The Iron Man series is in danger of following the Planet of the Apes sequel model – a masterful first movie, followed by crappy sequels that can’t hold a candle to the original.
Other movies that have followed this pattern:
Batman (Burton version)
Back to the Future
Ghostbusters (A third movie will suck.)
The Matrix (Which, sadly, I haven’t seen – but they tell me the sequels suck.)
Every Horror Movie with Multiple Sequels – Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, etc.
I should add the Indiana Jones movies to the above list, as very few movies can hold a candle to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is essentially a perfect film. But The Last Crusade is a really good movie, so it hurts to dis it by lumping it in to these other failures. Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are both forgettable, but I like them, too. But if I’m really going to be honest with myself, Indiana Jones is a Planet Of The Apes-sequeled franchise.
My initial bet was that Iron Man would follow most superhero franchises in adopting the Star Wars sequel model – an amazing first film, and then, impossibly, an even better second film, followed by a piece of crap to round out the trilogy. If they bother to make a fourth film, it will be one of the worst films ever made.
Other franchises that have taken this route:
Superman (Christopher Reeve versions)
Nolan’s Batman movies are on this trajectory, as are the Toy Story movies. Only time will tell if they can break the mold.
Some insist that the Burton/Schumacher Batman flicks followed this pattern, but Batman Returns is crap. Still, Batman and Robin, Superman IV and The Phantom Menace all share the Phenomenon of the Fourth Film Flatulent Failure, so maybe I should rewatch Batman Returns to reconsider. (No, I shouldn’t. DeVito’s penguin is loathsome without being interesting. Christopher Walken is sleepy and boring. Although, I admit, Michelle Pfeiffer is kind of groovy.) The Wolverine flick is mediocre, but it’s not Superman IV bad, and it’s probably better than X-Men 3. But I’m not sure it really qualifies as an X-Men sequel, per se.
It’s a good thing they’ve decided to reboot Spider-Man, because all indications were that Spider-Man 4 was going to follow in Batman and Robin’s footsteps. And heaven forbid they make a Godfather IV. It’s nice to know that Sofia Coppola has managed to make a career as something other than “the wretched actress who single-handedly destroyed the Godfather franchise.” It’s inspiring that someone can fail that completely and publicly and somehow be able to live it down.
The Star Trek sequels defy all categorization except their own, which insists that the odd-numbered movies suck and the even-numbered movies are awesome. But Trek III is pretty good; Trek X blows, and Trek XI – or, more accurately, Trek I Redux – is one of the best of the franchise.
Only one franchise – The Lord of the Rings – did it the right way, with each film improving on the one before. The reality, though, is that The Lord of the Rings is a single story sliced into three books/movies, so it has a structural advantage that the others didn’t have.
Prediction: The Hobbit will probably be lousy.