Well Marvel had a great weekend. Their newest ground zero of colossally built up hype, Iron Man 3, erupted into the stratosphere with a domestic gross of $175.3 million in three days, the second biggest opening weekend of all time (only behind Marvel’s The Avengers from last year). With these kinds of numbers, the Tony Stark threequel, written and directed by Shane Black, surely should be loved by every Marvel Zombie alive.
Yet, when I look around the web, it seems the supposed “threequel curse” is still in effect because fans are drawing battle lines in the sand as I write. Frankly, this burgeoning Marvel Civil War makes the division over The Dark Knight Rises’s release seem like a Kumbaya Circle in comparison. And it’s a real shame, considering Iron Man 3 is probably Marvel’s smartest in-house movie to date. Now put those pitchforks down for a second and hear me out. I did not say that it was their BEST film. That honor still belongs to either the first Iron Man or The Avengers. But it is in many ways their most daring and interesting. To prove this, we at Den of Geek are going to examine this movie back-to-front. Thus, even though it should go without saying, there are going to be spoilers galore. Ye be warned….
On the surface, Iron Man 3 is the film that the studio had the least to worry about. Ever since Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau kicked the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) off with a vengeance in 2008, Downey and his Tony Stark alter ego have been the face of the entire enterprise. If one did not bother watching The Avengers, they could have thought it was named Iron Man and Friends from the trailers.
This sort of instant pop culture adulation could make it easy for Marvel to rest on their laurels. Indeed, Marvel did exactly that when they produced the very lackluster Iron Man 2. A film without much of a plot and zero pacing, it coasted off the goodwill that audiences had for the first Iron Man and Downey’s charismatic comic timing. More of an extended trailer for the forthcoming Avengers film than an actual story, Iron Man 2 left very few satisfied, but still made bank off the manic energy of its star. This is likely the reason Marvel brought in new blood for the third entry. Enter Shane Black, writer/director of Downey’s first “comeback film,” the wildly underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).
Iron Man 3 was always going to make money, but from a business standpoint it is a crucial movie. With singular films now serving as marketing chess pieces in a business strategy dubbed “Phases,” Iron Man 3 stands as the kick-off for Phase 2. Thus, it plays the dual role of a “trilogy” closer, as well as the beginning of something new. Also, considering this is the last film in Downey’s contract, it very well may be the last one featuring him as Iron Man. It is a picture that simultaneously has to feel like an ending and a beginning. And the best way for Marvel to approach both aspects was through its villain…The Mandarin.
The Mandarin is an interesting fellow. Admittedly, I never read many Iron Man stories growing up and only knew of him from the occasional crossovers into Spider-Man comics and cartoon shows. However, I have always been vaguely aware of this funky foe. Someone who has often been (unfavorably) compared to Fu Manchu by his critics, The Mandarin clearly comes from a less politically correct time. Still, this Chinese proverb-spouting baddie with ten magical rings is widely considered to be Iron Man’s archnemesis, if for no other reason than nobody else in his canon is remotely memorable. He is also a character that Marvel has attempted to put in each of the last two Iron Man movies. As you likely know, the name of the al-Qaeda like organization that kidnaps Stark in the first film is “The Ten Rings.” In both previous movies, Favreau decided late in pre-production that the villain would not work on the screen and is racially insensitive, thereby placing the mustached baddie on the backburner.
But now Marvel has to close the book on this trilogy, potentially taking Downey with it, and they need to go out strong. The Mandarin makes sense from a narrative perspective. Yet, simultaneously, they would like for their mega-blockbuster to not be banned in China for blatant racism. What to do? Black’s best imaginable answer: Subvert it.
In the lead up to Iron Man 3, the Mandarin made a big, mysterious splash on all the marketing. Played by the very un-Chinese Ben Kingsley, the long bearded villain haunted the trailers and TV spots as a shadowy force that blows up Stark’s house and seemingly may even kill Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). In all honesty, this is about the fullest extent to which Iron Man 3 fulfills its role as the beginning of Phase 2. Just glancing at the promotional material for the upcoming Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one gets the sense that things are becoming DARK. If phases are the new franchise du jour instead of films, Marvel creative overseer, Joss Whedon, seems to be modeling Phase 2 after The Empire Strikes Back. One could also argue that between Thor’s DARK World and Star Trek’s nearing voyage Into DARKNESS that filmmakers may be taking the wrong lessons from Christopher Nolan. Which is all the more humorous, as the latter’s newest produced superhero flick is aiming for “hope,” but that’s another article…
Iron Man 3’s trailer promises a hero/villain standoff not dissimilar to Batman and the Joker in that oh so, Dark Knight. Ominous musical cues, muted colors and even a reflective and visibly shaken Tony Stark sells Iron Man 3 as a dark return for the character. And it is darker than the first two films. By the most minimal of shades.
If Iron Man 3 is going to be a trilogy closer for the first two films, then the honest truth is that this trilogy is not dark. It is not about evil villains bringing civilization to its knees. For the most part, these movies are about Robert Downey Jr. mugging for the camera between awesome one-liners with some AC/DC playing in the background. Black takes it a hue bluer in Iron Man 3 by changing it to Eiffel 65, but Hans Zimmer percussions they are not.
To get to the meat of fans’ gripes, Ben Kingsley does not play a malevolent force of evil in Iron Man 3. No, it turns out that The Mandarin, who has been producing menacing terrorist videos all across the globe to threaten Americans with, is just some British bloke named Trevor with a drug habit. Stark’s business rival, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), concocted The Mandarin in a convoluted scheme to create a new “War on Terror” for his bio-weapons and is using this poor sap to scare the bejesus out of the U.S. with an imaginary menace.
And the Internet went ballistic in outrage.
Iron Man’s purportedly greatest foe is just a con for an evil businessman who wants to sell a medical procedure that involves spitting fire? WTF?! It is so strange it is brilliant.
The thing about the Iron Man movies is that they are essentially comedies. They have dramatic moments like when Yinsen dies in the first film or when Tony discovers Papa Stark really did love him in the second, but they are ultimately light entertainments. The first film checked off every box in the Campbellian heroic character arc, already so well done by Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). While Iron Man may have arguably done it best, it in fact is the formula that every single other MCU movie followed in the lead-up to The Avengers. And while The Avengers itself is an amazing spectacle, with great dialogue and characterization, there is not exactly any suspense or surprise to its plotting. Was there even plotting?
Iron Man 3 took a major creative risk by choosing to build up a big bad who was nothing but a patsy. The purest diehards may be irate, but you have to stop and ask does it work as a film. The answer is a resounding YES. Black, writer of such movies as the Lethal Weapon series and The Long Kiss Goodnight, is nothing if not a cynic with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Downey has likewise made a career sneering at Hollywood, be it in Black’s own meta-takedown of buddy cop films Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; playing a vicious parody of method actors in Tropic Thunder (2008); or even his rant against The Dark Knight in 2008. They both view self-serious stylings in genre filmmaking as a pretension. And when Kingsley’s Trevor speaks about his craft of “becoming” The Mandarin, it is certainly in line with that.
The Mandarin is built up in his terrorist threats to be another Nolan villain. One who takes comic book tropes and reimagines them with a chilling, early 21st century underpinning. Ra’s Al Ghul is the bearded terrorist in a cave with dreams of destroying an American city. The Joker is the lone nihilist bringing pointless terror to millions from even his video taped insinuations. Bane is a militia-garbed revolutionary who cries of economic injustice. And The Mandarin appears to be Osama bin Laden reincarnated with his long beard and direct challenges to the U.S. president. Except, he is just a ploy by a nut job who has a phony war to sell. As Killian says to the president when asked what he wants, “Nothing. I just needed a way to kill you that looks good on TV.”
Is this some indictment of the War on Terror? Not really. Again, the Iron Man films are too light for that and both Black and Downey are too irreverent to care about such timely issues in their chunk of escapism. It is merely a mockery of those who think there is something deep to be found in a piece of popcorn like this.
Likewise, Black and Downey appear to have fun satirizing the rest of the action genre’s tropes. In the middle of the movie, Iron Man gets stranded in Tennessee with a little boy named Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins). The movie knows that we understood this cliché and that we likely hate it…The child sidekick. That is why the kid is literally only in the movie for about 15 minutes. He helps Tony get his disabled suit back online and figure out some crucial exposition. But when the boy asks to tag along into the third act’s adventure, Downey just gives the kid a dead eye. “Are you going to abandon me like my dad?” the boy asks with puppy dog eyes. “Yeah,” Tony smiles before driving off.
Indeed, before the third act spectacle kicks into high gear, much of the movie is just Downey running around like the hero of any of Black’s ‘80s action flicks. He has a repulsor blaster in one hand and a gun in the other while he pops and shoots his way through a Miami mansion like he’s Bruce Willis. When Black said prior to the film’s release that he “wanted to get Tony isolated,” what he meant was that he wanted to make an action movie where the hero does not rely on CGI for most of the set pieces.
This is not to say the film is without flaws. While the ingenious twist about The Mandarin is clever, there are some that felt very flat. Rebecca Hall is a great actress and she has a nice, playful scene set in 1999 (hence Eiffel 65) with Downey. But otherwise, the character of Maya Hansen feels like a throwaway reference to the “Extremis” comic book storyline. Her quick shift from good to evil to good again (all before abruptly dying) adds nothing to a frantic story that cries for more Killian.
Similarly, the plot holes in the third act are wide enough to drive a Hulkbuster through. Why exactly did Killian keep Stark alive, again? And why did Killian leave Rhodey (Don Cheadle in little more than a cameo) alive and unbound after knocking him out? Also, why did Tony and Rhodey NOT CALL FOR BACK-UP when going to save the PRESIDENT? Yes, they did call the corrupt VP earlier, but after Air Force One gets shot down and they know where the President has been kidnapped, they do not think to call the Feds? The Secret Service? The local sheriff’s department? Captain America and S.H.I.E.L.D.?
However, it is all relatively minor. The Iron Man movies are action comedies more than anything else. This gives them a certain leeway that even other superhero franchises do not have. Seeing Stark call on an army of Iron suits is explanation enough as to why the two heroes are flying solo…That is until Pepper reveals she has superpowers.
In the movie’s most surprising subversion, the true villain of the piece, Pearce’s broad Killian, is taken out by the love interest. To which, I say BRAVA!
Killian has revealed the full extent of his superpowers from Extremis and seems all but unkillable for an armor-less Tony. But after finishing his big speech about how he is the TRUE Mandarin, Pepper comes back from seeming death to reveal that the Extremis Killian injected her with earlier has given her superpowers. Why did he do something so stupid as to give one of his enemies his exact same powers? I do not know, nor do I care, because half the charm of these Iron Man movies is Paltrow’s Pepper. And while the Howard Hawks-inspired screwball dialogue that both Favreau and Whedon gave the couple in the previous films is sorely missed here, Black is not against giving Pepper more to do than ever before. For a change of pace, the love interest kills the villain and saves the hero. Even beyond Nolan’s Catwoman killing Bane, there is no secondary threat after the villain is dead. All that is left to do for Downey and Paltrow is to start quipping about how “hot” her fire powers are.
Ultimatly, Iron Man 3 is a very clever satire of so-called serious superhero movies. The trailers promised a Nolan-ized Iron Man and the movie gave us more of the same, but with a plot that actually tried to be somewhat different. I am not sure if fans are more pissed that Marvel displaced The Mandarin in their film universe or that this is the first film in the MCU that actually had any surprises. It did not follow the established formula promised in the trailer. Instead, it was a rollicking comedy that gave something unexpected, for which I am very grateful.
The film does end on a strangely ponderous note. As with Downey and Black’s last collaboration, Tony frames the whole movie in voice over. But it gets curiously earnest as he reveals that the reason he cannot sleep at night is due to the pressure of being Iron Man. As a Christmas present to Pepper, he blows up all his spare armor and then has an epilogue-based operation to remove the shrapnel from his chest. Besides causing me to wonder why he did not do that in the first place, the movie seems to suggest that he no longer needs to be Iron Man. Given that the film does not really play with this theme at all before the final five minutes, it seems like a tacked on ending to add weight to what may potentially be the close on Downey’s final, metallic adventure.
Similarly, when Stark first meets the boy in the second act, the kid looks at his defunct armor and calls it Iron Man. Tony becomes defiant that HE is Iron Man. The boy seems unconvinced. Perhaps, so is Marvel. Then again, most of the rest of the movie is just Downey out of costume being awesome. Marvel may be toying with continuing the character without Downey, but this film just proves that he is the only superhero audiences watch for the out-of-costume scenes.
For an entire generation, Iron Man begins and ends at Downey. As does this movie. But unlike every Marvel effort since the 2008 original, at least Marvel tried to do something different with it. It may not be the best, but for me personally, it shows a mischievous and creative side at Marvel that is unprecedented….and would not be unwelcomed in the future.