Image via Marvel Studios

MCU Rewind: Despite Some Flaws, Iron Man 3 Is A Bold Story That Pushed Marvel In A New Direction

The third Iron Man film faced, perhaps, the highest expectations yet of a Marvel movie. It had to sufficiently wrap-up Tony Stark’s journey and effectively follow-up the smash hit that was The Avengers. This meant that fans had plenty of ideas about what they wanted to see from the film, but the creators apparently had other ideas. Jon Favreau returns for a few scenes as driver-turned-head-of-security Happy Hogan, but he abdicated the director’s chair in favor of Shane Black, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce. Instead of a big comic book epic showing Iron Man’s showdown with his arch-nemesis in the comics, The Mandarin, what we get is instead a character-driven story that sees Tony out of his armor far more than he’s in it. In fairness to its critics, this film has more than its share of story troubles. Yet, it’s a movie that took big swings when it didn’t have to, and what was good about it has helped to shape the MCU as we know it today.

Before we dive into what was great about this movie and its legitimate problems, we should talk about how expectations played into the initial response to it. First and foremost, this movie was hotly anticipated because it was the first MCU project following the big team-up. Now that Tony Stark had met his fellow Marvel heroes, how would this affect his solo film? The answer, it seems, was not at all. Other than a few mentions of Tony’s fellow Avengers, this is a film that featured no connective tissue to the larger MCU. The most notable absence was S.H.I.E.L.D., who play no role at all in the movie despite this being a problem that seems very much in their wheelhouse. Another problem with the movie is how it was marketed. The trailer promised a dark, loss-heavy showdown with The Mandarin, Iron Man’s most notorious comic book villain. Yet, the movie itself — while definitely dealing with some darker elements — focused more on witty one-liners and a lighter tone than Iron Man 2, where Tony was dying for most of the film.

Speaking of the Mandarin, this is probably the most divisive and controversial thing about the movie. Shortly after the release of the last solo Iron Man film, Favreau said that if he directed the third one, he’d want to include The Mandarin. To be fair, I was never a huge fan of Iron Man solo stories in the comics, and I’ve always found that character and his 10 magical rings boring. He also is arguably based on classic “yellow peril” racist stereotypes, even if individual Marvel writers in recent decades have tried to avoid that. When it comes to proper diversity in film, this does not mean that characters of underrepresented demographics can’t be villains. On the contrary, a good villain is just as powerful a character as a good hero. However, with the “Orientalist” styling of the comic character and Ben Kingsley’s version in this film essentially imitating Osama Bin Laden, it’s at least a fair to ask why the only characters of Asian descent in the MCU to this point were terrorists. Although, this diversity issue wasn’t what pissed people off.

The Mandarin, at least in the trailers, is a massive fake-out on the scale of Star Trek: Into Darkness trying to say “John Harrison” was not Khan Noonian Singh (another villain of canonically Asian descent). Yet, Star Trek fans were told they were not getting a classic villain but got him anyway. Iron Man fans were promised a classic villain and got something else entirely. To Kingsley’s credit, he played the hell out of the role he was given. His version of “The Mandarin” spoke in a vaguely American accent with an odd cadence, monotone and sinister. However, the character he was truly playing was Trevor Slattery, an actor with a drug problem and an airy British accent. To Shane Black’s credit, it was a genius fake-out. An actor of Kingsley’s caliber playing an iconic comic book villain made sense, especially given the success of previous films. Yet, instead, he played an asshole and a coward, essentially spitting on the idea of that character. The “real Mandarin” is actually Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce. Though, that particular line-reading is not so much that character saying he is the Mandarin but rather admitting that he was the mastermind of the plot that drives the film.

There are plenty of story troubles in this movie, as well. Of the Iron Man trilogy, this film is definitely the weakest of the three. Say what you will about Whiplash and Justin Hammer, their plot against Tony was at least comprehensible. If Black stripped out the whole Mandarin misdirect and a strange plot involving the vice president, played by the late (but still incomparable) Miguel Ferrar, the movie would have benefited from it. These twists and turns were not neccessary and served to annoy portions of the audience already annoyed by the lack of “Iron Man” in the film. In the comic story that inspired this one, Aldrich and Maya Hansen (played here by Rebecca Hall) develop a drug called Extremis which, though unstable, gives people increased strength and healing powers. The comic book story gets very silly, so I suppose things could have been worse.

The Extremis plot would likely have been strong enough to carry the film on its own, but Black weaves in a kind of disjointed mystery for Tony Stark to solve. This conspiracy involves injured combat veterans, the Vice President, and Advanced Idea Mechanics, a group from the comics but portrayed very differently here. It’s a kind of think tank criminal enterprise, but, as one smart henchman says of his working environment, “they are so weird here.” It’s a perfect summation of what might have been meant to be a layered and sophisticated criminal conspiracy, but ended up contrived and convoluted. Individual moments of the story shine, though. Usually by the end of these films, the climatic battle between the hero and the villain is underwhelming. So often the preceding action set pieces were so exhilarating, the final punch-out feels kind of trite. In this case, Killian and his power set make for a very compelling battle, that is improved by the fact that Tony Stark has a number of suits to choose from.

This may not be the best Iron Man movie, but it’s certainly the best Tony Stark movie. The whole film seems to be borne from that exchange between Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers and Tony, where Cap asks him what he is without his suit of armor. He had a pithy (and accurate) retort at the time, but Iron Man 3 tries very hard to answer that question. Here we see the beginnings of the character arc that has played out over the character’s appearances in subsequent movies. We see that he’s been losing sleep and building dozens of suits, worried about the threat beyond the stars. The Battle of New York traumatized him, and the film dips its toe into the idea that Tony can’t handle it. Honestly, it’s an abysmal portrayal of what it’s like to have post-traumatic stress or panic attacks. But with how poorly Hollywood (and comics) treats mental illness and injury in their stories, it’s a comparatively sensitive depiction. The film wants to challenge Tony and strip him bare, leaving him in a metaphorical version of that cave in the first film. His story is compelling and a lot of fun to watch, unless you hate kids.

Unfortunately in order to alienate Tony, the film ignores and mistreats the supporting characters in strange ways. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts gets the worst of this, oscillating between empowered partner in Team Iron Man and old-school damsel in distress. I get the sense that this was an attempt at subversion, but whether they needed to actually show her being a damsel in distress at all is questionable. The third act reveal that she has incredible powers is held off far too long, and then her powers are explained away in a montage moments later. Pepper is also almost uncharacteristically insensitive to Tony in this film. Yes, he’s been an insufferable to her for two movies, but she’s eaten it up in return. The reasons she and Tony are having relationship troubles in the film don’t feel consistent or rooted in any core problem. This may be intentional, of course. Relationships are messy with normal people, let alone billionaire CEOs and superheroes.

James Rhodes, on the other hand, finally gets something to do in an Iron Man movie. War Machine is now being called Iron Patriot and, of course, it’s been redesigned by A.I.M. For the first half of the film he’s present in name only, but eventually he turns up when Tony calls him. This was Don Cheadle’s second outing in the role, and he really stepped up for the larger chunk of story Black gave his character. He also spends most of the time out of a suit of armor, and yet you can completely buy him as a by-the-seat-of-his-pants action hero. Also it helps that this is the first film that doesn’t immediately put Tony and Rhodey at odds. If Robert Downey Jr. really does hang up the suit, Cheadle definitely still has some mileage in his armor if he wants it.

At the time of release, the humor in the film stood out in a big way. It was far more quippy than the MCU usually was, going for the joke even as the stakes grow more and more dire. Pepper’s and the president’s lives hang in the balance, the latter literally, but Tony and Rhodey are yukking it up as they fight a small army of super-soldiers. It seems odd, at first, but it’s a long tradition in comic books that storytellers undercut the scariness of the violence with wisecracks. The very relevant-to-real-events hinted at with wounded soldiers and mental injuries is fixed, at least with our heroes, via comic book logic. If they’re joking, they’re okay! It may not have been the right call for this story (though a lot of the jokes work), but it has become an indelible part of the MCU’s tone since.

There is no question that Shane Black knew fans would be a bit disappointed that we only saw Tony fighting in the suit once. (And he got trounced.) So, it’s likely that the “House Party Protocol” was meant as a palliative for them. For some, it didn’t work. It’s good world-building, because it sets up the whole “Iron Legion” thing for the Avengers sequel, since Jarvis (as voiced by Paul Bettany) is the one controlling most of the Iron Men in that final sequence. It also provides a chance for some deep-cut armors to make on-screen appearances. A small peace-offering to comics fans still seething about the Mandarin. Also, there is just no denying that Tony Stark leaping from great heights and landing face-first into a suit is some cool action. Iron Man 3 was nominated for an Academy Award for visual effects, and it’s clear why.

As a personal journey for Tony Stark, this film is fantastic. It shows him truly “scared” of a threat for the first time. He pushes people away, throwing himself into his work, trying to build his way out of trouble. Distracted, he allows his loved ones to be hurt and his home to be destroyed by a rival he, ostensibly, created. He then resorts to building hardware-store tech because, even without his suit of armor, Tony Stark is not a man to be trifled with. Speaking of his armor, people often criticize this part of the movie because, technically, Tony’s Arc Reactor should power the suit indefinitely. Maybe that’s true (but it’s pretend science, so who really knows?), but another key problem was that his connection to Jarvis malfunctioned. The whole “charging the armor” bit after Tony leaves Tennessee was, I think, about the power the Mark 42 pieces needed to fly hundreds of miles to reach him. You just have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the justification for Tony’s inability to use the Iron Man armor.

What this film sets out to prove is that despite the demigods and super-soldiers in the mix in the post-Avengers MCU, Tony Stark has earned his spot on the team. The character is meant to be resourceful an heroic. Maybe he’s not the Star-Spangled Man With the Plan, but he doesn’t just prioritize his own loved ones over the larger threat. Early in the film, while defending his suit-building frenzy to Pepper, he says that she is the one thing he can’t live without. It’s a nice bit of irony when the Mark 42 attacks her while Tony is in the grip of night terrors. However, the real payoff to that moment is when faced with saving the president or Pepper, he sends Iron Man (via his remote control) to save the president (and 14 falling people in an awesome action sequence). To save Pepper, the woman he loves, the human Tony Stark will have to be enough. The House Party protocol was fun, and of course that was how the climax had to go, but part of me would have liked to seen Tony take Killian Aldrich down with a Christmas ornament bombs and a homemade stun glove.

Still, the movie has one more misstep to make. Despite having powers now and her gaining some understanding into what it’s like to bear that responsibility, Pepper is still delighted when Tony destroys all of his suits. (It’s just wasteful.) Then, even though he was definitely going to be in the next Avengers film, they made Tony give up being Iron Man. The decision to remove the shrapnel from his heart is a poor one, but I can understand it. In the technologically-advanced world of the MCU, it wouldn’t make sense for Tony’s shrapnel problem to remain totally inoperable. Yet, the decision to end the film with him tossing his Arc Reactor (containing the unique element Tony created) into the sea is mind-bogglingly bad. (Also, wasteful.) It might be forgivable if the next time we saw him he hadn’t been Iron Man for awhile. Nope, the next Avengers movie opens with him in the suit. A better decision, and one that would have fit with Tony’s trauma and paranoia story not being resolved, is if he lied to Pepper. Instead of tossing his Arc Reactor into the sea, he should have put it in some secret vault with like dozens of more Iron Man suits. This would have fit with the arc just the same and helped justify Pepper’s absences from the films until she returned for a cameo in Spider-Man’s movie and these final two Avengers films.

Still, for all it’s problems, Iron Man 3 is a good entry in the Marvel canon. Black pushed and toyed with expectations, injected more humor into the characters, all while trying to tell a story with stakes and depth. Hell, just the boldness of using War on Terror imagery and using disabled veterans as IEDs in the story a decade after the war in Iraq began takes some stones. Comic book stories, like the mythical tradition they come from, are great vehicles for examining issues and imparting morals. However, when it comes to the straightforward tackling of real-world problems, they often stumble. For example, the X-Men told a subversive story about bigotry, bypassing parents and going straight into kids’ hands. Yet, when Spider-Man wanted to tell a cautionary tale about drugs, it doesn’t hold up in quite the same way. Comic book morals work best when they are metaphors for something else. What this movie does falls somewhere between “success” and “failure,” but what we should respect is the attempt.

In terms of rewatchability, Iron Man 3 has a lot of great moments. The final sequence is a good one, but only if the appearance of all those robo-suits didn’t make you roll your eyes. The sequences in Tennessee are both quiet, introspective character moments and a rip-roaring action sequence where Tony’s hands are cuffed behind his back for most of it. A compromised Iron Patriot shooting up Air Force One and the subsequent rescue of the flight crew are always a good time. I admit that it took me more than one sitting to rewatch this one, but every so often I put on this movie and watch some of the highlights. Even though the Mandarin deception feels like a waste of the movie’s precious time, the Trevor Slattery interrogations are great fun to watch. Kingsley really does make some sweet lemonade out of the lemons that Black handed him. With nearly two dozen movies in the MCU to choose from, this should not be the one you rewatch the most. Yet, don’t ignore it completely. It’s full of great character moments that really help you appreciate how and why Tony Stark ended up where he did.

People love to pan comic book movies, especially because today there are so many excellent ones to choose from. So-called stinkers like Amazing Spider-Man and Batman v. Superman (the extended version) aren’t nearly as bad as reviews and internet commenters would have you think. However, sometimes, the movies live up to the negative hype. The next entry in the MCU, I believe, is the weakest in the entire series. It’s like they didn’t know what to do next with the God of Thunder, and Thor: The Dark World reflects that lack of direction. Still, even the worst MCU movie is better than a lot of other movies. And, like it or not, the Thor sequel has some essential moments both for the titular character’s development and Loki’s redemption arc.

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