds does Iron Man 3 no favors, the perils Shane Black is hoping to avoid are those that plague tertiary films of all genres. The problem often starts en route to part three; whenever the initial sequel ventures none-too-far from the formula that made the first film such a success. These second chapters feel less like their own movies and more like a second viewing of the first movie again. The Hangover II is a prime example of this; hitting every single beat of the first film in an absurdly calculated rehash. Scream 2 is also guilty of this crime, maybe even moreso as it revisited all the significant plot devices of a film that was already an amalgam of previously-existing horror films.
What this does in turn is place pressure on the third installment to stretch beyond its conceptual means. This swinging for the fences isn’t inherently ill advised, and can even inspire noble creativity, but it can also provide the perfect catalyst for some truly idiotic forced twists on franchise convention. Returning to the Scream series for a moment, the addition of a revelatory familial connection between Sidney and the killer was about as dopey a conceit as they come. Even variations that yield interesting horror cinema can cause fan friction. Halloween IIIput Michael Myers on the backburner and, though it turned out to be a fantastic corporate pagan cult mystery, the shift didn’t sit well with viewers.
Luckily for Iron Man 3, the franchise flexed its storytelling muscles in the second movie; exploring Tony Stark’s drinking problem and debilitating personal issues arguably at the expense of the overall enjoyment factor. Still, it would be in Iron Man 3’s best interest to stay centered even as it expands. The trailers have already revealed that there will be armies of armored suits mobilized against The Mandarin, one of which looks as though it will be piloted by Pepper Potts. Also, there will be the increased presence of James Rhodes. While this promises to be a thrill for the viewers, it’s also a gamble considering the character specifics.
Tony Stark has always been a lone wolf, which actually provided ample opportunity for engaging conflict in The Avengers. But now he’s back in his own world and, more to the point, supposedly dealing with how his experience with The Avengers affected him as an individual hero. Hopefully Iron Man 3 uses the armored suit army to further explore his uneasiness with team dynamics without seeming a repeat of The Avengers or fundamentally altering who Stark is at his core. After all, we don’t want a Smokey and the Bandit 3 situation on our hands. Well, we actually don’t want that to happen for more reasons than just Smokey becoming The Bandit.
Finally, Iron Man 3 has the potential to fall prey to the pressures of wrapping up a trilogy. Speculating without seeing the film, it is admittedly a possible non-issue, but in a recent interview, Gwyneth Paltrow did say, “I don’t think there’s going to be [an Iron Man 4]. I think we’re done with Iron Man.” For the moment, and for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Iron Man 3 will be the last Iron Man film for the foreseeable future. What must be a concern for Shane Black is ensuring, should he have to put a bow on this trilogy, that he doesn’t introduce a host of new questions that he then does not answer. We’re looking at you, The Matrix Revolutions.