Iron Man 3 opens with a flashback to 1999, narrated by Tony Stark. It’s the eve of the new millennium, and Tony is partying with an attractive scientist who is interested in DNA modification as it relates to regeneration. They have an elevator encounter with an enthusiastic scientist interested in recruiting Tony (and the woman) to his new company. We’re told via Tony’s voice over that this is where it all started.
We then jump to modern day Tony Stark, struggling to deal with recent events. Christmas is approaching, and Tony has been spending all of his time in the lab, hardly ever sleeping, working on perfecting a new suit of Iron Man armor that will fly to his body in pieces at just a thought. He’s currently living with Pepper Potts, who is still running his company. Tony hasn’t been sleeping because he’s still haunted by his near-suicide in the wormhole in New York during the events of The Avengers.
This is Iron Man 3’s real strength. While I generally enjoyed Iron Man 2, it didn’t give us much in the way of character development for Tony Stark, other than perhaps a check on his ego. Iron Man 3, however, focuses on some big issues for Tony, who in addition to not sleeping suffers from panic attacks and an attitude of fear. (You can read more of my thoughts in the spoiler-filled analysis section below.)
Into this situation enters the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist who follows his worldwide bombings with flashy and cryptic videos denouncing America. The President (William Sadler) puts James Rhodes on the case along with the newly rebranded “Iron Patriot” armor, but when a member of Tony’s “family” is injured in an attack Tony calls out the Mandarin in the press, even giving out his home address.
What follows is a different sort of Iron Man film than we’ve seen before, with twists and turns and style unique to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” The story is more of a mystery than any of the previous films, as Tony, Pepper and Rhodey try to figure out the Mandarin’s methods and motive and how he might be connected to scientists from Tony’s past (including Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian). I would say it plays more like a Tom Clancy story (as it was described by writer/director Shane Black), except that I don’t like Tom Clancy and I feel that it would be an insult to this film.
Black does have a point, though, because this film does feel more like a spy film from the ‘70s than a glossy, modern superhero film. This serves the character development well, as Tony spends more of his time outside the Iron Man suits than in them, dealing with his issues. Black is not as much of an actors’ director as Jon Favreau was, but the cast turns in particularly strong performances, particularly the three leads, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle. Ben Kingsley makes an interesting villain, in ways that I won’t spoil here in this review.
The film, as you would expect, is full of humor and action. There’s a particularly exciting and hilarious sequence aboard Air Force One that was teased in the trailers, and the interaction between Tony and Rhodey has never been better. But the heart of film remains Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, and this time around we’re treated to something much more interesting, getting to see the human heart beneath the arc reactor in his chest. He gives Tony Stark something to care about and reason to be afraid, dealing with his issues not as a “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” but as a mortal man. It makes the character compelling where before he had just been entertaining and charismatic. Joss Whedon first cracked the nut in The Avengers, forcing Tony to work with a team for the first time and question his world, and Black continues it here, exploring Tony’s depth in a way that the group film could not.
In the end, Iron Man 3 makes me optimistic for the rest of “Phase 2” of the Marvel film slate, including Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers 2. If Marvel (and Disney) continue to be aggressive in this way, not content merely to cash in with more of the same but looking to expand their universe and explore its characters, I can’t wait to see what they come up with. And if all of the post-credits scenes are as good as the one in Iron Man 3, so much the better!
***Spoilers below! Do not read on if you want to be surprised at all by Iron Man 3. Seriously, there’s a great twist that I would hate to ruin for someone. You’ve been warned!
Tony Stark’s emotional journey is the center of the film. At its beginning he’s almost unrecognizable when compared to the womanizing, egocentric, self-confident billionaire we’ve seen in the previous films (and in the opening flashback). He’s still a genius, but he’s become an obsessive, hardly ever leaving his lab. When he goes to bed with Pepper, he leaves once she’s asleep and returns to the lab to tinker, always trying to perfect his suit. In actuality he’s afraid to be without it.
In a scene early in the movie, he’s in a bar having drinks with Rhodey and interrogating him about Iron Patriot and the Mandarin. Two kids come up asking for autographs, which he happily agrees to sign. Suddenly he breaks the crayon he’s signing with, just as one of the kids asks him about the events in New York. He starts to hyperventilate, having a panic attack, and he runs outside, knocking people over, and climbs into the Iron Man suit waiting just outside for him. He immediately asks JARVIS, his computer, to run a diagnostic on him, convinced he’s in serious medical danger. Rhodey follows him outside and knocks on his helmet, asking if he’s ok, but Tony flies off and back to his house.
In Iron Man 3, Tony is a man dealing with his own mortality, in a way far different than he was in the first Iron Man movie. In that first movie, his near death experience caused him to rethink his priorities, as he was confronted first hand with the destruction that his weapons had caused. It was the story of a detached billionaire’s change of heart, symbolized by his literal “change of heart” and the arc reactor. This time, his near death experience has affected him much more sharply, because for the first time he has something to lose. Death is frightening to him largely because of Pepper.
Tony finally has someone he cares about, and who cares about him in return. He’s terrified of not being able to protect her, either by failing or by dying and not being around anymore to protect her. He’s spent his time building more than 30 different Iron Man suits, trying to plan for any contingency, and his current project, the Mark 42, is designed to fly to him in pieces at any time. It’s very humorously played, but underlying the comedy is a sense of Tony’s desperation, his need to feel in control and completely protected. When Happy, his driver/bodyguard/head of security is injured in the Mandarin’s attack, he responds with anger, challenging the Mandarin out of revenge.
When the Mandarin attacks Tony’s house, Tony puts the armor to its first test, calling it with his mind and sending it to envelope Pepper, protecting her from the blast and allowing her to rescue the woman from his past who had come to help. Once she is safe he calls it to himself again, but the house collapses, sending him into the sea. JARVIS does some fancy maneuvering to rescue him, and the he and the Iron Man suit fly away, ending up in Tennessee (the site of the earliest explosion that matches the Mandarin’s modus operandi).
Once in Tennessee, with his suit damaged and powerless, Tony hides out in a garage and is befriended by the boy who lives there. It’s a unique pairing, and the boy challenges Tony at every turn, questioning him about everything and causing more panic attacks. Tony feels completely defenseless, with his armor out of commission and his girlfriend far away where he can’t protect her. It’s here that Tony starts to learn that while he is Iron Man, as he’s fond of saying, he’s also more than just a man in armor, and more even than a “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” Iron Man 3 is about Tony Stark learning to be a hero.
Tony Stark, in his first 3 movies (including The Avengers) is a reactionary figure, filling his suits with all manner of devices for any possible situation, but his attitude was still mostly just to show up and deal with whatever he found. This would typically work, because he is a genius, and was prepared for everything, but the wormholes and aliens and gods during the events in New York showed him that he can never be fully prepared. He just barely survived that battle, and even then only because he was part of a unique team. In Iron Man 3, Tony is forced to become proactive, taking the fight to the Mandarin and meeting the crisis head-on.
As his suit is charging, he heads off to attack the Mandarin without it, suffering another panic attack at the thought. His boy sidekick suggests that he build something as a way to make himself feel better, and a trip to a hardware store sees him constructing an improvised weapon suit, giving him the confidence he needs to assault the Mandarin’s compound. He is eventually captured, as is Pepper, who is injected with Extremis, putting her life in jeopardy.
Tony manages to summon his suit to him, breaking free, rescuing Rhodey and a plane full of people, before he and Rhodey set off without any suits to rescue Pepper. A key moment comes later on, after Pepper has apparently died. Tony is fighting Killian, who can spit fire and has other powers, having called all of his myriad of suits into the battle, and many are destroyed in the conflict. At the last moment, his missing Mark 42 comes flying to him, but accidentally crashes and breaks apart. Tony looks at it and says, “Whatever,” finally over his fear, ready to fight Killian without the suit he relies on.
In the end, Pepper kills Killian, using her newfound Extremis powers and a move Tony had demonstrated earlier in the movie. Tony’s personal journey is complete. He realizes that the people he loves are strong and that he doesn’t need to smother them in trying to protect them, and he faces his fear and get over his reliance on Iron Man. He destroys his remaining Iron Man suits, opting for a “clean slate,” and chooses to have a surgery removing the shrapnel from his body that forced him to rely on the arc reactor. In the final scene he throws it into the sea.
It would be easy to interpret the ending as Tony giving up on Iron Man altogether, were it not for his final reaffirmation that, “I am Iron Man.” He is still Iron Man, but everything is different now. He’s no longer Iron Man because he feels he has to be, but instead because he chooses to be. In proving himself capable without its protection, and removing the very real physical reliance on the technology to survive, he now is able to make a completely independent choice to be Iron Man. And a superhero by choice is far more formidable than one who is only reacting because he feels he has no choice. It’s a great arc for Tony Stark, deepening our understanding the character.
Iron Man 3’s other interesting point that I wish to discuss concerns the twist of the Mandarin. The Mandarin is Iron Man’s most well known nemesis from the comics, and in the movie is presented as a Bin Laden-esque figure, responsible for suicide bombings around the world and making videos where he criticizes America (among other things). When Tony Stark finally finds the Mandarin’s lair, he discovers that the feared terrorist from the videos is actually a bumbling actor, Trevor Slattery, who is paid to play the part by scientist Killian.
It’s a marvelous twist, that both challenges our expectations and is absolutely hilarious. Killian manufactured the Mandarin as a way to cover up the explosive failings in his Extremis technology. It’s an interesting commentary on the way we see terror in the world and the things we actually fear. The Mandarin, as he’s presented to the world, is similar to Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, creating chaos as a way to critique the state of the world. His appearance is a conglomeration of any number of terrorist/villainous images, from Bin Laden to Castro and beyond.
But the fact that the explosions are more akin to corporate irresponsibility than to terrorist bombings is more scary. Extremis was created to heal people, and in some cases it worked, even helping war veterans regrow limbs. But instead it killed people, with explosion as the worst of the side effects. To cover up their mistakes, Killian created at “terrorist”, and he plans to kill the President and blame it on the Mandarin, and control the Vice President by curing his daughter’s missing limb. A story of terrorism turns out to be instead a story of corporate responsibility and power. It’s something much more scary (and one that fits in well with the ‘70s vibe of the film), and in today’s world people with power can be much scarier than simply those with bombs.
What do you think? Did you enjoy Tony Stark’s journey? What did you think of the Mandarin twist (that sounds like a drink…) which has infuriated many comic book fans? Did I miss anything? Let me know by leaving a comment!