"Ever since that guy with the big hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety has had its day."
--A villain, Iron Man 3
Around 1980 or so, Stan Lee acknowledged in his column, Stan's Soapbox, that many of the mass-media adaptations of Marvel Comics superheroes bore too little resemblance to their inspirations, and were less than adequate depictions by any standard. He made a bold proposal: Marvel would form a film company, enter into partnership with a major studio, and retain greater creative control over the final product. It took decades, but Lee achieved this dream. The twenty-first century has seen numerous successful Marvel movies, with The Avengers-related franchise setting new standards for the superhero genre. Not so long ago, you were a hopeless geek if you even knew Iron Man was something other than a Black Sabbath song. Then again, not so long ago, San Diego Comic-Con was actually about comics.
So 2013 sees the third Iron Man film, certainly better than the second, and a fair follow-up to the first. And, while it could not match the excess and comic-book brilliance of The Avengers, it doesn't embarrass itself, despite following immediately after that hyperbolic celebration of all things metahuman. Iron Man 3 could have been a lot better, but people seeking the latest Marvel superhero adventure, or a decent popcorn movie, will at least be entertained.
Robert Downey Jr. continues to demonstrate both his acting and comic chops as Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist, narcissist, and shellheaded hero. He lives a luxurious life with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)-- but he also remains haunted by the events of The Avengers. We can relate, even though we have less impressive digs and we've probably never saved the world from an alien invasion led by a Norse god. It doesn't matter who you are; your past casts long shadows. Indeed, the consequences Stark faces go back further than last year's hit film. Iron Man 3 opens with events that take place years before he became Iron Man.1 Those events, too, will have consequences.
Before long, Stark finds himself angered by the wanton destruction wrought by a mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin. In the original comics, the Mandarin is basically Fu Manchu with borrowed alien tech. Since that would not fly in 2013, especially with the growing Chinese market2, the film's Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) blends an absurdly theatrical take on the original character with Osama Bin Laden, and adds an over-the-top southern Baptist accent. He'd be a bad joke to both the film's world and ours, but director Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce know exactly what they're doing here, and they've found the correct actor to portray their vision. Just as we begin to suspect the filmmakers have misplayed their hand, we learn the truth about the film's version of the archvillain.
Many comics have explored the notion that the presence of superheroes encourages other heroic sorts, but also their adversaries, to adapt similar flamboyant ways. The film weds this notion with the more serious concept that we often create our enemies, and in pursuing them, often become like them. But Iron Man 3, like its predecessors, never becomes too self-serious. In their handling of the Mandarin, the film demonstrates cinematic and comedic brilliance. I will not explain just how twisted this twist becomes-- suffice it to say, the mysteries surrounding the character pay off.
Of course, the plot involves much more than just dueling egoists. We get a personal journey involving Stark without his suit. He needs to rediscover himself-- and he needs to save the captive Pepper Potts. Stark even enlists the help of a kid sidekick. This could have been a disaster, but Stark befriends the fatherless lad (Ty Simpkins) without giving in to excessive sentimentality. Pepper, for her part, will prove no clichéd damsel in distress-- though some audience members might wish her heroic side received additional play.
Meanwhile, Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) continues his role as the American government's official hero, War Machine. They've repainted his Stark armor, however, Captain America-style, and rechristened him "Iron Patriot." He tries to take his missions seriously, but, more and more, his incursions into other countries aren't working out as intended. The questioning of American foreign policy seems obvious enough, but the film never becomes too serious. No one forgets we're in a movie about a superhero.
As the plots converge, the film maintains its often-humorous tone. It needs to. Iron Man, more so than most superheroes, raises the question of how Marvel's world could look and function so much like ours. See, Thor hails from another dimension. While I doubt a godlike being from another universe would look like a Muscle Beach dude with a magic hammer, I can't say for certain one wouldn't. More importantly, his powers can't be used by others. The Hulk? Freak accident, unlikely to be duplicated3-- just a wandering force of nature. Hawkeye and Black Widow are unique individuals, people with exceptional talents.
But Iron Man engineered his superpowers; they can be manufactured, bought, and sold. If the kind of tech depicted in this film-- especially in its over-the-top conclusion-- actually existed, it would quickly get duplicated by other companies and the face of war and peace would change dramatically. Or, if Stark Industries somehow maintained sole ownership, every armed conflict would be ended very quickly by Tony Stark and his associates. Marvel's history would quickly diverge from ours, and Iron Man's world would more closely resemble Watchmen's, or the world of some bizarre near-future SF story. If this film winks a little too often at the camera, at least the winking helps us to accept its world: it looks exactly like ours, but, just around the corner, wish-fulfillment characters have cool adventures while delivering wisecracks.
The slightly goofy approach helps us accept the tech, but it doesn't keep the tech from creating other problems. The armor saves the day a little too often for us to feel any real suspense, after awhile. At other times, however, we see a startling absence of the tech when it should be most apparent. Much of the plot gets set in motion, for example, because Tony Stark's house lacks the defenses necessary to fend off a relatively low-tech assault. The film tries to account for the defense failure, but the explanation doesn't really work. Jarvis and Stark should have expected the attack and responded long before they do.
In the end, the movie delivers thrills, a little pointed commentary, and a lot of laughs. I can't call it a great film, but I could overlook its flaws. The filmmakers know their audiences. The nerd niche wants to revel in the triumph of their brand of entertainment, and they can. The action movie audience regularly cheers heroes who challenge the system in order to reinforce the system's values, and they won't be disappointed. The summer blockbuster audience, of course, wants to laugh, cheer, and see stuff explode. Iron Man 3 delivers all of these-- it even does them a little more clever than most.
1. Events, incredibly, referenced in passing in the first Iron Man movie.
2. China actually saw a moderately extended version of this film, with additional Asian content.
3. Not very often, anyway.