Marvel Movie Club: How the irreverent Iron Man 3 ignores the MCU
'It's not superhero business. It's American business.'
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW’s Chancellor Agard (that’s me!) will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, we’re digging into Marvel’s first post-Avengers movie, Iron Man 3.
With Iron Man 3, the first Phase Two movie, Marvel faced an interesting question: How do you follow-up The Avengers? Do you just copy the structure of Phase One and use the new Iron Man movie to moving the pieces around for the next team-up extravaganza à la Iron Man 2? Apparently not. Directed by Shane Black, the threequel is an irreverent piece of work that seems uninterested in the Avengers world, doesn’t care about serving any greater universe scheme, or superheroics really in general. Instead, it tries to take Tony Stark back to basics with a conflict that’s American business, not superhero business, as Rhodey (Don Cheadle) states.
Iron Man 3 picks up in the aftermath of “New York,” a.k.a. the MCU’s euphemism for the climactic battle in the final act of The Avengers. While the film, which was written by Black and Drew Pearce, doesn’t really care about the Avengers, it does allow the invasion to shape the world of Iron Man 3. Everyone feels rather uneasy in this new world: From Tony Stark, who is suffering from PTSD after flying through that wormhole, to Stark Industry’s newly-security obsessed Happy (Jon Favreau), who believes humans are the company’s biggest vulnerability. Even America feels unsafe; hence it felt the need to rebrand War Machine as the ridiculously star-spangled Iron Patriot when the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a new terrorist, enters the scene.
Watching Iron Man 3 now, I still found Tony’s PTSD rather compelling. It makes complete sense that our billionaire playboy wouldn’t be the same after what he experienced. Plus, it’s another reminder that what happens in all of these movies actually matters, and not just for plot reasons but for character reasons, too.
However, the film’s concern with The Avengers or the MCU ends there. In fact, the level of disinterest in engaging with that stuff broaches on the absurd in Iron Man 3. Usually I get annoyed when people raise the question, “Why didn’t this superhero team show up to help this random superhero with this seemingly big crisis?” If you read enough comics, you just learn to accept that your favorite heroes can’t team-up all the time. As I rewatched this movie, however, I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell S.H.I.E.L.D. wasbecause it’s such an intrusive constant of the MCU. Nick Fury makes time to drop by when Tony Stark is spiraling out of control and on the verge of death, but he, Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders), and the nameless agent that guy from USA’s Common Law played in The Avengers are nowhere to be found when Tony is presumed dead and there’s a terrorist running around with human grenades and dangerous tech? That kind of violates one of the rules the MCU established in Phase One. It’s also one of the reasons Iron Man 3 is so much fun to watch — instead of S.H.I.E.L.D. showing up and bringing the entire plot to halt, we get two offhanded references to it and Thor.
Black’s indifference manifests itself in how he treats the Iron Man armor. Boy, do Tony’s toys get mistreated in the movie! Here’s a quick list of indignities Tony’s suit suffers in the film: It breaks into pieces at least three time; the armor constantly malfunctions; we learn that the suit isn’t entirely waterproof; it inexplicably loses power even though it’s supposed to be powered by this new and improved version of the arc reactor that also solved Tony’s daddy issues in Iron Man 2; and at the end of the final battle, Tony blows up his army of Iron Man suits (read: drones). Black takes every opportunity to undercut Iron Man’s cool factor. You thought Iron Man saving the people on Air Force One was awesome? Well, then we’ll shatter the suit by hitting it with a truck right immediately after that. (Tony was operating it remotely). Plus, the film’s middle section strands Tony in rural Tennessee without his armor, which isn’t the worst thing the world because Tony gets paired with a hilarious little sidekick.
Iron Man 3‘s boldest move, however, is obviously what it does with The Mandarin. In the lead-up to the film, there was definitely a lot of concern about the fact that Kingsley was playing the villain the Mandarin, who was a racist and dated Asian stereotype in the comics. Feige and Black assured fans ahead of time that they made some tweaks to the character. “It’s less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end,” Feige told EW in 2013, explaining that Kingsley’s interpretation was meant to be a mélange of warrior motifs. Nevertheless, as I watched the movie, I still felt slightly uneasy about the Mandarin’s threatening and ridiculously preachy videos.
Thank god for the twist: The Mandarin isn’t real! He’s simply an ugly mess of a British actor named Trevor who was hired to play an Osama bin Laden-like terrorist because Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the Iron Man franchise’s latest war profiteer, needed: A) to cover up the real cause of the explosions; and B) a way to stoke fear, intensify the War on Terror, and increase the demand for his technology. Up until this point, fans had thought the Marvel movies would, for the most part, treat the comics as gospel, but that turns out not to be the case because the creative team just deflated the man many believed to be Iron Man’s greatest foe.
Moreover, the Mandarin twist provided the Iron Man franchise with its strongest (this is a relative term) commentary on the military industrial complex and the War on Terror. Once the twist comes, you realize the movie was trying to make a point about how the War on Terror, for the most part, is a fabrication that’s perpetuated by repeated use of the same kinds of imagery and terms. My colleague Darren Franich also likes to read the Mandarin as a parody Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which, after rewatching Iron Man 3, I tend to agree with, too. “A true story about fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound… Chinese. But they’re actually an American invention. Which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth,” says The Mandarin at one point, which sounds like bad Bane dialogue and I think that’s the point!
Despite the twist, the film still does have a villain problem. Killian is super forgettable. Somehow he manages to be blander than Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer even though he literally breathes fire in one of the movie’s most ridiculous moments. Moreover, there’s a problem with his henchmen. As we learn in the movie, the various bombings are caused by veterans who went nuclear after taking Killian’s Extremis drug, which was supposed to regrow their lost limbs but also ended up giving them powers. The lucky few who aren’t combustible become Killian’s goons, which entails helping him assassinate the president and institute a puppet government; however, the script never bothers explaining why their loyalties changed. Is it because they felt betrayed by America when they returned home from service? Who knows. This aspect of the movie is kind of disappointing especially in light of Netflix’s Marvel’s The Punisher, which offered a very powerful critique of how the government trains men to be killers and sends them off to war, and yet there really isn’t a place for them when they come home damaged from what they endured. Unlike The Punisher, Iron Man 3 has rather flippant attitude about, well, everything, so the problematic elements of this villain aren’t entirely surprising. But Iron Man 3, like the best blockbusters, is a lot fun and convinces you to forget your complaints for most of its runtime and just sit back and enjoy it.
The end credits:
- The sequence in which Air Force One is attacked reminded of a similar scene from The Ultimates storyline “Grand Theft America” in which former President George W. Bush screams for his wife as he falls out of the sky.
- Another subversive aspect of the movie: The post-credit scene, which reveals that Tony was telling this story to Bruce Banner, who fell asleep, in a quasi-therapy session. I love the Tony-Bruce bromance.
- The one thing that undercuts Iron Man 3 is that Tony Stark is basically in the same anxious place when Avengers: Age of Ultron. Furthermore, they share basically the same theme. At the beginning of Iron Man 3, Tony talks about how we create our own demons, and in Age of Ultron, Ultron declares says we create the things we dread.
- “A famous man once said, ‘We create our own demons.’ Who said that? What does that even mean? Doesn’t matter. I said it because he said it. So now, he was famous, and that’s basically getting said by two well-known guys.”
- “It’s not the ’80s. Nobody says ‘hack’ anymore,” Tony to Rhodey
- Fun fact: Happy loves Downton Abbey.
Next Week: We’re tortured with The Dark World that is Thor 2.