Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and Ben Kingsley
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black
I, for one, am happy to live in a time when “superhero summer blockbuster” is a regular watchable occurrence. Marvel Studios has been doing good things with their Disney money, but the Iron Man movies are probably the best of the individual character franchises (although I accept that I’m in the minority for thinking Iron Man 2 was good). Iron Man is silly fun and ridiculous CGI and exploding nonsense and a hero who, comic book superscience aside, feels relatable and true in a way that’s difficult for alien supergods and World War II goldenboys to match. Tony Stark is a brilliant, insanely wealthy jerk who realized one day that, partly through his contributions, the world was a terrible, death-filled place, and then further realized that he was just enough of a brilliant jerk to change that. Like the other movies, Iron Man 3 doesn’t explore the implications of Iron Man vs. American military adventurism to the extent that it probably should, but the character of Tony Stark, played with unstoppable charm by Robert Downey Jr., remains the kind of action hero that I find compelling, and Iron Man 3 the kind of action movie that I enjoy.
The movie opens with Tony Stark’s voice, confiding in us. He reveals himself at his worst, as a young billionaire playboy who cared about no one but himself, and as a genius superhero still reeling from the trauma he suffered in The Avengers. Pepper and Rhodes are there for him as much as they can be, but ultimately only the threat of the Mandarin gives him something to hold onto, a problem he feels he can solve. The Mandarin is a mysterious terrorist mastermind who perpetrates horrific and untraceable crimes in apparent vengeance for all of America’s sins, past and present; facing that threat while under a bombardment of traumatic memories, fatigue, and anxiety attacks will push Stark to his limits. It’s really this internal struggle that makes the fight against the self-created monsters of America’s and Tony’s pasts so interesting. Although Tony’s damaged psyche is handled with the light touch that dominates all of these films, that vulnerability is part of what makes Tony Stark such a great hero. I recommend Linda Holmes’s excellent write up at NPR for more on this subject.
You may have noticed that I like it when characters suffer in stories. I’m okay with a character being the best at what he or she does, as long as someone beats the crap out of him, nails him to a tree, or buries her alive. I want my heroes to limp to victory on feet cut up by broken glass. I want my heroes to almost die. So when I say that about 90 minutes of Iron Man 3 is Tony Stark getting the absolute bajeezus kicked out of him by everything in the world, that is to say that I enjoyed it. It’s Iron Man, so the thrust is still toward entertainment and comedy, in the pulp comic book tradition, with little of the heaviness seen in the similarly bruising, but not quite as satisfying Dark Knight Rises. Though the Iron Man suit plays a significant role in the film (ahahaha just wait), for most of the story Stark is either without the suit or making do with a barely functional prototype. He gets kicked around by villains and explosions, and has to rely mostly on his friends and his brilliance to fight back. Whether Tony is suited up or just using his genius to macguyver weapons from spare parts and kitchen appliances, there is no easy victory for him.
A lot of people die in this movie, and while I don’t think it’s gratuitous, I thought the film could have taken this a bit more seriously. Beyond the fact that Iron Man kills an awful lot of people for a superhero, Manohla Dargis at the New York Times has, I think, some compelling thoughts on a tendency in contemporary action movies to exploit the realities of the post-9/11 world – the wounded veterans, the deaths of innocents, the industry of fear and its effects on our national psychology – for thrills and laughs. I’m not sure that hasn’t always been a part of this kind of fiction (although that’s doesn’t really mean it isn’t problematic) and I don’t agree that this makes Iron Man 3 a bad film, but this was where Iron Man 3 let me down a bit. Tony Stark and his friends and foes are fun and engaging, but there was something more to say about a villain who is a clearly being made into a reference to Osama Bin Laden, or about War Machine’s rebranding as The Iron Patriot and Iron Man’s stance against militant nationalism, and about wounded warriors from America’s foreign interventions being turned into weapons of mass destruction. The elements are all there, but what’s being said about them isn’t particularly clear. It’s kept very surface level, and I get the impression the filmmakers thought dealing with these themes more seriously might be a bit heavy for a summer blockbuster. The result is that these real world problems feel used for entertainment rather than meaningfully engaged with. It’s understandable, maybe, but disappointing.
For me, the characters redeem the shortcomings of the plot. The Mandarin is handled beautifully, speaking as someone who wasn’t really sure how the filmmakers would handle a character that is basically a classic racist stereotype. Ben Kingsley surprised me with how fun he was to watch, and Guy Pearce is pretty perfect as Aldrich Killian, Tony Stark’s shadow self. Don Cheadle is the perfect foil for RDJ’s silliness. And I feel like this movie really lets Pepper Potts shine, and illuminates her relationship with Tony, more than any of the others have. Laura Hudson has a great, if spoiler-laden, article up at Wired about the way the women in Iron Man 3 subvert typical gender roles for women in action movies. Although Pepper does inevitably wind up a Damsel in Distress, almost nothing about that situation goes as expected. Pepper Potts is a badass, and I have to say I kind of love seeing a happily married couple in an action movie in which the stress of supervillainy and a checkered past are just part of the chemistry, and not a relationship-shattering source of dramatic tension. Robert Downey Jr. carries most of the movie on his charisma, it’s true, but the supporting cast is what makes the story feel complete.
In conclusion, yes, Iron Man 3 is a summer blockbuster with all that that entails, including a problematic use of current events for comedy and excitement. But the Iron Man series continues to push against the expectations of its genre in its handling of women and of its protagonist, and is still the best of Marvel’s movie franchises. This movie is a load of fun, and even though that’s all I could really ask of it, it gives that little something more that makes for a good action movie instead of a forgettable one. Stay past the credits, if you are an Avengers fan and into that sort of thing, but I will warn you: there is a lot of CGI in this movie. The credits are…pretty long.
Iron Man 3 is available (for pre-order) here on DVD and Blu-Ray. Check your local theater listings for showtimes.