Marvel Retrospective: Iron Man 3 (2013)
Posted: Posted March 12th by Jet Presto
In the post-Avengers Marvel landscape, Iron Man 3 is the first film to really try and tackle larger events as they might be affect a character. Here, director Shane Black builds off of a line within the mega-crossover. "Take off the suit and what are you?"
Tony Stark answers that pretty confidently and with a great deal of self-assurance. Black crafts his film around the idea that this retort was just heavy-handed bravado. Indeed, the strength of the film is exploring Stark without power. De-powering him might have been the smartest thing to do, given that we had - at this point - seen him prominently featured in three films, all in which he is more or less only getting stronger and changing minimally. To continue that trend might have been boring.
Loosely based off of Warren Ellis's Extremis story line from the comics, we get a story that isn't quite as interesting or asking as many hard questions of our protagonists, but one that is more challenging than the previous films had been. What's frustrating about Iron Man 3 is how, without the final act, it might actually be one of the best Marvel films to date. Yet that final stretch is just so bad and disappointing that it kind of ruins all the work it did before.
We don't often see superheroes struggling to deal with health issues, for example, particularly of the mental health variety. (DC writer Tom King has been bringing this concept more to the forefront recently with his event Heroes in Crisis.) Tony Stark, however, is clearly suffering some PTSD symptoms, with flashbacks showing us just how much the alien invasion of New York has messed him up. It's a shockingly well-handled depiction at times, from his anxiety attacks to his trouble sleeping or focusing on anything else. We see how this doesn't just affect him, too, when his remote suit briefly threatens Pepper Potts. Our mental illnesses rarely affect just us. PTSD especially impacts the loved ones closest to us.
It was Marvel attempting to say something important about the nature of mental illness. Not only did it handle it relatively well for an action blockbuster film; it depicted unhealthy ways folks might try to treat it (such as continuing to build Iron Man suits at a prolific rate, while also refusing to actually talk to loved ones about what is going on). That itself is something worthwhile given that, traditionally, we tend to view "strong" characters and individuals as ones who are more stoic. There is a reason why it took decades and decades before the first writers/artists starting telling superhero stories around the idea of mental illness. Tough guys aren't supposed to have symptoms. Our heroes are supposed to be "strong," and thus, largely unaffected. To show Tony Stark - the most self-assured person in the Marvel cinematic universe - as having PTSD feels important and worthwhile.
So how frustrating, then, that he overcomes it so suddenly and without any actual professional help? Tony doesn't really need any assistance from doctors or experts. He doesn't even recover with the aid of his loved ones. It's simply a kid he's known for a day or two who just tells him to build something. That then makes something just "click" in his brain, and he becomes Iron Man again, even without the suit. At the end of the film, he destroys almost every single suit he has built while suffering PTSD symptoms, and barely winces at it. Just like that, he remembers who he is, what is important to him (sort of), and appears to shake all of the mental illness out of his head.
The rapport between Downey and the kid is pretty entertaining to watch. Turning Tony Stark into something more akin to a James Bond-esque action hero makes for unexpectedly fun stuff. For the first two acts, Iron Man 3 appears poised to take the mantle of best of the trilogy, and possibly sit in the top tier of Marvel movies. It all comes apart at the seams in the finale.
For starters, there are the villains. There are ultimately four baddies at play here. James Badge Dale does a great job as the menacing henchman, Savin. Rebecca Hall as Dr. Maya Hansen is solid for a chunk, too. In fact, she had much more potential than Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian. Both were motivated by Tony Stark's inconsiderate, dickish behavior. Both are scientists looking to improve the world and approaching who they think is an equally brilliant mind with substantially more resources to make that happen. Maya has the more compelling element of having been just another plaything for the misogynistic philanthropist playboy. Dr. Hansen represents a consequence of Stark's toxic behavior. Aldrich sort of does, too, except that all that happened to him was he was left alone on a roof after an impromptu meeting. He comes off much more like a stereotypical villain at home on a Saturday morning cartoon.
Perhaps the most controversial element of the film - and certainly one of the more debated - is its handling of the Mandarin. On the one hand, the Mandarin of the comics might not have worked at this point. Magic would eventually be worked into the universe, and perhaps the arch enemy could make an appearance in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy/Dr. Strange world. Turning him into a more generic, grounded terrorist - a sort of Marvel approximation of Osama bin Laden - actually makes some sense. Mandarin is a great foil for Iron Man because they are opposites. One is tech/science based while the other is magic/mystical. This central conflict is why the Mandarin is Iron Man's equivalent of the Joker for Batman, or Lex Luthor for Superman. In the early days of Phase II, Marvel seemed reluctant to get away from the more technological roots they had laid down.
There is still room here for a Mandarin that stands in diametric opposition to Tony Stark. There are no shortage of angles one could take to make him stand on the opposite side of the aisle of the billionaire, industrial capitalist. And for a bit, it feels like that's what they're trying to do here. Mandarin appears to take a sort of anti-western Imperial/anti-capitalist stance as his motivating factor. There is room here for Stark to use his tech to save the day while also learning about some of the dangers of unchecked capitalism or industrialism. He could learn a thing or two about promoting a system of corporate and militaristic imperialism while also shutting down a radicalized opposition.
Yet, when all is said and done, Mandarin is reduced to a mere punchline. He's just an actor with no self-awareness, no agency, and no beliefs of his own. In fact, he doesn't even stand in for a belief of Aldrich Killian. Instead, he's just a false flag that Killian can use to sell his weapons and technology, as well as - through intrigue and the industrial military complex - more political power. This is not just disappointing because it removes all of the possible components of the other villains (a spurned woman who became jaded from our protagonist's toxic behavior; a philosophically contradictory terrorist who witnessed first hand the impact of Stark weapons and the imperial militaristic attitudes of the west); it removes what might have made Killian interesting, too. In the end, his powers aren't really connected to Starks at all - they are neither similar nor opposing. They're just different (which is fine, of course, but it tends to be more thematically engaging when there is such a connection). At the same time, Killian is just a more stereotypically evil industrial capitalist looking to make bank and attain power through the west's military industrial complex.
In the past, some fans have derided this criticism as being too hung up on fandom of the source material. The issue, however, is not the fact that they did change up the Mandarin from the comics. Indeed, like with the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, there was always going to be a little bit of a dilemma for Marvel Studios. These villains are some of the few characters specifically created with the idea that they were Asian. Given that almost every protagonist in the early decades of the medium were created to be white and since Marvel shows little interest in casting outside that for their headlining roles, these were some of the few roles actually available to actors of Asian descent. Yet, at the same time, they have - for decades - been rooted in racial stereotypes. So, Marvel was sort of in a damned if they do, damned if they don't situation. Regardless, there was always going to be a need to change up key elements of their comic book counterparts. It's the same as how they updated Tony Stark's story to occur in a war in the middle east rather than Vietnam.
Changes themselves are not inherently bad, and often the changes Marvel has made have allowed for better films that told better stories. However, in this case, the changes made to the Mandarin made for a worse character, a worse story, and a worse film. It is not that they did make changes; it's the specific choices they made in doing so.
And it's incredibly disappointing because the stuff with Tony's mindset after the events of The Avengers was such a solid set up. Almost every element of the film is set up very well, only to fall apart in the end. Tony's PTSD resolves itself suddenly and in a dishonest, overly simplistic way. The relationship with Pepper Potts, as always, is also resolved and moves forward in a rather contrived fashion. Each and every single villain loses what potential they had in the first two acts. And the action centered on a floundering suit and a lack of resources is completed by one of the most visually bland spectacles of having all of the suits. (And no, him not calling in all the suits halfway through the film is not a "plot hole" like so many people suggested after watching this. They pretty clearly establish why he can't access them earlier on.)
Iron Man 3 highlights just how important nailing at least some of that final act is. You can do everything super well, but if you lose it all in the final third, you wind up with a frustrating experience that could and should have been so much better than it wound up being.
REDUCTIVE RATING: Disappointing.
There are 2 Replies
Reply to: Marvel Retrospective: Iron Man 3 (2013)