HTS0080_v001.1052_R.JPG

Which is really the hero?

I think Iron Man 3 is only slightly less ballsy than The Avengers. It’s another of Marvel’s growing crop of “they really fucking made this? they really fucking made this!” movies. This is not to say that it doesn’t have problems or that it’s going to be a crowd-pleaser the way The Avengers was. You really can’t fault Marvel for a lack of boldness, though. If nothing else Iron Man 3 is really trying (and I think succeeding) in shaking things up and turning expectations upside down. It also wants to be a serious psychological exploration of character and on this front, credit goes to the allowances given to Shane Black to really make this movie his.

A lot of peoples’ enjoyment of this movie is going to rest on whether or not they get its broader context. Even broader than that it’s a Marvel movie. Or a superhero movie, for that matter. It doesn’t always feel like one, after all.

Because this is a Shane Black movie through and through (Christmas setting, introspective voice-over, snappy dialogue, funny and realized henchmen, monologuing Bond villain, etc), it will definitely help calibrate the reception of its sprawling tone and loose arrangement of Jungian psychological metaphor if you know your Shane Black. Even people who only ever saw the seminal Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will feel something familiar about Iron Man 3 that goes beyond the inclusion of Robert Downey Jr.

Marvel knows we’re living in what I called the post-Avengers world. Both in the film, where things are somewhat darker and more personal (seems this is being extended to other Phase 2 films given Thor 2‘s trailer), and outside of it. They are not trying to emulate the gangbusters approach they (and Joss Whedon) took to The Avengers. Rather, this is about scaling things back and dealing with the aftermath of a world-shattering event. This just feels right. I don’t know how else you could describe it.

But lets get back to the movie.

SPOILERS ACTIVATE!

Iron_Man_3_screenshot_620x380

Things get a little spooky after New York.

In all three Iron Man films, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) deals with some kind of suffering that threatens to hamper his unflappable confidence. This suffering provides a context for his growth as a character. Basically, he’s always been on a trajectory leading away from being such a selfish asshole. Physical conditions like the shrapnel in his chest or the iridium poisoning from IM2 seem a lot easier than tackling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but Iron Man 3 goes there. He’s got the physical stuff, the heart condition and so on, pretty well squared away by now. But after almost dying in Loki’s invasion, Tony is left unable to sleep and driven to deep distraction trying to be prepared for any contingency. Even though he’s had plenty of experience managing the downsides of being a superhero, he’s driven far further into this part of his identity. No wonder, after encountering not only alien monsters but actual gods. He’s continued to build more and more Iron Man suits, though we don’t see most of them until the film’s somewhat disappointing action finale (40 unique suits zipping around in the dark…. really?).

As you’d expect, Tony’s issues have taken on a life of their own. He’s become reclusive and paranoid, his relationships with his few friends strained, and a new threat is rising in the meantime. In the Jack Bauer world of Colonel “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is now the Iron Patriot, a super-terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has declared war on the President of the United States (William Sadler as President Ellis… nice shutout to Warren Ellis, one of the best comic book writers alive and who originated the Extremis storyline heavily sourced in this movie). The Mandarin is a mysterious figure who has appropriated iconography, speech patterns, and techniques from a host of sources. He is like an aggregate meme of 10 years worth of War on Terror topography. This makes him an interesting specter of a villain but, given the way he is used in this movie, a fairly decisive political statement as well.

Iron-Man-3-The-Mandarin

The Mandarin hovers over the movie like a hen. Ben Kingsley knocks every aspect of the character all the way to Thanos.

If Iron Man 3 is the end of a trilogy, which it definitively is, a unifying arc for it is Tony’s crusade against war profiteering. He’s often been called a symbol of American Power and combined with Iron Man as a figure of independent heroism and warlike technology, it’s hard to argue with this. But interestingly, Iron Man has morphed through the movies to be a symbol of the rehabilitation of that power. Or an aspiration to that, at least. See, Tony gives up being an arms dealer and then winds up fighting people who want to conjure or otherwise manufacture conflicts that will justify their technologically-derived accumulation of wealth. Pure commerce motivates people like Justin Hammer and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and this seems at least as American as who has the biggest gun. Be that as it may, Tony Stark and Iron Man stand against that notion of America and Iron Man 3 dramatizes this in singular and effective fashion. He leads by positive example, by dropping the trappings of power in favor of sharing it (his clean energy program in The Avengers being an example) and represents the now-elusive specters of American innovation, philanthropy, and charm.

But then there’s Killian, who wants to trade truth for dollars and global security for personal advancement. Killian shows up with his Extremis tech, which seems to be potentially beneficial to people for the recovery of wounds but which also makes people super-powered. They heal fast, get strong, and can explode if triggered. In Killian’s case, they even breathe fire. In practice, it’s all a bit ridiculous and hand-wavey in science-fiction terms but it totally fits the loosey-goosey approach to science that all the Iron Man movies have (let alone The Avengers and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The plausibility of Extremis isn’t really an issue, but it’s execution is. Later in the film, Tony’s army of suits battles a group of leap-frogging, fire-punching Extremis anonymities. This comes off as a step down from Hammer and Whiplash’s army of drones from the second movie, if you can believe that. There just isn’t much too these guys and their design feels lazy and dumb. Oh, they glow from the inside out. It’s boring.

Thankfully, they aren’t that important. Iron Man 3 is too busy being a a beautiful chimera of symbolism, wit, and style to derive personality from whatever bullshit makes its thugs dangerous. Black is far more interested in having fun, humanizing the thugs occasionally, and otherwise playing in as many cinematic sandboxes as possible all in the same superhero threequel.

iron-man-3-extremis

James Badge Dale is pretty fun as one of the few Extremis soldiers who rises above anonymous henchman status.

As you’re no doubt aware by now, Iron Man 3 has a fucking lot going on. It’s a miracle that it holds it together, really. If it’s any kind of great, it’s great because of an effortless handling of its own ambitious mass. While watching it, it’s sort of perplexing how much this movie makes time for without ever feeling fat. It’s got none of the second-act drag that Iron Man 2 suffered from. For some, it will feel tonally slipshod and maybe a bit scatter-brained but the script is actually airtight. Maybe too tight for the ending to fully work, actually. This being a Shane Black movie, it’s got time to mix in all kinds of stylistic references from the hard-boiled detective genre to classic James Bond films.

While the marketing made it look like Iron Man 3 was going to go very dark, and I acknowledged its darker overall tone earlier, don’t worry about it. Iron Man 3 is easily the funniest of all three films, scoring hit after hit with great one-liners, Black’s specialty set-ups and payoffs, and the kind of grand banter you’ve come to expect from Tony Stark. Robert Downey Jr has always been this franchise’s one and only weapon of mass destruction. To some extent, this is actually a flaw all three Iron Man films have in varying degrees. Without RDJ, there may not be much else to get excited about.

im3-1

The movie wisely tries to get around the implicit “we’ve seen it already” side of the suit coin.

The darkness is really not external, as the trailers suggested. They had to lead with the Mandarin to throw people off Killian’s scent. The reveal that the Mandarin is just a stooge, a false-flag Killian has used to obscure his true intentions and plans, is perfectly handled in a uniquely comedic way. It also feels adult, and not because The Mandarin’s actor is actually a deranged hedonist, but because it asks you to roll with this twist not as an “aha!” moment, but as a genuine opportunity for absurdity and commentary.

It’s no secret that many believe the American government has done its own false-flag work to spur economic and military churn. The Iraq War feels like a distant memory in some ways, even while it still rages, but Iron Man 3 remembers it and remembers how easily people are fooled by even a messy stage show. Black gets away with this by wrapping it up in the absurdity of the reveal. It really works on many levels and it is (rightly) pissing off the purist, foolish “fans” who are the same people that wanted The Mandarin to be the Yellow Peril caricature he started out as. With how Iron Man 3 handles this alone, Marvel (and Kevin Fiege) prove themselves to be astonishingly savvy, bold, and intelligent.

They are not fucking around and The Avengers wasn’t a fluke nor the last word on super hero movies. They still have shit to show us.

aldrich_killian-e1366923546108

Guy Pearce is in the “having so much fun” phase of his career.

One of the core themes of this series is that “no man is an island”. Not even Iron Man.

Tony always fights shadowy versions of himself. In this way, Iron Man is always playing with psychology as a dimension of storytelling. In the third film, Tony’s shadow is Aldrich Killian. Like Obediah Stane or  Justin Hammer, Tony has history with Killian. In their case, it’s as simple as Tony being an asshole and Killian being an awkward interloper. Fast forward 13 years and Extremis has rehabilitated Killian into a 90’s era villain. Right down to his suits. The movie flirts with the idea of forming love triangles between Tony-Pepper-Killian or Tony-Pepper-Botanist, but never actually goes there. This may be due to script changes (and certainly some stitches are visible here and there), but it feels more right than if the triangles actually happened. The focus remains on Tony learning to keep calm and carry on, and the secondary characters are there to facilitate, motivate, and complicate this process.

Iron Man 3 gives a lot of ground to secondary characters. This is because it’s important for Tony to learn how to graciously rely on others. Not only series mainstays like Pepper and Happy, but newcomers like the “inner child” figure represented by Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) or even the projection of Tony’s own subconscious: Jarvis (Paul Bettany). And, subsequently, the Iron Man suits themselves. Tony may be Iron Man, but he’s also a man who tries to split himself into different selves, each responsible for different things. For example: Jarvis is not a true A.I. but rather a reflection of Tony, first representing the part of him that is organized and productive, and later taking over the spectrum of power represented by Tony’s 40+ Iron Man suits. Learning how to let this stuff go and internalize rather than externalize is part of Tony’s journey.

ca10926r

Iron Man 3 goes back to basics!

The core Tony is the “mechanic” and his greatest strength is improvisation. The Superhero is an abstraction (or distraction), and the movie doesn’t waste much time beginning to deconstruct the very idea of Iron Man. Early on, Tony one-ups himself in terms of activation technology and interface with the suits by making them remote-controllable. While being inside the suits helps with his anxiety, he no longer needs to literally be Iron Man. By the time he’s got Jarvis piloting his army of suits, the big question looms: where do you even go from here? Is Jarvis now Iron Man in some way?

I say no, by the way, given that Jarvis is just a, albeit sophisticated, program.

The fact that Tony Stark no longer has to be the man in the suit raises big questions for the super status quo familiar to comics readers. It’s a very interesting move, but not one I’m sure really works (as I get to later). When it does work, it’s in showing just how capable Tony is without the signature armor. In two sequences that don’t seem to have much in common but totally do, the shift in centrality for the “Iron Man” identity surfaces.

Iron-Man-3-Air-Force-One

This works much better as superhero stuff than the big finale.

The first is Tony’s solo assault on The Mandarin’s mansion where he uses gadgets and weapons he cobbles together from whatever he has on hand. Like Harley tells him, his real strength is that he can always just “build something”. The second is the lauded sequence where Tony helps rescue a bunch of passengers from an exploded Air Force One. I say “helps rescue” because this scene, nick-named The Barrel of Monkeys, is a perfect symbol (in a movie full of symbols) of Tony’s need to cooperate with others to achieve best results. He doesn’t simply catch all the passengers as, perhaps, Superman would. Instead, he helps them help each other by providing the encouragement and anchoring force they need. One by one, he has them scoop each other up until they have essentially saved themselves.

The optimism and “reach exceeds grasp” attitude is central to Tony Stark and makes for truly thrilling superheroics.

iron-man-3-pepper-potts-1

Pepper is only the damsel for a little while before getting the most ass-kicking moment in the film.

So I mentioned above how I think there’s a sense in which the ambition of the movie undermines it. My one narrative complaint about Iron Man 3 is that it feels just a bit too final. With that, it also feels easy when it waves away both Tony’s iconic chestplate and Pepper’s Extremis in order to come to its too-neat conclusion. It is seriously Dexter sort of neat.

At the end, Tony says “I am Iron Man” but it is unclear what this now means. He has destroyed all his suits, tossed the Arc Reactor into the ocean, and seems to be starting a new chapter in his life. As this movie handily demonstrates, Tony’s real super power is his brain. That said, the way Iron Man 3 ends makes it feel like he’s going into retirement. That the credits include bits from all three movies seems to cement that this is a send-off, a real end for the RDJ era of the character.

Tony no longer needs to be Iron Man for psychological armor. He no longer has any physical tether to the suit. He no longer needs to redeem himself for his war-profiteering days. By the end of Iron Man 3, all the things that made Tony Stark a superhero are essentially gone. He’s become a completed character. Many are going to argue that they’ll find a way around this but I think whoever writes Iron Man 4 has their work cut out for them then. And they likely won’t have the charisma powerhouse that is Robert Downey Jr, the man most probably owed primary credit for the very existence of the MCU.

iron-man-3-iron-men

Making this a night scene was a mistake.

This may go a bit wide of being a criticism of the movie, but it definitely leaves the audience wondering “what the fuck?” even as a presumably reassuring card comes up reading “Tony Stark Will Return”. It isn’t reassuring, by the way. In fact, it feels like Marvel capitulating to the rumors swirling around that this is RDJ’s last solo outing with the character. Though cute, the after-credits bit where we find out that the narration that bookends the movie is meant as the intro and outro of Tony confiding in Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) doesn’t lessen the confusion.

In a broader sense, Iron Man 3 is a stirring call to arms for the “what comes next?” aura around Phase 2. It shows that stripping these characters down to a more intimate level works as a way to keep them relevant. Mix in a bold writer-director like Shane Black and you’ve really got something that ups the ante without actually having to outdo The Avengers in terms of pure comic book spectacle. My misgivings about the finality of this particular chapter of the grand storyverse Marvel is building for us aside, the future is very bright and very intriguing for fans of these movies and characters.

Advertisements