Revisiting Iron Man Three: Marvel’s Best to Date

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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.

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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.

mandarin

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.

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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?

IRON MAN 3

“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.


  • Lucas

    Very well done David. I thought this was a much better film than Iron Man 2 but the “origin” story of Iron Man 1 still takes the cake. It was just fun to watch Tony become Iron Man and to not hide from it at the end.

    I for one didn’t mind the Mandarin reveal in the movie. Truth be told I think it would’ve been awesome to see the Mandarin from the comics and his rings wreaking havoc etc. but when it was all said and done – I loved the way the entire story came together at the end.

    There are plenty of things wrong with the film though and as good as your points are – you shy away from stuff like the Pepper Potts debacle at the end of the film, the way Tony takes out the shards and no longer needs the arc reactor in his chest, and a few other things that happen. These were little nitpicks to me that were thrown in so rushed and haphazardly that they didn’t seem to do the rest of the film justice.

    Either way – loved reading someone stand up for it rather than dog it like so many have.

    I agree – Thor has quite a bit to live up to this year.

  • bowski

    Very well done, indeed. I wasn’t really paying attention the first time a watched it, keeping my mind in “popcorn-flick mode”, so thsi one’s getting a revisit soon.

  • Jonathan

    Although I despised the Trevor reveal that’s not the main problem with the movie. I’m fine with suspending belief to watch a movie like Iron Man but when movies start breaking their own rules that’s when there’s a problem.

    Tony Stark, a genius that gets shit done, would not have waited till the end of the movie to call a functioning Iron Man suit to save the day.

    He would not have given a terrorist his home address without some serious precautions being taken, especially since the love of his life is at said address.

    And Jarvis being able to control all of the Iron Man suits at once negates the need for Tony to use the suits ever again. Hell, the suits are nothing compared to Jarvis. Jarvis is a fully functioning AI capable of emotion and all he gets to do is control some suits in the end? Bullshit.

    Add to that a shitty reveal just to say “what a twist” and you have a movie that still pisses me off just thinking about it.

  • pyco18

    I mostly loved Iron Man 3, with some exceptions…especially with the ending. I realize that blowing up the suits was supposed to be a grand, romantic, symbolic gesture, but as the audience we’re just rolling our eyes because we know that Avengers 2 is just around the corner. Is anyone NOT expecting the ending of IM3 to just be swept under the rug in the beginning part of A2 so Tony Stark can return?

    Also, Why was the Mark 42 suit so inferior to Tony’s previous suits? It kept falling apart and running out of battery life…wasn’t the only redeeming narrative point of Iron Man 2 that Tony creates a nearly limitless energy source for his armor? What happened to the new element he synthesized?

  • nickro

    I have to agree with Jonathan. Didn’t care for this movie at all and I’m not a comic book guy I thought the twist of villain was the best part of this movie. IM2 was the best of the bunch in my opinion. Still don’t understand why people hate it so much. I went to see Iron Man not MacGuyver. Not that there’s anything wrong with MacGuyver it was a great show but it’s not Iron Man. And I seem to remember Joss Whedon also saying that he didn’t know what he’s going to do after seeing the ending of IM3 implying that Tony Stark just destroyed all his suits and removed the arch-reactor the very thing that makes his suits possible. I still don’t get that one, why if he has this unlimited power source in his chest does the suit keep loosing power and needing to be recharged? Garbage. It’s no wonder Jon Favreau dropped out.

  • David R

    @Lucas –

    Without writing another few hundred words on the ending, I’ll say that a) I don’t know what the “Pepper debacle” is, because I liked the way everything wrapped up with her and b) Tony finally fixing that hole in his chest strikes me as a great beat to hit with the character. Fixing his heart and all that. If he doesn’t need the arc reactor, so be it; he’s clearly motivated by more complex factors than an injury from almost ten years ago.

    @Jonathan –

    This might be a cop-out in your eyes, but I’d say a lot of the stuff you’re talking about works just fine from a movie-logic or dramatic perspective. Also, the current teaser for The Avengers 2 indicates that, in some way, the Iron Man armor (maybe even Jarvis?) serves as the foundation for the new villain, so you might consider holding off on that particular complaint.

    @nickro, @pyco18 –

    In the commentary, the writers said the in-movie explanation for the power issues was that the Mark 42 needs power for each individual piece to be able to fly around and stuff. But I don’t personally need an explanation to enjoy that dramatic/comedic device for what it is.

  • Tenacious EJ

    If I recall, the Mark 42 was also still in development when the movie began. It was the suit he had on hand when his house was attacked. Now, the point about having ALL those other suits and not calling any of them is certainly valid…

    That being said, this was the only thing that bugged me about IM3 (OK, the “quick fix” of Pepper Potts was kind of a joke, and quite honestly, a badass Pepper would have been a lot of fun in future films). The reveal was fantastic, although it wasn’t as much of a surprise to me because it was clear early on Killian had been “fixed” thanks to Extremis, and since he was the one at the start of the film familiar with Maya Hansen’s work, and she told us he was her boss…. But Kingsley’s character was so much fun- how could you hate that? And when you consider how bad the true comic book Mandarin’s racial stereotype would have been in film, I’d say there’s not much to complain about.

  • I’ve covered several of my complaints previously, but what do you make of the weird random panic attacks, the kid sidekick, and the complete abandonment of Stark’s alcoholism, which was clearly set up in the first two films? Themes are good, but if they are consistent with the actual character and series rather than something random that could be done in any other movie they are a lot better.

  • David R

    @Nick –

    I thought the kid, and Stark’s interactions with him, were hilarious. Also liked the idea of him meeting, essentially, the younger version of himself.

    The panic attacks sort of felt thin to me the first time I watched it, because they only crop up from time to time and don’t directly affect the plot or anything. This time around, they felt much better. The best explanation I can offer off the cuff is that they’re only one manifestation of Tony’s self-confidence issues. To bolster them, we have Pepper, War Machine, the multiple suits, etc. So, no, the panic attacks don’t form much of a story on their own, but as a clear symptom of Tony’s own issues, I think they serve their purpose well enough.

    As for the alcohol thing, that sounds a bit like “the movie I would have made” as opposed to an actual problem. Not that I would have objected to a “Demon in the Bottle” esque storyline, but the one they chose makes sense, and works well for an entry directly following The Avengers (as opposed to an entry directly following IM2). It seems that simply discovering the massive threats he faced in Avengers was enough to give Tony a new set of problems, instead of continuing to muddle through the ones he already had.

    IMO, the second Iron Man might have been the best place for that substance abuse storyline, but that’s just one of many issues I have with that movie.

  • Jonathan

    @David – “This might be a cop-out in your eyes, but I’d say a lot of the stuff you’re talking about works just fine from a movie-logic or dramatic perspective.”

    No, it doesn’t. That’s the whole point in me bringing them up. Tony Stark obviously cares for Pepper, he loves her, and he even says she’s the one thing he has to protect. And then he sends the man that humiliated the US president on national television by murdering the shit out of someone directly to his house. You know, the place where Pepper lives. And he doesn’t setup any warning system at all. You’d think Iron Man would have known helicopters, or any vehicle capable of leveling his abode, were anywhere near the one thing he has to protect.

    When a movie lays down the rules and logic it will follow, then breaks those rules or violates that logic, it’s unacceptable. Especially when it takes two seconds to throw in a line of dialogue to explain away the plot holes. If you want to tell me a genius can design a suit and be a superhero, sweet. Same genius doesn’t design an early warning system when he knows a terrorist is coming to his house? Fuck that.

  • Jonathan

    @David – I loved IM1 and enjoyed IM2. I’m not trying to over analyze or bitch or complain just because of the Trevor deal. and I don’t make it a habit to read too much into movies. But when the average person (me), is wondering why someone didn’t just raise their hand while filming to let the director know the shit doesn’t make sense considering Tony Stark is one of the smartest people alive in that particular universe, that’s an issue.

  • Matthew

    First of I fall entirely on the side of the detractors of the movie. I hated the reveal entirely. Prior to the reveal I was getting goosebumps at how bad ass Kingsley’s Mandarin was. Afterward a mild half hearted chuckle. One is definitely a lot more effecting than the other.

    I also was highly disappointed by the very, very small amount of actual Iron Man in this movie. There are staggering amounts of suits & lots of Tony but very little of the 2 combined. If the whole point as you see it is him realizing that he is Iron Man not the suits where is the personification of that? Iron Man is not even the one who saves the day?!? Sure he has a few fleeting seconds inside a series of suits but is actually Jarvis & Pepper who save the day. I don’t go to an Iron Man movie to see Pepper Potts save the day. Pepper is a strong supporting character but she is not the hero.

    Although it was really cool seeing Bruce & Tony together again I had a major problem with the post credits sequence. First off I for one have always loved the post credits stuff as a glance at what is to come. In this case that was absent. That aside though the very premise of the scene is Bruce being so bored by the story we have just seen that he falls asleep. I find it truly amazing that nobody else seems to have a problem with this.

    I also was outraged by the utter stupidity of Tony having the ability to summon all of his suits but not doing so to save the woman he loves or himself. It was akin to in Spider-Man 3 when the butler shows up to tell Harry that Peter didn’t kill his father out of nowhere. He sat & watched the boy he had a hand in raising go insane & attempt to murder his best friend. Watched him be horribly scarred by an explosion going off beside his face. These were not the times to tell him though. Sure a lot of pain & suffering could be averted but it’s not dramatic enough yet. Just horrible. I hope the next time we see Tony in the cinematic universe he’s back to being an alcoholic. That is after Pepper realizes that not only did he invite a terrorist to their home he also decided not to defend her to the best of his ability when he did come.

  • David R

    @Jonathan –

    I’d probably write that decision off as some sort of writing decision either way, but this is more or less how it reads to me…

    Tony Stark has an ego problem. He also lives in an extremely prominent location on the coast; a place where we’ve repeatedly seen people come and visit unannounced. I feel comfortable assuming that if the Mandarin wanted to find him, he could. So Tony giving out his address doesn’t really change anything; what it does is bring some attitude as he tells the Mandarin that HE is now personally invested in the bombings. He’s mouthing off, which is something people often do when they’re upset, especially if they already have ego issues. This was not a good idea, and Tony wasn’t thinking clearly, as evidenced by Pepper packing up the bags and them getting into an argument over it.

    Then his house is attacked, and we see that he HAS developed a protection for Pepper — Mark 42. It activates less than half a second after the missile hits Maybe it’s not an early warning system (though they’re clearly distracted by the appearance of Maya, so who knows what they missed), but this is where I make appeals to drama. The surprise missile attack is a good action-movie gag, and I can buy enough along the way to where I’d say it works.

  • Spaceno

    *sigh * this again.

    How much of the movie was Stark Iron Man? You can even argue that he wasn’t Iron Man even at the end. If you wanted to call this an action movie that fights terrorists – fine, but it’s an a movie about a superhero.

    Compare it this way – If in Batman, Bruce Wayne fought the Joker and beat up thugs without his suit, or Bruce Banner,not the hulk, fighting say Thor and kicking his ass? Yes, we wont to see the hero challenged, to get his butt kicked and to overcome. Stark’s is a genius (As mentioned above). But in this he’s an action star. He can run, he can fight, all without his suit. Why have a suit than? If I wanted to watch RDJ fight, I would watch Sherlock Holmes.

    The Pepper stuff is horrible. So anyone can wear his suit right? 42 wasn’t a protection for Pepper. 42 was made to work with his implants. How did it fly around Pepper when only he has the implants? Her ‘saving’ him at the end is horrible. If you wanted Stark to grow as a character, you would have killed her actually (Wheldon would have of course because he loves killing somoene). But of course she can just be cured so it’s not an issue.
    (The different suits – besides to sell toys – Stark usually had a suit for every occassion. )

    So the people using extremis are stronger than Thor right? They can tear Iron Man’s armor to shreds but Thors hammer doesn’t even dent it (Yes the lighting left a scratch). Don’t give me quality control crap – it’s armor. I’m talking about the material not it’s abilites. They were tearing it like tissue paper.

    Helicopters flying in US airspace destroying a very very public figure’s house. I don’t care if the vice president was in on it (which was just so convinent in the movie and a throw away), the air force would be all over it.

    Stark destroying his suits. Well if you go though all the other media, he loves his suits so that is out of character. The suits are him…of course Batman can quit in the movies so….

    His suit parts (42) flying – what hundreds of miles to save him? One gets there, but the rest are locked away till the boy frees him. Than they get there in whay 5 minutes? Nice flight time.

    Removing his arc reactor ..while it didn’t really matter in this movie (Imagine that). Removing it is a loss for the character. He’s not mortal anymore, he’s perfect based on this movie – healthy, smart, over panic attacks and get do action.

    Wheldon’s originally view was that he didn’t know how he was going to follow it because it totally undid Stark as a character (Red carpet he was being polite – like up his other quotes).

    I wasn’t even an Iron Man fan growing up. I did think in the first film RDJ nailed the character. I thought the character was great in the Avengers. I think in this movie. They wanted to show RDJ off not the character.

  • MegaSolipsist

    The Mandarin looked like he was going to be the best villain since Bane, or even the Joker.
    What we got were some pathetic fart jokes and that’s it.

  • Trshstr

    Well, put. Quite enjoyed the film.

    Enjoyed the Jarvis bits as we really started seeing how Jarvis has expanded and grown, being much more the technical accomplishment than the any of the suits and serving as field commander of Tony’s personal army. Thought the ending more or less works, as the film showed Tony Stark is Iron Man and effective wether he’s in the armor, controlling it, or just calling the shots. The kid’s part was needlessly long, but it wasn’t that big of deal, certainly not enough to ruin the film. We don’t really know how “fixed” Pepper really is yet, so no sense getting worked up over that. Not taking the obvious route with the Mandarin’s identity was fun and different. I felt the film was definitely better than the second even if it wasn’t as good as the first. I suppose I get that some folks didn’t like it, and that’s fine but I do wonder how much of that is the internet hive-mind mentality of everything is either “Best Ever!” or “Sucks!”