Day 7 of 11 Days of Marvel is here! In this project, Bill and Erin go through every single extant film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and write their reactions to them! The project started here, with Iron Man, or you can click here to see all the articles in the project so far. Today is about:
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Erin’s Response: Does Iron Man Actually Need Redemption?
Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed this movie the first time I saw it. I enjoyed the interplay between Tony and the Kid (his name is sort of irrelevant). Most of the action scenes in this movie are well-filmed and interesting, especially because the Iron Man suit is either performing badly, only halfway on Tony’s body, or, in several very tense scenes, absent all together. Tony has been reduced to human proportions in this movie and proves that his money isn’t the only reason he can be so smart and inventive. The whole refrain of this movie is that Tony Stark is Iron Man, but I couldn’t help but think that it was actually the reverse: Iron Man is Tony Stark. If you love Iron Man, you need to love and trust Tony Stark.
That is why, for all there is to recommend this movie, I disliked the notion that Tony needed to somehow move on, grow up, and search for redemption. Perhaps this is my non-religious bent coming out, but I have never felt like Tony was broken. He is flawed, but most of the time those flaws don’t stop him from doing his job and doing it well. The tics they added to him in this movie (making a million suits, never sleeping, using the suits in a very Dr. Manhantten-esque scene with Pepper, and even his panic attacks) were attributable to his trip through the wormhole, but never actually attributed to that event. That is because this movie wasn’t about a solider’s PTSD, it was about how a capitalist needs to find his inner human. The problem with this storyline is that Tony has been too well fleshed-out in all the other movies to make this believable. Unlike the other Avengers, Tony has starred in 4.1 of the 7 movies of the franchise so far. We have now seen him battle for Earth countless times, and have grown accustomed to his snark, brilliant mind, and the care he offers to others. He has already shut down his ordnance business, given his company to a woman, and started working on clean energy. Tony Stark doesn’t need redemption, he needs a goddamn medal.
Best Moment: Tony’s assault on the Mandarin’s compound sans suit. It showcases just how brave and inventive he really is.
Worst Moment: Everything with Maya Hansen, who is, once again, another non-badass female scientist. Sigh.
Best Barrel of Monkeys in Modern Cinema: The chain of people Stark rescues from Air Force One.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. Iron Man
3. The Avengers
4. Iron Man 3
6. The Incredible Hulk
7. Iron Man 2
Bill’s Response: But I Liked This Movie, You Jerks
I can’t help but get defensive about this movie. I walked out of the theater thinking I’d seen a pretty good Iron Man movie, one which was willing to actually develop the character and take risks, and which generally did a ton of smart things with the franchise and with its most famous villain. Yet Iron Man 3 frequently shows up as a punching bag in articles and blog posts about the MCU, or sometimes even in articles about wholly unrelated things, like this one about the Supergirl trailer which miscellaneously states that Iron Man 3 “sucked.”
Sucked? It sucked? Not “it wasn’t great,” or “I didn’t like it,” but it “sucked?” In a movie franchise which includes Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, you pick Iron Man 3 as the movie that “sucked?” So, in that context, as someone who mostly really likes this movie, I get defensive and ranty.
What the living hell is wrong with you people?
In fairness, I think part of the reason folks were disappointed with this movie is that it came out after The Avengers, but feels nothing like The Avengers. I happen to think this is a good thing: as I’ve said repeatedly, superhero movies get boring if they all work exactly the same way. But if you were to go into Iron Man 3 looking for two hours just jam-packed with explosions and witty one-liners, you would walk away disappointed. Instead, Iron Man 3 is about what The Avengers did to Tony Stark.
What it did is mess him right the heck up, which makes a ton of sense: he was almost killed by aliens from outer space. That would shake me up, too. So he has panic attacks, and he can’t sleep, and he obsessively works on creating more and more suits of armor so he can protect Pepper. Then, when some terrorist harms his friend Happy Hogan, he blusteringly calls him out on national television, because what the heck, he’s fought aliens, right? What’s some guy with a beard? When that unsurprisingly bites him in the ass, he finds himself stranded far away from most of his tools and gadgets. He’ll have to face the Mandarin with little more than his own intelligence, and the stress of that reminds him who he is: a brilliant mechanic. This, my friends, is called “character development.” Anyone who said “I don’t want to watch Iron Man have a panic attack” is a Philistine, and should not be trusted to operate anything more complicated than a digital watch.
This movie has the best action sequences of the entire Iron Man trilogy, because they all exist to showcase just how smart and resourceful Tony Stark really is. He fights his way into the Mandarin’s Miami compound with gadgets he cobbled together from miscellaneous Home Depot purchases. After he’s captured, he takes out fifteen guards wearing only a few parts of a heavily-damaged suit. When his suit malfunctions in the attack on his house, he destroys helicopters by chucking pianos at them and manually throwing his missiles. He takes out a super-soldier by cobbling together a makeshift bomb in the kitchen of a greasy spoon diner. The movie reminds us that the superhero is not the suit, it’s Tony Stark. Anybody could go to war in a tin can, but only Tony Stark is Iron Man.
And how can you not appreciate this version of the Mandarin? Rather than a tired, Orientalist caricature, this version tries to actually engage with reality. The Mandarin, that perfect, horrifying terrorist who strikes fear into the hearts of Americans around the country and justifies tons of military spending, doesn’t actually exist. For all that Killian shouts that “he’s the Mandarin” at the very end of the movie, he’s not, because there is no Mandarin. The Mandarin is a product, sold to the American people like so many tennis shoes.1
And yeah, I get that it’s different from the comic books, and that maybe you really liked the comic book Mandarin, and that’s fine, okay? But the Mandarin, like every comic book villain from the ‘60s, has been reinvented by the comics and various videogame and TV and animated movie spin-offs about a zillion times. Nobody should want these movies to be slaves to the comic books.
No, the movie is not perfect. The stuff with the kid goes on too long, I’m not really sure what Maya Hansen contributes to the story, Pepper is damseled just because they couldn’t figure out what else to do, and Aldrich Killian is insufficiently frightening, particularly since he’s in the shadow of Ben Freaking Kingsley. Yes, the last fight isn’t as good as the rest of the movie’s action scenes (though I do like the way Tony is constantly hopping in and out of different suits), and his Big Romantic Gesture in blowing up all the suits is a little silly. But there is so very much to like about this movie that I really don’t understand why people seem to hate it so much.
Also, this movie marks the first time that people will start to ask “But where are the rest of the Avengers?” as though they have encountered some secret flaw in the solo movies. They seem so very proud of themselves, amazed by their own rapier wit and piercing insight. These same people go on to say “Why didn’t they just take the Eagles to Mordor” and argue all night about whether or not the top quit spinning in Inception. Look upon these people with pity, dear readers, but never let them out of your sight, for they are the Ancient Order of St. Oblivious, patron saint of Tired Arguments and Missing the Goddamn Point, and they are legion.
Favorite Moment: When Tony only has about a third of his suit but he has to fight his way out of the compound anyway. Everything about this scene is perfect, but I particularly love the guy who drops his gun and leaves rather than being the 800th person for Tony to kill that day. Top marks for self-preservation and rudimentary pattern recognition, Random Henchman #8.
Least Favorite Moment: “I am the Mandarin!” No, you’re not, Guy Pearce, the whole point was that there wasn’t a Mandarin. It’s like you’re not paying attention.
Least Subtle Critique of American Foreign Policy in the Middle East: When Iron Patriot breaks down the door of the sweatshop and all the women cheer and he says “Yes, you’re free, uh, if you weren’t already.” Boy, I wonder what Shane Black is trying to say with this moment?
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. The Avengers
3. Iron Man
4. Iron Man 3
6. The Incredible Hulk
7. Iron Man 2
And Now, A Conversation
Bill: I’m not sure this movie was about the “redemption” of Tony Stark — as you say, that kind of already happened a lot. I thought it was more about Stark coming to grips with the ever-expanding size of the MCU and the fact that he’s no longer the biggest badass in town.
Erin: If that was the case, then why did he destroy his arsenal at the end of the movie? Why is he confessing to a therapist? Why is the whole narrative arc about reaping what you sow?
Bill: I think he destroys his arsenal to make a Big Dramatic Gesture to Pepper about how he’s going to be more available and committed to their relationship. It’s definitely not the strongest part of the movie, but that’s what I took away from it. And I think the arc about reaping what you sow and whatnot is more Tony coming to grips with who he is, and who he was, and how there’s a lot of tension between the two. I mean, you’re right, it’s about several things at once, which is one of the movie’s weaknesses.
Erin: I just can never shake the feeling that the MCU was never comfortable with who Iron Man is — he is the 1%, he believes in privatized world peace. He is not the most sympathetic character, and that should be fine. There should be enough room for many different kinds of people under this tent. Bringing them all to the same space, particularly the same political space in this case, weakens the project. What if the point was that all people should be able to come together, and not have to change too much to still do good things? That is one of the stronger cases for the Avengers as team, and could have been a larger point in this and other movies.
Bill: Well, I think you’re absolutely right that Hollywood (and the comics, too, if my relatively limited understanding is correct) frequently doesn’t know how to write these sorts of guys in a way which makes them both sympathetic and self-consistent. You see it with the Batman movies, too: they tend to downplay Wayne’s involvement with his company, or put him in opposition to what it’s up to. Which, I mean, listen, I’m as skeptical of Big Corporations as almost every other human being on the planet, but it’s kind of boring when they’re all evil, all the time.
Erin: Not only that, but in both of those cases, their companies are one of the last ties they both have to their families. They form part of the backbone of their own self-definitions. When my father died he left me a little bit of money, and you know how I agonized over what to do with it for years. Not just because I didn’t want to waste it, but because it felt like the last thing he entrusted me with, and I didn’t want to let him down. Why isn’t that part of the story for these characters? Deciding to move to clean energy makes a ton of sense for Stark Industries, but it would have been better if it was not just for general good-doing’s sake, but also for their intertwined legacies.
Bill: Yeah, I do think that it’s interesting to think about what Stark’s relationship to the company is at this point. I’m pretty sure most of the reason Iron Man 2 made Pepper the new CEO was just so the MCU could avoid showing Tony working for a big corporation any more. Also, as a quick side note, both Stark Industries and Wayne Enterprises like to make a big deal about how they “don’t make weapons any more,” and that plays well on TV, sure, but unless you’re going to do away with the US military, somebody has to make the weapons. So, you know, maybe it would be better if Stark Industries made them than if AIM or Hammer Industries did? Maybe being an ethical weapons contractor is better than letting either of those sharks run the show?
Erin: Exactly! It is just like the world needs ethical lawyers and stockbrokers. The world is a better place when people with integrity do those jobs. I remember once talking to a good friend of mine, and he said “Really, when you look at the world, why aren’t we all aid workers in Africa?” While I understand that sentiment, it seems to miss the point of why we have aid to give in the first place.
Bill: Yeah, that (remarkably condescending) statement doesn’t pass the Categorical Imperative at all.
Well, that’s it for Iron Man 3 and for solo Iron Man movies so far! That may be the end of solo Iron Man movies forever, though there are rumors they may make an Iron Man 4 at some point. I think we can all agree that they shouldn’t do that, but the MCU doesn’t listen to us, unfortunately. Come back tomorrow for our thoughts on Thor: The Dark World, which we have both made fun of a whole bunch so far in this project. Maybe we’ll like it more on a second viewing? Find out tomorrow, and feel free to comment below!
- Yes, I know that the one-shot All Hail the King implies that there might be a “real” Mandarin out there, but that smacks of backtracking to please the fans, which is a Cardinal Sin of Franchise Management. [↩]