We knew we would get here eventually. As we further ourselves down the #RoadToInfinityWar, we get to a movie that has rubbed many comic fans the wrong way. While most everyone applauds the first Iron Man as a strong foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many took issue with its sequel, Iron Man 2. Those critiques come for a variety of reasons: the overstuffing of universe-building S.H.I.E.L.D. scenes, an unfocused narrative, and the obvious studio interventions on the vision of the director, Jon Favreau. When it came time to follow-up The Avengers in the first Phase Two film, the starting player, Tony Stark, was the first back up to the plate.
One major change was the change in directors; following Jon Favreau, who returns here with more screentime and plot-importance than usual, Marvel Studios tasked Shane Black with directing the film, which he also envisioned through the writing process. Famous for his work on films like Lethal Weapon and its first sequel, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, one can easily see the reasons he was tapped for the job: he was proficient in action-comedy “buddy cop” films, and he had prior experience with Robert Downey, Jr. Nothing could go wrong, right? Well, this film takes some bold creative licenses with very established characters and portions of the Iron Man mythos that outright enraged vocal contingents of the audience base. Was it brave? Undoubtedly. Was it the right thing to do? We’ll discuss that here.
First off, the film, beyond the handling of characters, Black makes some distinct choices in what his film is going after. He loves setting things at Christmas, so that’s all here, with much of the film in a wintery setting (likely to reflect the coldness of isolation). There’s a slower energy to this, I felt, but it does work in reflecting Tony Stark, who is isolated and deeply shaken, following the events of The Avengers. The man, who boldly proclaimed to the world that he was Iron Man, now knows what the effects can be of that fact on those around him, and he finds little comfort in knowing he is just “a man in a can”, compared to the gods and monsters he encountered in New York. While he won’t say he has PTSD because of all of it, it is all but a stated fact; his anxiety has pushed him to dig further into making more and more Iron Man armors since then. By the time the film opens, he has advanced all the way to Mark 42, an impressive set that comes to him, piece by piece, by propulsion, on command.
There’s an interesting visual and storytelling element in this film of Tony being almost indistinguishable from his armor in his persona, yet more often than not, he isn’t actually inside the suit. It goes beyond playful jokes and impressive action sequences. We are seeing his own struggle with identity manifested, after much time living as the armored hero. Regardless of the handling of certain characters that we will get to and how you may feel about them, it applaudable to Black that he didn’t just go with copying Favreau‘s approach from the preceding films and playing everything fast and loose. This is, all in all, a pretty introspective tale, and even some of the action sequences feel entirely new here, as they don’t involve Tony all suited up, but on his own, improvising and being as resourceful as possible. Personally, I appreciated that approach, because for the overall story arc, it was necessary for Tony, moving forward.
Robert Downey, Jr. gets so much better material to work with here, with regard to Tony’s overall character arc. Of course, he brings the fun and funny, but there are many quiet moments of introspection that just showcase how perfect he has always been for this role. While we know the character has appeared in many MCU installments since then, this was envisioned as the capping off of Stark’s story, and I think it succeeds in that. We don’t need another Iron Man solo film following this, as he gets a complete multi-film arc by the time the credits roll here.
The supporting cast of Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and the aforementioned Favreau all continue the strong ensemble surrounding RDJ. In this film, Pepper gets many moments to shine, even if she is admittedly more of a damsel in distress here than in the previous films. Her relationship with Tony comes full circle, as do many plot elements in this film. Cheadle feels even more natural here as Rhodey, making you almost forget about the recasting of the role. Rhodey’s suit, War Machine, as an armor, is “rebranded” and revamped here as Iron Patriot; of course, that armor is from the comics, but it was used there in a much different sense. It’s an impressive thing to see and with the plot heavily focused on the United States government and presidency, it fits right in here.
Joining them are Guy Pierce as Aldrich Killian and Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen. Both characters have connections to Tony Stark, going years back. If comic fans remember the Warren Ellis storyline, Extremis, those character names should be familiar, even if it’s in name only. The whole film is an extremely loose adaptation of elements there. Both Killian and Hansen have been tinkering with organic life, while Stark has been busy building suits. Their work run amok is front and center in this film, and it gives Stark threats that are more distinct than just more mechanical suits against his own.
When we get to Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, it’s incredibly difficult to discuss without spoilers. For a character as deeply entrenched in the Iron Man mythos as his primary villain, any deviation from established character history and traits would offend some. This moved well beyond that. It’s understandable that Marvel didn’t rush to adapt Mandarin earlier than here, as, to many, he’s been portrayed as an offensive racial stereotype for decades. Here in this film, I found it to be an interesting take. First off, Kingsley isn’t Asian, so posters and trailers alone should have foreshadowed alteration on some level. The character here is used to typify some interesting commentary on the nature of terrorism, villainous personas, and the media, stuff that gets drowned out by fanboy bashing. Just stating that sentence will arouse antagonism from many, but it was true for me. It’s bold moves to go there at all in a big-budget movie and even more so to use Mandarin to get there.
While the first film was able to impress us with Iron Man firing a missile here or there, its sequel saw the diminished return on doing more of the same. I think that Iron Man 3 genuinely brought new stuff to the table, not trying to be more of the same. For a film that pulls Stark out of his shell (literally), the finale makes up for the slack in armor with an impressive “house party” action set-piece that was thrilling to see play out. I’ll leave it at that. Pacing in the film was a little erratic, but I read that the original cut was over 3 hours. What we get, even with sizable cuts to that time, all works, even if it has issues.
Content-wise, Tony spends much of the film with a kid in Tennessee. That may sound strange without any spoilery context, but it all makes sense when watching. I didn’t appreciate some of the things Stark says to the boy, and to me, it further cemented Stark as one of the least imitable heroes of the MCU. Aside from that, I did find there to be less double entendres here. While different than the comics, how Extremis is manifested here is very dangerous, and it presents a huge and scary threat. It’s all PG-13, but it may be intense for some. There’s nothing specific regarding Christian content in the film, but I think it does effectively illustrate the emptying of oneself in an understandable and enjoyable way.
Overall, I liked this film far more than many say they do. Yes, it reinterprets many comic-book elements, and not everyone is going to be game for that. Still, I applaud Shane Black for boldly taking the story into interesting territory that was and is very timely, as well as having understandable reasons for why he made those bold choices. While he wrote many notable films, it’s crazy to realize that this was only his second movie in the director’s chair. Directorial conviction, even amongst the seasoned, is rare when making films of this nature, and Black showed it in spades here. Overall, Iron Man 3 isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s far stronger than it gets credit for.