Lessons Filmmakers Can Learn is an ongoing series where I will derive filmmaking lessons (for better or for worse) that I learned after watching a recent film, in terms of writing, directing and editing. For our third edition (and we really have to do this more often), we have the Marvel’s big superhero film ‘Iron Man 3’.
With Joss Whedon contributing his writing and directorial talents to making ‘The Avengers’ a critical and especially financial success, Marvel’s ‘Phase 2’ began with a three-quel to the most popular superhero in their canon and the face of Marvel at this point – Iron Man. But they had to be very careful not to make the same mistakes they did with Iron Man 2, a sequel that did deliver financially but is mostly seen as one of the weakest Marvel films with glaring flaws thanks to a lot of creative meddling and a lack of new ideas.
But with the hiring of writer/director Shane Black and a drive to make this a definitive sequel that matters, Iron Man 3 is smart, action-packed and almost as good as the original. A shining example of a superhero film done right.
And there’s a few lessons filmmakers can take from it as well.
Note – Major spoilers for the film ahead.
Lesson #1 – Make your hero human and vulnerable.
There’s no surprise that we love superhero films, and it’s probably the biggest genre in terms of worldwide box-office. And while the high-flying action and cool special effects sequences remain the biggest draw when it comes to these films, what people don’t always consciously realise that the real reason we love superhero films is because we want to relate to the hero himself. It’s the basic requirement of any story – the audience wants to latch on to the lead character and experience his journey. And this is just as true with superhero films, and heroes like Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne are iconic precisely because even though they have powers beyond our imaginations, they’re human beings at their core and share a lot of the same problems as us.
Now Tony Stark is a billionaire mogul and has technical wizardry far more than we can ever imagine. Generally, that would make for a very non-relatable character despite all the cool things he can do. But one of the keys of writing a superhero like that is to make sure the audience connects with him on a human level and not just with his superpowers. And the writers achieve that this time around, with Tony Stark more human and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen him before. The events of ‘The Avengers’ surely had a toll on Stark, where he almost sacrificed himself to save the world from the alien invasion that came upon it. A mere mention of New York gives him anxiety attacks, and clearly the whole affair has had an emotional effect on him. He gets nightmares about his own heroic act, which is something we don’t see a lot in superhero movies. He understands that his obsession with his toys is denting his relationship with the only person he ever cared about – Pepper Pots. And after a deadly attack on his bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan, he gives an open challenge to Mandarin out of impulse which turns out to be a terrible idea.
Looking at the above, it’s clear that the writers aimed for a Tony Stark that is more than just his tools and the audience roots for him not just because he’s Iron Man, but because he’s a flawed person with real problems but still strives to save the world. Yes, that signature quirky humor and arrogance is still intact and the film delivers a lot of that. But the most important thing the audience learns is that despite his outer shell of arrogance and superhero antics, Tony Stark is just as vulnerable as any one of us. And that’s key in making someone care about a character, whether superhero or not.
Lesson #2 – Take your hero out of his element.
All stories are based on conflict. Superhero stories, in particular, need to follow that rule even more. When a hero gets his powers, he/she gets pretty comfortable with using it to demolish bad guys and we as the audience gets comfortable in seeing them do that. But the more times that happens, the less interesting the action sequences and the consequential conflict becomes.
The original Iron Man worked so well because we saw Tony Stark as a character taken out of what he’s comfortable with – a life of riches. As he’s captured by the Taliban and forced to make weapons for them, all he was with him is his own brains and skills. He’s completely out of his element, and that segment ends up being the strongest and most memorable part of the entire film. Watching Tony Stark use his brains instead of brute force to find his way out, the conflict becomes juicy for the audience to watch and leads to an entertaining film.
One of the many flaws of Iron Man 2 in my opinion was that Tony Stark was way too comfortable as Iron Man, to the point that nothing really felt like a threat anymore. Yes, Whiplash does attack him at the Grand Prix but Tony Stark is ever-prepared to take him on. Throughout the film, he has multiple gadgets and portable suits to equip him to take on anyone no matter how hard the filmmakers tried to make the villains look menacing. And sure enough, the film ends with Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes donning their respective suits and instantly frying Whiplash in one of the most anti climactic boss battles in superhero history. We, as the audience, never felt a sense of genuine threat and hence our investment in the film drastically reduced whether we realised or not.
For Iron Man 3 to succeed, that element of being left with nothing but your intellect had to be brought back for the franchise to not get stale. And that’s not just my words – it’s exactly what Marvel President Kevin Fiege said back in 2012 about the film in this interview excerpt:
“I’m not going to give away anything yet, but circumstances in the story separate Tony from having access to anything. We want to take Tony back to, metaphorically speaking, the cave from Iron Man 1, the first half of Iron Man 1, when he’s cut off from the world and needs just focus on his intellects to get himself out of his situation.”
It’s clear from his words that the plan from the get-go was to have Tony Stark out of his element again. It’s what made the first film work so beautifully, and the lack of it made the second film suffer (among other things). And sure enough, Iron Man 3 succeeds here. Tony Stark’s mansion gets blown to bits and he ends up in a remote town with nothing but a roughed up suit that doesn’t have any charge in it.
From that point on till the next thirty minutes of the film, we see the strength of the film reminiscent of the cave sequence from the first film. We see Tony Stark as a man finding his way out of his situation, rather than Iron Man the hero. As we see him having to take the help of a kid, take part in combat without any of his gadgets and use his brains to find out what’s really going on and the whereabouts of Mandarin, it’s a much more satisfying experience and a refreshing change of pace for the film that ultimately makes the segments that follow seem that much more earned and deserved.
Having a hero with cool powers might be cool, but taking them away from him is the real test of his metal (no pun intended).
Lesson #3 – Pack at least one big surprise in your screenplay.
Let’s be honest – when was the last time a superhero movie actually managed to throw a twist at you that you didn’t expect at all? I’m thinking hard to answer that question but at least in the last three years, I cannot think of a single example. The only film that comes close to genuinely surprising you with a mid-film twist is Rachel’s death in The Dark Knight back in 2008, and that’s a brilliant moment in the film that shocked audiences anywhere. With audiences following the productions of every film rabidly and being jaded after watching countless films, it’s truly hard to really surprise anyone anymore. But Iron Man 3 manages to do that to possibly every single person who ended up seeing the film.
Suffice to say that I’ll be spoiling a major twist in the film below, so stop reading if you already were. The Mandarin is Iron Man’s arch-nemesis – a villain that is akin to Joker for Batman. He’s an iconic character that has long been demanded by fans for the franchise but only last year did we get to hear that Ben Kingsley will be playing him. In the trailer, the focal point was the narration of Mandarin and how he attacks Tony Stark out of left field. All the marketing material lead you to believe that the selling point of the film is watching Tony Stark battle Mandarin and his forces of evil.
But as Tony Stark and you as the audience find out halfway through the film, there is no Mandarin. He doesn’t exist, and is only a fictional character created in the film to keep the government guessing. Ben Kingsley is actually an out of work quirky actor by the name of Trevor, and the film very bluntly reveals this oddly hilarious twist that no one saw coming. Taking such an iconic character and completely discrediting him is something that may not sit well with the purists, but it was a welcome surprise that turned the tables entirely. By subverting audience expectation in a way that the audience would never expect a major film to do, filmmaker Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce played their card right and managed to do exactly that.
If a twist actually is as surprising and effective as this, then it only makes the film much more memorable. It also makes for great watercooler discussion and fan conversation after the film is over, and I’ve found myself discussing this with a lot of people after they saw the film. None of them saw it coming, and while some found it to be an odd twist, everyone appreciated that it existed.
Point is, try to see things the way your audience does. They’re much smarter than you think they are, so try to take that and turn it around. Having Marion Cottilard play a mysterious new character and then reveal her to be Talia Al Ghoul in The Dark Knight Rises isn’t an unexpected twist by any stretch of the word – fans had already predicted that this would be the case the moment she was cast. And sure enough, it was a deflating moment in the film for what was supposed to be a ‘surprise’.
But taking the biggest villain of a comic book property, marketing him heavily throughout commercials, and having him be nothing but the work of a hammy actor? That’s a genuine surprise, and that’s what a filmmaker should aim for. One surprise that no one can see coming.
Lesson #4 – Great setpieces are underrated.
There’s no secret that action scenes are the first and foremost priority when shooting a superhero summer movie and naturally that’s where most of the attention goes with these kind of films (sometimes to the detriment of the attention given to the screenplay). But in a movie marketplace that we’re bombarded with a new big-budget action film almost every week, audiences have become jaded. Everything has begun to look and feel the same, and the studios don’t even try to make it look any different anymore. So just CGI and high flying explosions doesn’t make your action memorable alone – what does do that job is setpieces.
And Iron Man 3 has a bunch of great ones.
For those who don’t know, a setpiece in Hollywood is described as the big moments in a film where planning it takes a considerable amount of time and money. They are the big trailer moments that are essential to the film and without which we would not only be losing on the spectacle but also a good chunk of the plot as well. Simply put, setpieces are those ‘wow’ moments in action movies that marketing departments are way too happy to run in trailers everywhere.
The only real setpiece that I can remember from the first Iron Man is the Afghanistan sequence and it’s still vivid in my mind mainly because of how well-done it was. The only memorable setpiece in Iron Man 2 was hands-down the Grand Prix battle because not only was it different, it actually felt threatening and was the best stand-off between Whiplash and Iron Man we got in the film considering the deflated ending.
Iron Man 3, though, kicks things up a notch. If you’ve seen the trailer of the film even once, you’d know the sequences that have been repeateadly thrown at you. And for good reason – they’re inventive and memorable. As Mandarin sends his forces down to Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion, the following ten minute sequence is not only an effects-driven spectacle to watch, it must have taken a good chunk of the budget to just execute it. It’s also a highly gripping moment, mainly because we’ve seen this mansion in both the previous films and how important it has been to the series. Seeing it get annihilated not only suddenly got our attention, but the slow destruction of the mansion was rung out by screenwriters as Tony Stark not only tries to save Pepper Pots, he also communicates with Jarvis to protect himself while also trying to improvise attacks onto the helicopters without being combat-ready at all. It’s a breathtaking sequence that will probably remain as the most lasting image from the film to anyone who’s seen it.
Then there’s the absolutely intense plane rescue sequence, which was not only smartly written but also featured suspense and nail biting tension that I was surprised the film had after the excellent Malibu sequence that came before it. Watching Iron Man rescue along those falling passengers in a refreshingly original technique was a blast to watch. I watched the film in a pretty tough crowd, and the only moment they all unanimously cheered is when Iron Man safely lands all the passengers into the water and then turns around to pose. It’s a crowd-pleaser that worked exactly how the filmmakers wanted it to.
What I’m trying to say is – look at all the action sequences in your script and try to make them the most original, suspenseful and engaging version of what they can be. Sometimes, a unique setting for an action sequence can make all the difference, especially if it incorporates actual elements of the setting. Think of these big moments in your script – if your film ends up happening, these will be your ‘trailer shots’. And these will be what the audience remembers the most, so make them count.
Are there any more lessons we can take from ‘Iron Man 3’? Sound off in the comments below.