I like my heroes to have some substance, and Iron Man 3 delivers.
Many people are going to complain about Iron Man 3. The torrent has already begun on social media. “There’s no plot”, “It’s not a comic book movie”, “They’ve ruined it”. Perhaps some of this hatred or disappointment has to do with the fact that this is the third in the series, and thirds often have a difficult road to hoe in movies. There’s a potential for greatness, but third movies also tend to deal with darker, deeper issues that often turn off a fan base. Based on what has been appearing in my Facebook and Twitter feed, this seems to be the biggest complaint.
And they’re wrong.
One of the great things about superheroes is that they appear, through eighty year runs and constant reboots, to live in stasis. There is often little character growth, and we rarely see a character changed by the events they experience. After all, if a character is a hit, and popular, why would you change that formula? But this stasis is also one of the drawbacks of superheroes. As a fan, we want to see that our favorite characters can be affected by events, changed, in fact, we like to see a little of the human in the superhuman- something we can relate to.
Iron Man 3 is not a comic book movie, in that, the critics are correct. Instead, it is a character movie. That’s not to say that there aren’t amazing effects, great comic book action scenes, or clever nods to the comic itself. There is all that and more. But at its heart, this movie is about Tony Stark and Iron Man. It’s about what happens when a billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, genius is faced with something he cannot understand, and therefore, cannot overcome. It’s about where the line blurs between man, and alter ego. Who is the hero? And what happens when what makes you a hero is taken away?
In The Avengers, Captain America accuses Stark of just being the suit, that without the suit he is nothing. And in some ways, he’s correct. Without the suit, without becoming Iron Man, Tony Stark is the very amusing, but not very interesting, man we meet at the beginning of Iron Man in the casino. He’s entertaining to watch, but there’s no substance. This fact is emphasized in The Avengers, when Stark is put up against the other members of the team.
So Iron Man 3 is the perfect continuation of Tony Stark’s story. The audience finds Stark suffering from panic attacks, a physical response to his inability to cope with not knowing or understanding the end events of The Avengers. He seems haunted by his brief time in the worm hole, and unable to find his balance. He compensates by pushing Pepper Potts away, instead spending his time obsessed with creating more, and varied suits. But from the beginning, there is something off with Stark’s creations, as they don’t seem so much an end goal, or product, but as a physical manifestation of how lost he is.
Enter the Mandarin- a global terrorist who is blowing up U.S targets. Now, a common complaint is that S.H.I.E.L.D would have stepped in, and therefore their absence is a plot hole. But again, they would be wrong. S.H.I.E.L.D is designed to deal with the things that are bigger than the day to day, the extraordinary, and unfortunately, in our modern world, a terrorist that targets the United States is not extraordinary, but has become the every day, the ordinary. While I think it’s a sad, but true statement, it’s a lovely piece of storytelling.
It also is a great set up, and use of, War Machine aka Iron Patriot. Cheadle, with a bigger role this time out, reinforces the idea that there are some issues that the United States has to deal with on their own, and don’t involve Iron Man. It’s also a great set up, given governments’ trepidation of the Avengers given at the end of that movie. It was nice to see Cheadle get some more screen time, and appear as his own character instead of just a side note to Iron Man.
Reflecting the different direction of the story, is the different style of this film. Shane Black brings his unique flare to the movie, and it pays off. It would have been very easy for a character driven story to fall flat on delivering the action part of the movie, however, Black doesn’t let that happen. Whether it’s smaller, personal fight or the epic, climactic battle, Black balances it all with the storytelling.
The only issue I had with Black’s management was the retro closing credits- they seemed more an homage to Black’s career, which includes the Lethal Weapon films and The Last Boy Scout than the Iron Man franchise.
Critics have poo-pooed the portrayal of the Mandarin, but, without spoiling, I thought it was a neat trick. In this new world, where nothing is what we thought it was, and there seems to be little to ground us, the portrayal of the Mandarin is something I buy. And, given the character’s portrayal in the comics, there was no way the movie could have gotten it completely right, so I enjoyed the nod.
So we have Stark, off balance, and on his own. And this is our story- exactly what he does when the chips are down and he is all alone. And what he does is blow us away.
People have complained of the parallels to Stark’s condition and PTSD. That it’s too dark, that Stark wouldn’t be bothered by the events of The Avengers. In short, their complaints have focused on the fact that Stark develops in this movie. He grows, he changes. They’ve complained that this movie makes Stark vulnerable and human, and somehow less Iron Man. I argue instead that it’s ONLY at the end of this movie that Tony Stark truly becomes Iron Man. He’s not just playing a part, or hiding in a suit (Iron Man, or Armani), he’s truly Iron Man.
Other complaints have focused on the thin(ish) plot of Extremis. And I would direct them to look up McGuffin. Is that part of the plot thin? Yes. Does it matter? No. Because with a McGuffin, it doesn’t really matter what gets you there. The point is HOW you get there. This movie is about HOW Tony Stark gets to where he’s going.
Without giving away spoilers- Stark proves to us that he’s smart even without millions of dollars worth of toys. He spends most of the movie without anything other than himself. Are some of his impromptu gadgets cheesy? Yes. Did I still love them? Absolutely. It’s not just his MacGyver attitude either, Robert Downey Jr. plays Stark with a grace and prowess in this movie that we’ve never seen in any of the three other movies- he’s been hidden by the suit. But here, you see action scenes that include Stark being physical, and comparisons are easily made to Downey’s performances in Sherlock Holmes and Chaplin. Audiences may have forgotten what a great physical actor Downey is, but his scenes here are a great reminder.
In the end, Stark no only proves who he is out of the suit, but made me anxious and excited to see where they take the character next, because the field is wide open now. And there’s no stopping Iron Man.
Postscript: And as always, show your support for all the folks who worked on the film by staying through the credits. There’s a neat scene at the end. Reinforcing the whole point of the movie- exactly who is Tony Stark without the suit?