I would say that Marvel’s most recent Iron Man flick was the most polarizing movie of the summer, but that’s simply not true. This summer, more than any I can remember, saw fervent debate over pretty much every major release, from Man of Steel and Star Trek to Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger. Okay, maybe I’m the only one who liked that last one.
But, even so, “Iron Man Three” inspired lots of debate across the web, with yours truly squarely on the side of writer/director Shane Black, co-writer Drew Pearce, and the film. Still, I was curious to see what, if any, insights a repeat viewing at home would bring.
Fortunately, it holds up just fine. I’d go so far as to label it the most satisfying movie Marvel Studios has released to date, and heartily suggest reconsidering if you’re one of those who didn’t like it the first go-round.
In the interest of cutting to the chase — and, heads-up, I’m assuming we’ve all seen the movie — the most controversial element of Iron Man Three was easily the reveal of Trevor Slattery as the face behind The Mandarin. This was a twist that legitimately surprised most of us, aided by some slick marketing and a killer performance by Sir Ben Kingsley. Honestly, I feel like I could stop there. How often are you truly surprised in a movie like this?
Anyway, while it really aggravated a not-insubstantial number of comics fans, I think the Mandarin switcheroo was one of the best things that could have happened in the franchise. Setting him up to be another terrifying, America-hating madman and then pulling out the rug is a wonderful trick to employ in a superhero story.
For one, it tempers the inevitable race-related problems a true interpretation of the character would have incurred. More importantly, though revealing him to be what a “think-tank terrorist” (as the writers call it) acts as a partial antidote to the somewhat, uh, simplistic portrayal of terrorism we saw in the first movie — and in American cinema at large. Yet, a lot of folks seemed to take the Trevor Slattery reveal as a toss-off joke; a shrewd but empty gag that does nothing but add a twist to an action movie.
But think about it. IF they HAD gone with the villain the trailers portrayed, what would have set him aside from any number of ideological terror tycoons of recent years? Star Trek Into Darkness proved what an empty archetype that can be. Dramatic monologues and production design do not an interesting villain make. If nothing else, I urge you to consider the notion that hiring an actor to embody the pop culture ideal superterrorist is at least a minor commentary on the way that, say, our politicians and media use real disasters to further their own gain.
But Shane Black and Drew Pearce go one step further and feed the Mandarin reveal back into the movie’s overarching obsession with masks and deception. The Mandarin’s “movie magic,” War Machine’s new name and subsequent “treachery,” Maya Hansen’s side-switching… all of these elements are bent around subterfuge and sleight-of-hand. Nobody is who they say they are.
It’s not always subtle, either.
Tony Stark himself is in the middle of an identity crisis. Our hero, amongst all this chaos, has to confront the question of whether he, or his collection of suits, is the true “Iron Man.” If he is Iron Man, is Iron Man enough in a world where gods can fall out of the sky at a moment’s notice? The resolution to this arc brings us to another common complaint: the way that Tony both develops a staggering amount of variations on the Iron Man armor, and then blows them all up at the end.
Again, this could appear to be a simple case of “well, bigger is better” from a filmmaker who doesn’t know when to quit. But again, the army of armors serves a greater purpose than topping the first few movies. It’s a character beat for Tony Stark, plain and simple. Here’s a guy who thought he was invincible and faced events that proved him anything but. His fear of being caught off-guard again fuels a desperate surge of tinkering and toiling that nearly takes him away from his life and his sanity. That’s where our story begins.
Where it ends is with the discovery that, if Tony Stark puts his mind to it, he can do anything. Whether that’s storming an armed fortress with nothing but a bill from Lowe’s, or stopping a supervillain with all the technology the Stark home can provide, Tony Stark will make it if he can simply remember… what was that again?
“I am Iron Man.”
And not to name-drop, but you don’t need to take my word for the quality of any of this. Joss Whedon, in a red-carpet interview, referred to Shane Black’s Iron Man Three as “really [getting] it right.” Whedon, as you guys know, is probably one of the biggest comic book fans, and certainly comic book filmmakers, in the world.
IM3 “gets it right” by displaying a thematic depth and complexity that even the best of Marvel’s movies — the aforementioned Avengers, as well as Captain America — really only hint at. For me, personally, I’m more likely to watch The Avengers on many days. There’s a breezy swagger to that one that few other recent popcorn movies have been able to match, let alone top. And yet, the sheer fun of The Avengers is really its sole selling point; the movie goes above and beyond the call of duty but still settles for being a hell of a good time.
Iron Man Three, on the other hand, is really ABOUT something. It’s about our attitudes towards villains. It’s about the way we can’t leave our past behind even if we change our present. And more than anything, it’s about taking Tony Stark, making him confront his demons, and watching him come out on the other side as something a little bit different and a little bit better.
It’s a complete, satisfying story. It’s hilarious. And it rewatches really, really well.
Thor, you’ve got a bit of a burden to shoulder come November.