Dir. Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Paul Bettany, Guy Pearce
It’s really something that what makes this Marvel movie (what’s killing cinema in my salad days) interesting and enjoyable is its closeness to ”80s and ’90s action movies (you know, what was killing cinema when I was a little kid). Shane Black, who I first found out about through Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and everyone else first heard about via Lethal Weapon and Predator, is a pretty obvious candidate to bringing the old millennium to the new one in action movies. He does so in part with some decent moments that occasionally feel like watching a tiny goateed Schwarzenegger kick butt, and in part with dialogue that is as groan-inducing as the Inevitable Ahnold telling a terrorist “You’re fired” before shooting said terrorist via missile from a jet. Watching Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) create enough homemade weaponry out of a trip to Wal-Mart to earn him a fee waiver on his IRA application and then put it all into action is pretty fun in a “first half-hour of a ’90s action movie DIY vibe” kind of way. There are some genuinely funny one-liners in this movie (I’m very fond of the henchman who begs out of getting shot because he doesn’t like this job anyway and his coworkers are weird), but that “I’ve dated hotter chicks than you” thing which Tony says to one of the movie’s resident fire zombies gets a full-throated “Ugh!”
A quick Google search suggests that this movie tends to fall in the bottom half of most MCU rankings, which makes sense. If your interest is in what will come next as opposed to what’s already happened, if your inclination is to rate your superhero movie based on how good the villain is as opposed to how interesting the hero is, if you laughed at that part in Infinity War where Peter refers to “our made up names,” then it’s possible that Iron Man 3 is not the kind of movie that appeals to you. (By this math, Iron Man 2 is definitely not the kind of movie that appeals to you, and right now I find myself summarizing why I’m generally not that interested in MCU movies anyway or, alternately, more interested in its redheaded stepchildren.) Iron Man 3 is sort of messy, like Iron Man 2 is sort of messy, but more than any of the other MCU movies I’ve seen, it works on its own. Something that literally all of us agree on regarding Iron Man 2 is that it spends more time setting up characters and entities for future MCU movies than the movie can contain. Iron Man 3 goes in the opposite direction, turning the results of Marvel’s last movie, which made more than a billion dollars, into two dirty words that make Tony Stark weak at the knees. There’s very little about this movie that intertwines it with the rest of the “universe” it’s supposed to belong to, down to the fact that its post-credits scene features Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) explaining to Tony that despite Tony’s intentions to talk out his problems with him, Bruce is not that kind of doctor. (I suppose one could draw a line between Tony’s weird uncle relationship with a Tennessee kid whose dad waltzed out years before and Peter Parker in future movies, but I happen to like the Downey, Jr. – Ty Simpkins vibe, and so I’m putting that pencil down.) Tony Stark, especially with only piecemeal or malfunctioning armor, has more in common with Keanu Reeves on a careening Los Angeles bus than he does even with a Clint Barton or Natasha Romanoff; if your interest in these movies is piqued when they’re characters instead of brand investments, then a story like this which zeroes in on the becoming Tony Stark has to count for something.
“I am Iron Man,” Tony says again at the end of this picture, and a statement which began as a confession of sorts (most confessions are not so self-aggrandizing as what Tony says at a press conference at the end of Iron Man) has, by the end of this movie, become a statement which feels more like an affirmation. Iron Man 3 takes that idea seriously, further than the brand needs it to go. The movie begins a little slowly, showing us scenes of an insomniac Tony fiddling with yet another suit in his basement; Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) makes some offhand comment about this most recent suit being Mk 15, but we see on the armor that it’s Mk 42. Say what you will about Tony Stark the playboy weapons dealer, but there was only one man in that otherwise empty husk. Becoming a superhero has fractured that façade, and the skittering chips of stucco have yielded a better look at his interior. He is afraid of dying, which he didn’t know was a possibility until he got stuck in that cave full of scraps and which has been further exacerbated by the whole “barely escaped the nuke in the wormhole” thing. He cares about Pepper and can feel genuine loyalty to other people even if they’re played by Jon Favreau. Not everything that’s been added to this cocktail is tasty (like that strange dollop of Howard Stark from Iron Man 2), but it’s there now where it wasn’t in the first twenty minutes of Iron Man. The multiplicity of Tony Starks is reflected in the multiplicity of Iron Man armors, and where his first uses of the armor were offensive strikes, the many marks of Iron Man 3 are more defensive in use. When his home is blown up by helicopters, he manages to get the Mk 42 on Pepper before she can be seriously hurt. Towards the end of the movie, at a more or less nondescript shipping container facility that’s begging to be exploded in the way that little towns in Oklahoma beg to be obliterated by tornadoes, an army of Iron Man suits commanded by Jarvis (Bettany) basically give Tony and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) air cover while they try to protect the president (William Sadler) in a very ’90s move and save Pepper from the dastardly Aldrich Killian (Pearce). The suits are protection, and his manic tinkering sessions are a desperate cry for help; the person who saved New York a couple months ago is now the same man who is looking at himself, doing what he knows how to do best, and hoping that it will save him from further danger. It is not for nothing that for most of Iron Man 3, Tony has to literally drag the experimental and inefficient Mk 42 around, or that on multiple occasions it’s blown into pieces which have to be reassembled later. We can debate whether or not this is too on the nose, but for as much is happening in this movie, I don’t mind the symbolism being a little loud to compete with the roar of explosions.
No setpiece in the movie furthers the growth of the man and the fragility of his suit more than the segment where, after Air Force One has exploded and a number of personnel who were previously aboard are now falling to ground. In the moment I fully expected these people to die, a choice which is both bloody-minded and fair. After watching alien invasion 9/11 happen in New York in The Avengers and seeing precious few New Yawker corpses amid the extensive property damage and giant explosions, I think I was ready for some consequences. But what happens instead is surprisingly old-fashioned; Tony Stark refuses to let those people die. There are thirteen personnel flailing in the air, and with his guidance and his amusingly apt metaphor for the way the barrel monkeys chain together, all of them help to rescue each other with Iron Man as the pilot. Immediately after Iron Man has dropped them in the water, he flies away and the suit gets obliterated by an oncoming truck. Tony, it turns out, has been flying the thing remote, but the appearance of that truck is so sudden and frightening, and the suit goes in so many directions, that the laugh the moment gets is almost as full of fear as it is of comic relief. For Tony Stark who has never really gotten over the fear of dying in New York, let alone the fear of dying in that cave, this is an enormous moment. It’s hard to think of a similar moment in similar movies which boils down to stakes like this. If Iron Man acts in time, these normal people live, and if he doesn’t, they die. It’s true that it’s happening because a supervillain has blown up the plane, but it is not part of an ongoing conflict. Killian has left the scene. There is no other part of New York which is fighting off an alien army, no battle joined in Jotunheim. These nameless people are the priority, none of them are going to be meaningful future superheroes or supervillains in Infinity War, and Tony Stark has a chance to prove that Iron Man is good for something other than replicating America’s military hegemony in an even more capricious and unaccountable package. He and the suit are one in doing something necessary and heroic, and despite the danger to those people and the urgency of the situation, his hand does not shake.
If there’s one thing about this movie that really does feel like it was copped from this genre the way it was twenty-five years earlier, it’s in the basically forgettable villain. The Mandarin controls, on top of his coterie of gunslingers and muscly fellas, a small group of people infected with the “Extremis virus.” They explode occasionally and can withstand great heat and can regenerate themselves. I really don’t have a better explanation for this than “fire zombies,” and in practice the concept is fairly nondescript. The Mandarin is supposedly an unstoppable international terrorist with a sort of pan-Asian vibe. He turns out to be an actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley, the other Oscar winner in this cast) who likes drugs, soccer, and girls in that order, and who claims responsibility for suicide bombings, murders, and more which have the United States government turning War Machine into a star-spangled Iron Patriot. (This is objectively hilarious and also exactly what would happen in real life if the government had an Iron Man suit.) The Mandarin turns out to be Killian, and the most Asian thing about him is the very “I saw Enter the Dragon once and got a tattoo” ink he’s wearing. On one hand, this is a bizarre choice. It seems like you can either have a misdirect on the identity of the villain when Aldrich Killian is very clearly the baddie from his first hobbling appearance in a Swiss elevator, or you can call Killian “the Mandarin,” but not both. On the other, there’s something slightly brilliant about this. Everyone leaps to believe in a terrorist who claims credit for some domestic bombings who is supposed to be hiding out in Pakistan and who looks like someone who, for a decade and a half, has been roundly villainized in Western media. On the other hand, short of the basically untraceable explosions and the music videos for them that the Mandarin puts out, there’s no hard intelligence on the guy. It turns out to be an American businessman who has put the world on edge with these bombings, one who intends to play both sides wearing a mask of some non-specific terrorist with brown skin to do it. In a movie that makes a number of surprisingly smart choices, that one may rank most highly of all.