**** WARNING: Huge Major Incredibly Inmense Spoilers!! ****Iron Man 3 has a number of unique challenges to overcome. Firstly, it has the distinction of being the first Marvel movie since The Avengers. It’s a movie that cannot possibly be bigger than The Avengers, but it still had to maintain the story momentum of last year’s magnum Marvel opus. Secondly, the film features a new director.
Shane Black has to face the challenge of playing in Jon Favreau’s established tonal world while establishing his own cinematic voice and vision. Not so uniquely but just as challenging, Iron Man 3 had to overcome the curse of the third sequel. Many super-hero films have tried and failed to create successful third chapters. Maybe this is due to the fact that it is very difficult to maintain narrative integrity while perpetually trying to up the ante.
Whatever the case, Iron Man 3 had to overcome being in the shadow of The Avengers, a new director trying to establish his own skills while playing in someone else’s sandbox and it had to overcome what many other sequels failed to do, being a successful third chapter. So, how did Iron Man 3 do in the eyes of a lifelong comic fan?
Shane Black recognized that nothing can be bigger than The Avengers. How can a director fit seven heroes worth of action, like in The Avenger,s into a one hero film like Iron Man 3? Shane Black made the wise decision to not make Iron Man 3 bigger. Instead, he made it a profoundly personal story, in that it was a meditation on Tony Stark’s experiences in The Avengers. Something as big as the alien invasion in The Avengers would have a profound mental impact on anyone who participated in the ensuing struggle and Iron Man 3 is that impact.
Stark was left in a great place at the end of The Avengers. He finally, willingly took up the mantle of hero and became comfortable in his role as protector. In fact, he takes his role of protector so seriously that it causes him incredible anxiety and how does a man like Stark deal with anxiety? Simple, he builds. That’s where Iron Man 3 picks up, with Stark dealing with his nearly crippling anxiety related to his fear of not being able to protect the world.
Quickly, the film establishes that Shane Black’s story is a human one about a man, usually driven by ego, feeling the crushing pressure of selflessness. The man Tony Stark is almost paralyzed with very human fear so he throws himself recklessly into the role of Iron Man. Other than Stark, Black had a bunch of characters to guide through this film, let’s take a look at each one, because this film is a juggling act of character arcs and Black handled it more than admirably.
Tony Stark:After two films and The Avengers was there a place audiences have not seen Stark go? The answer is yes, inside. Stark narrates the film, which begins in 1999 during Stark’s days as a drunken egotist. The film quickly establishes the old Stark and contrasts him with the hero forged in the fires of an otherworldy invasion. Stark’s anxiety of failing as a protector is embodied in his need to create a wall of technology around his true love Pepper Potts.
The need to build and protect manifests itself in Stark creating new and better armors, lots and lots of armors. These armors are there for fan service, make no mistake. But plunging the depths of Stark’s troubled soul gives the armors a narrative reason for existing. Fans will have a blast picking out past armors from the comic, but their existence is troubling in that Stark spends every waking hour building his suits and altering his anatomy so he can be a better hero.
The film tracks Tony Stark from a man who desperately needs to try and create ways to be a hero, to being stripped of all his weapons, allies and tech, to discovering that the only things he needs to be a hero are his mind and his heart. The film embraces the idea that one of Stark’s many weapons is his fame and charisma. His heroism and charm makes others want to help as seen in the young boy he meets in Tennessee and Gary. Oh, Gary. You just gotta love Gary.
This is some heavy character stuff, but the film is hilarious. Stark always has a quip and a sideways grin ready for every challenge. The added element to Stark is his anxiety, such a simple and relatable human foible that makes this adventure so much more relatable than any other chapter in the Iron Man saga. No one can relate to Stark’s experiences of being held prisoner in a cave nor can they relate to his struggles to become an armored Avenger, but anyone can relate to the fear of failing one’s family or loved ones. These fears are justified in the arrival of the Mandarin and Extremis.
The Mandarin:The Mandarin would certainly be a challenging visual and character to present to modern movie audiences. He is a robed foreign menace that can be deemed archaic at best and flat out racist at worst. Yet, there is no denying that the idea of a foreign terrorist menace is a very common fear today. Fan zeitgeist seems to suggest that Marvel loyalists were getting a little tired of seeing Tony fight other armored foes, so Black’s film answers the challenge by presenting a complex menace that is very different from what it appears to be on the surface.
In The Mandarin, Black presents the same psychological fear of the foreigner that drove the original Dracula and Mummy films. The Mandarin is presented as Marvel’s Osama Bin Laden. Bearded, alien, menacing and always judging American culture, The Mandarin preys on today’s most deep rooted fears. There are some uncomfortable racial stereotypes involved in The Mandarin’s portrayal. Let’s just say, fans do NOT have the full story of this character, but when they do, they will understand the place a foreign menace like The Mandarin has in today’s popular culture.
Ben Kingsley brings a thunderous performance to the proceedings, oozing arrogance and menace. It’s a great portrayal of the character, but maybe not quite what fans might expect.
Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian:These names should be familiar to fans of Iron Man: Extremis, but their roles in this film are amped up with regard to the Iron Man mythos. In the film, Killian is the founder of A.I.M., a name that should be familiar to comic fans. Hansen is the creator of Extremis, a bioengineered way to regrow lost limbs, weaponized by Killian.
Like the previous two Iron Man big bads, Extremis is a result of Stark’s selfish past, as Stark created the formula for Extremis while on a drunken one night stand with Maya. Hansen, deftly played by Rebecca Hall, fashions herself as a modern day Oppenheimer, a scientist trying to change the world though technology, only to have her creation co-opted by the world’s weaponeers. She pretty much plays the same role in the film as she had in the comic.
Killian is what happens when technology goes wrong. He is a selfish manipulator of lives and media, a great foil to Tony Stark. Killian wants to use technology to keep humanity locked in a perpetual state of hate and fear while Stark wants to use it to move the world into a bright future where prejudice and fear are obsolete concepts. Like previous villains Stane and Vanko, Killian was a partial result of Stark’s selfish past as he ignored the inventor when Killian approached him for help in 1999.
Killian could have learned at Tony Stark’s knee. Instead he was guided by his own bitterness, partially caused by his own handicapped body and partially caused by Stark’s thoughtless dismissal. Killian allies his Extremis enhanced army with the menace of The Mandarin, creating a challenge for Stark, who is driven to protect the world from menaces like Extremis.
James Rhodes:It is such a breath of fresh air to see Rhodes and Stark on the same page throughout the movie. Any moment shared between the two friends is like a great buddy movie, as their skill sets and personalities both compliment and contrast. In this film, Rhodey has become the Iron Patriot and has comfortably filled the role of America’s weapon war against terror. He is guided by patriotism and concern for Stark and is charged with bringing The Mandarin to justice.
In his heart, Rhodey will always be War Machine, but as long as his country needs him to be Iron Patriot, he is happy to oblige. Rhodey is an indication of how comfortable the world has become with superheroes since The Avengers and his interactions with Stark are some of the film’s highlights.
Pepper Potts:Tony’s motivation and reason for being. The values and future that Tony is trying to protect is embodied in Pepper. He is so frightened of her getting caught in the crossfire that he almost loses her in his zeal to protect all she stands for. It was a little annoying at first that this film used Pepper primarily as Hostage Girl, but this is done on purpose to lull fans into not seeing her strengths, as Pepper is awesomely involved with the film’s climax. She is not something that needs to be coddled and protected, quite the opposite actually.
Harley Keener:For some reason children in comic book movies have become Kryptonite for fans. Maybe it’s because adult fans really don’t want to admit that superheroes are, have been and always will be designed for children and anything that reminds them of that indelible fact is anathema. But Harley is a great narrative device for the film’s second act. Without Harley, Stark would have no one to interact with while exiled in Tennessee. He would have no one to stand as a symbol of how much the world loves and respects him and how, as a futurist, he is truly inspiring future generations to follow in his footsteps.
Happy Hogan:So good to see Jon Favreau still part of the proceedings even though he is not the man in charge anymore. Hogan has always been a tool for Stark. Someone designed to protect Stark, mostly from himself. But when Killian harms Hogan, it makes Tony see the world as an even more dangerous place than he imagined. Hogan was always Stark’s symbol of protection, but now the roles are reversed and when Hogan falls, Stark uses it as motivation to find the courage to overcome his own fears and be to the world what Happy was to him.
This is not the movie fans will expect. It is fundamentally part of The Avengers’ world, yet stands on its own. It has villains that break the mold of previous Iron Man foes that bring an intense menace to the story, perhaps not the exact menace fans were counting on though. It has the trademark Stark wit and charm, as Robert Downey Jr. solidifies himself as the reason the Marvel Movie Universe survives and thrives.
It is the movie fans want, but it may not be the one they expect. It is a personal story that figuratively puts Stark back in the cave and deals with very relatable and understandable mental challenges like PTSD and anxiety. It is a close meditation on heroism and how society’s fears and prejudices can be packaged and used as weapons. It is a neat tie up to the Iron Man saga if Downey rides off into the sunset, but there is still the promise of a bright future for the characters fans have grown to love since 2008.
Most of all, it is an absolute blast as Marvel does it again.
Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars