Marvel Cinematic Universe: Iron Man 3

I think it’d be easier to track these reviews by hyperlinking the names of the movies instead of doing it for “here” over and over again, so here are the previous MCU reviews for this blog:

Ant Man
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thor: The Dark World

Moving on:

Background

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Development on Iron Man 3 came shortly after Iron Man 2. This was the last movie to be distributed by Paramount Pictures, who distributed all the Phase 1 movies sans The Incredible Hulk. Things were complicated because this and Avengers were released after Marvel had been purchased by Disney, but they all reached an agreement with Lord Mouse paying Paramount 115 million flat fee plus a share in the global revenues for 9%. With all that, a 2013 release date was announced.

We say goodbye to Jon Favreau who almost immediately bowed out of making a third film. He saw it more as a graduation process, and stayed on in a producer capacity and as Happy Hogan. One of the names mentioned pretty early on in development was Shane Black. Black was obviously a fan favourite to replace Favreau, having been considered one of the key factors of helping Robert Downey Jr come back from the brink with 2005 action-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The fans got their wish, and Black was hired to direct. Drew Pearce was brought over from working on a Runaways script to co-write the script with Black. Unlike the prolific Lethal Weapon writer, this would be Pearce’s first feature screenplay.

The script went through various drafts, and was deliberately stripped down as a reaction to the more high octane and action-packed Avengers. It was imagined more in the vain of an espionage movie in the style of Tom Clancy or the Bond films. The opening and ending were changed various times, and the Mandarin was actually considered to be an antagonist at one point before the controversial twist was brought in. Another point of note was that Rebecca Hall’s character Maya Hansen was meant to be the main antagonist of the movie, until the Marvel executives insist they change it to Killian, citing toy sales. The bones of the story was based on the popular Extremis storyline by Warren Ellis.

Production went smoothly. Ben Kingsley went into talks to play the fake Mandarin, and Guy Pearce got the part of antagonist Aldrich Killian. Filming began in May 2012 at North Carolina. Filming took place in several incremental stages throughout the year, with a 9 day break in August after Robert Downey Jr injured his ankle. Production finally finished in the US in November of that year, with international shoots in December and January and reshoots of the Mandarin stuff also in that same month.

People were quick to speculate whether this was Robert Downey Jr’s last time in the armour, considering how the story goes and because his contract with Marvel expired. Team Downey, the production company he founded with his wife, also took off after this, putting doubt as to whether he’d stick around or not. They were working on a prestige piece The Judge with Robert Duvall at the time, and there was no real incentive that he’d be on board for a fourth Iron Man movie. Alas, he’s been in four MCU movies as Tony since (soon to be five), so the idea that his leaving was ever on the cards back then is kind of hilarious (his contract is up for expiration again, though). He’s also stated a more recent interest in doing an Iron Man 4 if that ever comes into fruition. Whether or not The Judge underperforming affected his desire to leave the part, or he just loves playing such a lucrative role, who knows, but for now, Robert Downey Jr is Iron Man.

Iron Man premiered in Paris in April 2013, and released in the UK a few days later. The following week, it opened in the United States.

Tony Stark: Broken Man

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Tony Stark is quite possibly the best developed character in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a large part of that is how much the Iron Man movies are character studies of him. Not that the other films don’t explore their characters, but they’re also enveloped in a lot of other details that they flesh out. The Captain America movies have a socio-political tint to them and the idea of good men in broken worlds and various characters almost taking the same spotlight as Steve. The Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films have a lot of kooky world exploration with fantastical elements. While there’s a lot of techno-babble and world building in Iron Man’s trilogy, the central conceit is the exploration of one man’s moral compass. The first film is Tony the corrupt man, who comes to take his life into a more altruistic direction. The second is Tony the legacy man, who has to live up to his family’s past crimes and what kind of person that made him. This one is Tony the broken man, seeing the man that legacy has made and how much damage that has caused him and others. And the fear of what is coming next.

Tony’s opening line states how we create our own demons, and that’s the main thematic framework this story is based on. We not only create our demons on a cultural scale (such as The Mandarin), but Tony creates them both internally and externally. His disregard to taking Maya Hansen’s work on Extremis seriously is why she goes after her. His incredibly cruel and callous disregard for Killian is what causes him to turn into a monster. I mean…I hate that, but still he is a demon of Tony’s creation. But not moreso than the demons created in Tony’s mind. Especially after the events of The Avengers.

All my talks of adapting? This one is the biggest utiliser of this theme. The world of the MCU changes because of The Avengers. And nobody understands this moreso than Tony Stark. His adapting process is figuring out what kind of man he’ll be in the midst of knowing, and personally seeing, aliens. This, combined with his near death experience, has caused him to develop PTSD, which he copes with by being extremely obsessive with his work. Tony is a fixer-if he cannot fix everything wrong, he cannot deal. But he can’t fix a mental disorder like this, because there’s no easy fix. Which is one of the biggest lessons of this movie-your demons from your broken selves have no easy fixes. Despite how much we want to paint over our issues in safe, easy ways, that’s not how they function.

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And that’s what’s great about all his safety protocols, his ‘cocoon’ as he puts it, being stripped away by the beginning of the second act. He’s forced to figure out what works without his tech. He realises what makes Iron Man work is pretty simple: it’s him. While it’s really convenient he landed right near the damn kid who would have responded to him the way he did (there’s a lot of eye rolling coincidences in this film btw-bitta sloppy writing in places), what he represents for Tony is a mirror image of himself. This kid is a smart-ass, he’s inventive, he doesn’t take shit from others-he is essentially Tony Stark sans the emotional baggage of being an adult and, well, the wealth. Upon interacting with him, Tony begins to realise who he is and who he needs to save.

Don’t have friends? Interact with people around you and get them to help you out with your charm. Got no gadgets? Fucking make that shit with stuff you pick up at a hardware store! Don’t have the confidence in your abilities? Realise you’re Tony Goddamn Stark and you practically redefined how to be cocky and brilliant. Because it’s not about the tech he threw on himself, it’s about a man that took on intergalactic beings and won. It’s through believing in himself and putting his fear aside for a better goal than just protection did he find what he needed and become a way more rounded human being.

Because it’s one thing to protect Pepper (note: himself) to the point where her “protection” nearly attacks her because of a nightmare he had.  If you want to go with the old screenwriting chestnut of “Wants vs Needs”, Tony wants to protect her and retreats within himself to build a massive armour that eventually separates them. What he needs is to take that off and face the potential dangers with her and move passed his obsession. He faces losing her, and still found it in him to remove his armour and blow up the manifestation of his selfishness and pride (Killian) who wanted an external fix to an internal issue. And that trust in her causes him to blow up the rest of the suits, a manifestation of his paranoia and anxiety.

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Oh, speaking of Pepper, here’s where we may get a little controversial. Not huge into how she’s used here. Don’t get me wrong, RDJ and Gwenyth Paltrow still work well together, but considering this is the movie that hinges on her importance to Tony, I don’t see it in comparison to the other films. And you could argue, well, yeah, we got the other two movies to build on that, but ignoring that they’re in a completely different situation here (she’s no longer his secretary and they’re dating), but we need more of a sense in this movie about they need each other if she’s going to be Tony’s source of anguish and his eventual salvation.

The bit where he talks about why his insomnia and building habits kicked off after New York to protect her is achingly sweet and RDJ kills the read, but for the rest of the film we don’t see why she’s the centre of his world. Instead, she’s a dangling carrot to motivate him instead of an active participant in the narrative. Hell, we see her leave Stark’s house after it was attacked with Maya Hansen, and we do not cut back to her at all for fucking ages until the scene where Killian kidnaps her. Rhodey has a better presence, and I understand Tony’s need for him in his life than I do Pepper. And that would be fine if Tony’s love for Rhodey was the reason he decided to live life to the beat of his own drums instead of those of his fears and anxieties. I dunno, maybe that’s the big twist for Endgame. We shall see.

Happy is similarly screwed, though it’s not as important because the plot doesn’t hinge on him. But his coma is what convinces Tony to publicly lambast the Mandarin and threaten him. And I get what they were going for here, and thematically it fits with Tony creating all his worst problems. But on a character basis it’s just really fucking stupid. He doesn’t consider anything, and puts Pepper in danger despite being really wound up about protecting her. It’s a really sloppy character move that could have been better defined. Once again it’s a movie that mistakes impulsivity caused by vengeful anger with ardent stupidity that works against your own desires.

To end this on a more positive note, I really loved him removing the core at the end of the film. What a perfect metaphor. The very easy fix embedded inside of Tony he never thinks of fixing permanently because of the risk and the uncertainty. Killian’s rash and selfish use of Extremis and Pepper’s emotional strength (in theory) gives him the courage to gamble on his big brain and succeeds. He’s a man made whole again, by careful thinking and relying on his own ingenuity rather than a thousand coats of armour he makes for mindless preparation of an attack that may never come. He is Iron Man, indeed.

All of this, one could argue, is overlooked in the following appearances of Tony. But fuck that! Let’s look at villains.

The Mandarin Twist, its Strengths and Weaknesses, and Aldrich Killian

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Here’s the part where I make a confession and say I hated the twist with the Mandarin being a construction played by a comically buffoonish actor when I initially saw the film. Six years and complete jadedness towards comic book purity has changed my mind significantly on this reveal, however. I have complaints towards it, but overall I think it’s a stroke of absolute genius.

First off, the reveal is expertly handled. We move from a very Bond-esque scene where Tony uses his makeshift gadgets to take out Killian’s men, sneaking around the Malibu house assuming he’ll be meeting a dangerous and devoted terrorist. The lighting dims out, everything’s close cut to get a feeling of espionage and suspense, it’s seriously well directed action. Undercut utterly and entirely by him going into a room with two prostitutes in a bed and this absolute ape of a man who looks like the Mandarin slavishly walking in and immediately telling Tony the score. It changes everything about the story, and makes the flashy and over-produced terrorist videos from earlier so much funnier in context. They’re so fake and theatrical looking back at them!

Next is the actor Trevor Slattery himself. Outside of Tony and the kid, Ben Kingsley’s performance is the best thing in this movie. He absolutely nails this strung out, disconnected loser manipulated through his own avarice and dependency issues to ignore the serious shit he is a part of because he’s getting paid in substances and women. Everything about him from his amorality to his cowardice is so much fun-his absolute willingness to sell Killian out to save his own ass is a hoot! Just give Ben all the roles, please.

The best part of it is just how well it fits with the overall theme. The idea of us creating our own demons and looking for simple solutions to handle them? The bogeyman of post-9/11 Islamic terrorist scares. Killian uses that image that the American people have created for themselves in times of major existential dread, reflecting how bad the heightened terrorist scare is. We want simple solutions to complex problems, which is why fighting these foes is exacerbated so much to hide form the actual underhanded goings on behind the scenes, just like what Killian is doing. It’s an external reflection of Tony’s internal conflict, and works so godddamn well to layer the story.

Except, well, and this may be a minute personal gripe, but the simile they’re going for doesn’t really match up to how the government is actually portrayed? Sure, the Iron Patriot stuff is top notch satire about how the US government is more concerned with looking proactive and patriotic instead of being it. Killian taking that suit to murder the US President is really clever in that regard. But they’re portrayed more as well meaning but reasonably incompetent instead of part of a corrupt system that exploits people’s fears for personal gain. Sure, we have turncoats in the government, but the Vice President, out of all the bad guys, has the most sympathetic (and convenient, and frustratingly underdeveloped) reason for being a bad guy. Portraying Rhodey as altruistic if fine, but the US government itself just does not match the message this film directly talks about.

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Let’s move onto Killian while we’re here. He fucking sucks and is a large part of why the twist doesn’t work in certain regards. Thematically and aesthetically, it’s really well done. Narratively, it leaves us with the absolute worst possible option for a lead antagonist. Aldrich Killian is another in a long line of terrible villains that plague Phase 2. Let’s start with the disability thing. I think overall disability and disfigurement is relatively well presented. Not perfect, but with a lot more thought into how it would come across than usual. Tony’s anxiety attacks are greatly implemented. The use of amputees to push forward the theme of wanting an easy solution to a complex problem are decently thought out with said soldiers being manipulated into being part of the Extremis experiment. Killian, however? Yikes. Every trope is thrown on him to make him seem as pathetic and weasley as possible. It’s such awkward caricaturing.

There’s no consistency in how Killian is depicted, he’s a different character in nearly every scene he’s in. The change from the opening to when they see him in present day is fine, it adds to the intrigue of what happened. But next scene he’s a master manipulator. Then he’s a moustache-twirling villain kidnapping the love interest. Next we have a Machavellian-schemer hiding in the background manipulating events. Then he’s a evil mastermind right in the fray making quirky one-liners and attacking jet-planes. Then he’s a jealous lovesick dolt gone too maniacal? Eventually he’s just a raving lunatic who gets taken down by the person he exploited. This would be a great if it was a villain just continuing to devolve, but we get no sense of why he keeps revealing a new face or any context to his changes. He’s just poorly written and switches gears to what the plot needs from him.

And yeah, fuck Marvel, Maya should have been the main villain. Her connection to Tony and how he fucked her life’s work over inadvertently makes is way more compelling than…he tricked a gullible rube to stand on a roof for a couple of hours. Her heel turns are also better handled. You could have made this a way more interestingly motivated character, but she’s stripped of any dimension pretty quickly and is just a pawn in Killian’s scheme. Waste of a potentially interesting villain, and the first female MCU primary antagonist which we wouldn’t get until Thor: Ragnarok 4 years later.

Anyway, that’s enough bashing MCU villains yet again. Let’s talk about Shane Black’s contribution to the MCU.

Shane Black: Action Director, Dialogue Writer, Not Dialogue Director

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Coming off the heels of The Avengers is not an easy feat. Shane Black was the right choice here, as his sensibilities are to go for more insular, character-driven stuff, which was a necessity to make sure that they just don’t keep pointlessly upping the ante. Black’s relationship with RDJ and his whip-smart, pulpy action sensibilities are a very different flavour from Whedon. Still, it wasn’t quite sure what shape the MCU would take after such a gargantuan success. Lucky for everyone involved, then, that Black set the sails for what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would become, at least for the movies, in exactly one choice he made for this film’s opening:

If Avengers set the tone for future MCU movies, Iron Man 3 absolutely cemented it. It turned a lot more jokey, cultural referencing, memetic, light-hearted and devilishly witty, for better or worse. A lot of that is down the Black’s snarky, blunt sense of humour and it’s punctuated by just how hilarious so much of the dialogue is. Nobody can deny how talented a writer Black is, not just for theming, but for his distinctive humour and the natural flair his characters converse in. Far removed from the more off-the-cuff witty repartee of our previous Shellhead outings, but it absolutely works here.

Not so much working is the way he shoots talking scenes, especially in the first act. See, there’s enough going on and everything gets more kinetic and fast-paced as soon as Tony’s house is attacked. That’s 30 minutes in, though. And those opening minutes? Woof, it’s dull as hell. And I feel a lot of that is due to the direction. As great as he is at dialogue, there’s no momentum on the scenes with characters talking. I just think there’s a lot more going on with the tech know-how and the fast, snappy elements of the Favreau movies that is really missing here. Like I said, this picks up significantly after, but that’s more due to how much the characters are moving, going to new locations and discovering new stuff. I also think Tony and the kid have a better rapport than anyone else in this movie.

And yeah, if Black kind of doesn’t direct talking all that compellingly here, he absolutely excels at action. Nearly every scene is great. The explosion that injures Happy feels like an actual terrorist bombing in how sharp and shocking it’s shot. Tony’s house blowing up is fast-moving and appropriately messy with everything flowing and adding up. I love that the first thing Tony does is protect Pepper risking his own life to do so. It really sets the momentum of the plot off with a bang, and the flying debris really makes things feel scary, and how tight and focused everything is helps that uncertainty.

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The attack in North Carolina is well travelled, really gets a sense of the power of the Extremis, and showcases Tony’s quick thinking. It’s the first time we see him rely on himself and go to fix the person he is by being a hero sans the suit. This is further carried over with the action at the Malibu house. There’s a lot of cool gadget tricks and espionage stuff, everything is quiet and the camera moves swiftly with our team. The escape is more frenzied, with an excellent splattering of comedy as the suit takes its time getting there, but allows for some creative movement and has one of the best gags with the henchmen just quitting. He didn’t take the easy route of being a lackey! This script has some wonderful self-awareness. Rhodey jumping out of his armour and punching Killian is also great.

The plane scene is one of the best sequences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s heroic and really gets a sense of dread and tension. The bit where Tony takes out the main henchman guy is so goddamn satisfying, and using the monkey manoeuvre to save everyone was brilliant. It just goes to show how much he learned to adapt to his environments rather than trying to control everything. The reveal that the suit was empty is also cute. Sadly, the ending doesn’t have the same meat-and-potatoes scale and goes too big. Tony using all his armours feels a bit slapdash to his growth, but in fairness he’s barely in them. A lot of the quick thinking and ingenuity he learns is here, and we get up and close as he risks life or limb throwing caution to the wind. The ideas of the Iron Legion is cool, but it’s way too busy and cluttered. The climax only gets interesting once the movie hyper-focuses on Tony and Pepper and leaves the rest behind. Also no one fucking bought that Pepper was dead.

So yeah. Great action, good humour, fun stakes. What more do you want out of a Shane Black action flick?

Post-Credit Scene & Miscellaneous Thoughts

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Our post-credit scene explains that the narration of the opening and ending was just Tony prattling on to Bruce Banner like he’s his therapist, which puts him to sleep. It’s another fun meta gag, and it’s great to see Mark Ruffalo again after his bond with Tony was so much fun in Avengers, but that’s about it. Doesn’t really justify how out of place the narration is in the film itself.

Other stuff I noticed:

-How great is it to see Yinsen in the 1999 flashback? Wonderful bookend to the trilogy. Also the guy who put the reactor into Tony’s chest introduces him to the guy who takes it out before any of this happened.
-This if the first movie where JARVIS feels really human. You actually feel kind of sad when he powers down. Good way to lead into Vision coming.
-President Ellis is named after Warren Ellis, the writer of Iron Man: Extremis. This doesn’t really interest me, but it probably interests somebody. I really need to read that book
-I appreciated the subtlety of Maya showing an interesting in Killian in the opening. It’s easy to miss on the first viewing.
-Robot with the dunce hat was adorable.
-I kind of wish Happy was killed here. It would have really made Tony’s actions feel a bit more justified.
-Killian has several opportunities to kill Tony and Rhodey and doesn’t. he’s such a useless villain. They imply they keep Tony alive as long as they do because Maya wants him to perfect the Extremis, but why did he try to kill him at his house then? Also, for a guy so crazy about Pepper, he risked her life with that stunt too.
-Rhodey grinning after realising Tony is alive and his password are two of the most humanising moments the character ever has. I mean Don Cheadle is a great actor, but James Rhodes is easily the driest of the heroes in the MCU.
-The bunny was clearly a joke that the production team love but just…didn’t land.
-The fanboy TV van operator was way too much. Definitely one of the jokes that landed with a thud. Also convenient that he walked into the exact van of a guy who idolised him to the point of getting his face tattooed onto his arm, meaning he’s willing to allow Tony to mess with his tech.
-Bill Maher’s cameo is fucking gold given what he said about superheroes of late…
-The Iron Patriot was actually Spider-man’s arch-nemesis the Green Goblin’s (a.k.a. Norman Osborne) identity after he takes over SHIELD in the comics. I like the twist they put on the concept here.
-Pepper with superpowers was a neat idea that they didn’t do anything with. Shame.
-Still think they should have ended with “I am Tony Stark” as was planned. But hey, the Mouse wins. The Mouse always wins…
-I swear if I started listing out my favourite quotes, I’d just be doing the ones everybody loves and this would go on forever, so I’ll just post my favourite exchange here:

“Is that all you got? Cheap tricks and a cheesy one-liner?”
“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography.”

Conclusion

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I didn’t really know what to expect out of Iron Man 3. It’s kind of one of those forgotten MCU movies that doesn’t seem to have an impact on the franchise overall. And yet there’s a lot to like here and, despite it’s rather noticeable flaws, I really dug it. It’s thematically cogent and a carefully handled character exploration of a man who had everything but lost himself. Tony’s journey to being a more complete man is really well written, and Robert Downey Jr just knocks it out of the gate as always. He was born to play this part.

There’s some really ropey and convenient writing, for sure. The first act is really poorly paced, the villain is inconsistent and not very effective, and Pepper is kind of left to the sidelines despite how important she is to Tony’s growth. Yet it works. It feels more like a Shane Black movie than an MCU one, but I think that’s a net positive, and it left an impression as to how the tone and humour of the rest of the franchise. The Iron Man concept falls into that Tom Clancy espionage mode really well, it’s confident in what it wants to be, and the action remains some of the best these films have to offer. It’s an underappreciated little flick, and definitely one I could see myself revisiting in the future. You know why?

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7/10

Here’s where it falls in my ranking:

  1. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Iron Man 3
  4. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  5. Ant Man
  6. Thor: The Dark World

Next up, we’re finally moving onto Phase 1! I’m sure we’re starting off with a light film anyway.

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Yeah, I mean I knew we were tackling Avengers first, dunno why I acted like this was such a surprising twist of faith….

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