The saying goes, “There are no third acts in American lives.” Apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but there are rarely successful third acts in American cinema either. Movie screens have been littered with the remains of third films in a series for decades. For every Goldfinger or The Return of the King, there’s a Men in Black 3 and a Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and dozens of others to remind us that it’s a rare thing when a franchise has enough storytelling momentum to make a third film worthwhile. So Iron Man 3 had a pretty big task cut out for it, against some pretty long odds. For what it’s worth, it succeeds in being the equal of the first two films: a competently made yet ultimately lacking theatrical experience I could neither love nor hate. Landing stuck, I guess.
There are things in Iron Man 3 that totally work. Tony Stark dealing with post-traumatic stress from the events of The Avengers? Great. Stark’s emptiness being reflected by him essentially removing the man from Iron Man by remotely controlling his armor? Clever. The escalating terror campaign of the Mandarin? Perfect. The big action climax? Appropriately epic and exciting. But why didn’t I walk out of the theater last night as pumped as I was when I walked out of The Avengers? Because all those pieces felt more like highlights than parts of a cohesive whole. And because writer/director Shane Black decided to turn the middle third of the film into a second run at Last Action Hero.
After Stark’s mansion is destroyed by the bad guys, he finds himself and his armor stranded in the middle of Tennessee, where he’d been planning to travel in order to investigate an explosion with a mysterious link to the Mandarin’s bombings. And he meets up with a lonely kid whose purpose seems to be to teach Stark a lesson in humility while at the same time helping Stark get his groove back. This section of the film doesn’t fall into the typical traps films with kids do — he has some real chemistry with Stark, and Stark’s character prevents things from getting too treacly — but it feels like it isolates Stark from the story for far too long. He puts some pieces of the Mandarin’s plot together along the way, but it’s almost as if Stark goes off into another movie while the rest of the cast runs in place until he gets back. There’s a definite loss of momentum.
The film also suffers from a lack of a compelling villain. That might sound contradictory to what I said about the Mandarin, but, in one of the film’s best moments, he’s revealed as a total sham, a made-up bogeyman to distract attention from the real mastermind behind things, Guy Pearce’s evil head of AIM Aldrich Killian. Unfortunately, he’s nowhere as interesting or charismatic as Ben Kingsley’s fake one, so, while still a clever twist, it does pull the rug out from under the film. We suddenly have to recalibrate ourselves onto a character we haven’t put much into up to that point, and and his sudden importance makes use feel like we’re catching up for the rest of the film. That Killian’s motivations seem to depend on what the script dictates they be from moment to moment doesn’t help make him any more compelling. I think they were almost too clever with the Mandarin, sacrificing a strong central villain for the sake of an admittedly brazen bit of misdirection.
When Stark is summoning up dozens of Iron Man suits to battle Killian in the grand finale, the film isn’t soaring quite so high. Sure, it’s a visually rousing sequence, but I didn’t feel as invested in it as I did in the fantastic battle that closes out The Avengers. And ultimately, it’s the shadow of that film that probably clouds Iron Man 3. It would have been foolish to attempt to top the sheer scale of The Avengers, and far be it from me to complain about a super-hero film trying to balance character and spectacle. But despite the bigness of some of its scenes, Iron Man 3 feels kind of small. Perhaps that’s due to trying to focus on the Man instead of the Iron, but certainly there was a balance to be had. As it is, Iron Man 3 treads along steadily when it should soar. It doesn’t ruin the series like so many cinematic third acts have. But it doesn’t exactly send it off on a high note either.