4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I’m just a man in a can” — Iron Man 3

The big challenge for Marvel Studios in 2013 was to do the next thing. They’d done a series of films that all culminated in Avengers, which was a hugely successful movie, having made flipping great wodges of cash and being well-liked and adored by most who saw it. Everything came together in that 2012 film, fulfilling the promise of the five films that came before it, and the question on everyone’s lips after that was, “Will they be able to keep it up?”

They started the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the same way they started the first one: with Robert Downey Jr. headlining his third and what has so far been his final solo Iron Man film.

While he remained an executive producer and co-star as Happy Hogan, Jon Favreau declined to sit in the director’s chair for a third time, and Downey Jr. recruited Shane Black—with whom he’d worked on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—to write and direct, with Drew Pearce brought in to co-author the script.

Pearce and Black’s primary inspirations were the “Extremis” storyline in the Iron Man comics from 2005-2006, written by Warren Ellis, marking the first time the MCU used a 21st-century comics story; and the Avengers movie, as Tony Stark’s experiences in that film inform the character’s actions here. (Each of the three post-Avengers movies will, in fact, be dealing with the fallout from the Chitauri invasion of New York, as we’ll see over the next couple of weeks.)

In addition, this third movie makes use of the Mandarin, as hinted at by the “Ten Rings” references in the first film. Using the Mandarin was a challenge, as the character was created in 1964 as a villain who used gems he found in an alien starship to give himself tremendous power. But the Mandarin was a “yellow-peril” stereotype of a sort that was depressingly common at the time (see also: Wong Chu in Iron Man’s debut in Tales of Suspense #39), and which would very much not be acceptable in an early-21st-century movie (nor should it be). Having said that, the Mandarin is the closest Iron Man has to a main villain the vein of Lex Luthor to Superman, Dr. Doom to the Fantastic Four, Magneto to the X-Men, the Joker to Batman, etc. The ostensible solution was to make him a radical terrorist in the vein of Osama bin Laden. While he’s never identified as a radical Muslim, he is implied to be from the Middle East, which just updates the stereotypical boogeyman, albeit with a twist that makes it actually work.

The movie was plagued by issues that were raised by the Walt Disney Company’s purchase of Marvel, as Marvel Studios already had a deal in place to be distributed by Paramount Pictures, and Disney wasn’t eager to let a competitor profit from their work. Eventually, though, a deal was worked out.

Back from Avengers are Downey Jr. as Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S., and Mark Ruffalo in a post-credits cameo as Bruce Banner. Back from Iron Man 2 are Favreau as Hogan and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, now in the Iron Patriot armor. Back from Iron Man in a cameo is Shaun Toub as Yinsen. Appearing for the first time in this film are Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, Stéphanie Szostak as Brandt, James Badge Dale as Savin, Ty Simpkins as Harley Keener, the late Miguel Ferrer as Vice President Rodriguez, and William Sadler as President Ellis (named after the writer of the “Extremis” storyline that inspired the movie).

Downey Jr., Cheadle, and Bettany will next appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Paltrow and Favreau will next appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Sadler will next appear in three episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Kingsley will next appear in the short film All Hail the King.

While this is seemingly the last Iron Man film—there are no current plans for a fourth, though there are plenty of as-yet-unannounced slots in the upcoming slate of MCU films, so you never know—the character has continued to be an important part of the film series, appearing with the other Avengers in Age of Ultron, Infinity War, and the upcoming Endgame, and co-starring in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. His personality also comes up in Ant-Man and Thor: Ragnarok.

 

“Oh my God—that was really violent!”

Iron Man 3
Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black
Directed by Shane Black
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: May 3, 2013

We open in Bern, Switzerland on New Years Eve 1999. Tony Stark is at a scientific conference where he’s given a speech (which he doesn’t recall giving) and is flirting with Maya Hansen, a biologist who is developing a way to harness the brain’s full capacity. Stark is actually interested in what she’s doing as well as taking her to bed. On the way to the hotel room, he blows off an awkward, crippled scientist named Aldrich Killian, though Hansen actually takes his business card. Killian has formed a think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics.

Fast forward to Christmas 2012. Stark has been having trouble sleeping since Avengers. Pepper Potts has moved in with him, and is running the day-to-day of Stark Enterprises. Happy Hogan has taken over as head of security, as being Stark’s bodyguard seems pointless when Stark is an armored superhero. Potts has a meeting with Killian, who is able-bodied and much better looking now, and wants Stark Enterprises in on A.I.M.’s new project, which seems related to the work Hansen was doing a dozen years earlier.

Stark is designing new Iron Man suit after new Iron Man suit—he’s up to 42 different models.

A terrorist known as the Mandarin is bombing sites all over the world and sending out pirate broadcasts taking credit, with messages to U.S. President Ellis. The bombings are frustrating to law-enforcement because the bombs are leaving no residue behind whatsoever. Jim Rhodes, whose armor has been painted red, white, and blue and who has been rebranded as the Iron Patriot, is assigned to the case.

Hogan doesn’t like the look of Savin, the bodyguard Killian brought with him, and follows him. Savin meets a man named Taggart at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Shortly thereafter, Taggart himself explodes, killing several people, and badly injuring Hogan. Before lapsing into a coma, Hogan stares at and reaches for Taggart’s dogtags, the only part of him that survived. Savin himself walks away from the explosion, completely healing every wound he receives.

Stark is pissed off, and meets with Rhodes to discuss the Mandarin, who has taken credit for the attack on Grauman’s. Rhodes says that the government is scared, and needs to be able to handle this themselves, not depend on the Avengers to do it.

When queried by reporters about the attack, Stark calls out the Mandarin, even giving his home address on camera.

At home, Stark does a deep dive into the Mandarin, including a holographic reconstruction of the crime scene, based on the photographs. He sees that Hogan was looking at the dogtags and saves an image. He searches for similar explosions to this, and finds one that isn’t a Mandarin bombing, in Tennessee. J.A.R.V.I.S. puts together a flight plan, but then the doorbell rings.

It’s Hansen, who says she needs Stark’s help. However, three helicopters attack and destroy Stark’s house before she can properly explain. Stark has his Mark 42 armor attach to Potts so she can get herself and Hansen to safety. Once she’s clear of the house, he takes the armor back to himself and fights back, but the armor is badly damaged by the helicopters and also by Savin’s powers. The last thing the damaged J.A.R.V.I.S. does is implement the flight plan to Tennessee before powering down.

Stark stumbles to a garage full of electronic gear, used by a ten-year-old named Harley, who threatens Stark with a potato gun. Eventually, Harley agrees to help Stark repair and recharge the armor. Stark also investigates the explosion, since that was why he wanted to come there in the first place. Six people were killed in the explosion, but only five left shadows on the surrounding walls. Stark visits the sixth person’s mother, who hands him a file—belatedly realizing that Stark isn’t the guy who called her. That was Savin who, along with another powered terrorist posing as a Homeland Security agent, show up and take on Stark. However, even without his armor, Stark is able to use his scientific knowhow (among other things, blowing up a microwave with a set of dogtags) to stop the bad guys, aided by Harley.

Potts and Hansen are talking in a hotel room when Killian breaks in to kidnap her—and it turns out that Hansen is working with Killian. She had come to convince Stark to join A.I.M. Now they have Potts for leverage.

Stark has figured out how Mandarin’s attacks are “covered up”—the bombs are people. The process Killian and Hansen developed is called Extremis, and while it can allow someone to heal completely (and also regrow limbs, with A.I.M. having taken its test subjects from soldiers and others who have lost limbs), and also give them energy powers, it can also result in them exploding. With help from Rhodes, as well as a satellite uplink from a local beauty pageant (where one of the judges looks just like Stan Lee), he learns all about Killian’s project, and discovers that A.I.M. is working for the Mandarin.

One of Mandarin’s pirate broadcasts is traced to Pakistan. Rhodes is sent there, only to find that it’s a sweat shop. But one of the women making knockoff sportswear is also an Extremis soldier, who knocks Rhodes out and takes him captive.

J.A.R.V.I.S. is back up and running enough to trace Mandarin’s stronghold by tracking concentrations of Extremis users—which, oddly, is in Miami. Stark drives down there and is able to use various gadgets he’s put together to take out security, finally finding the Mandarin—

—in bed with two women and speaking with a Cockney accent. It turns out “the Mandarin” is really a drug-addicted actor named Trevor Slattery who thinks he’s playing a role. Killian’s people capture Stark and tie him up. Hansen tries to convince Killian not to hurt Stark, as he can help them stabilize Extremis, but Killian just shoots her for her trouble. He shows Stark that he not only has Potts hostage, but has given her Extremis.

Killian created “the Mandarin” as a cover for the explosions of Extremis users who went bad. His plan is to take out President Ellis next. He gets Rhodes out of the Iron Patriot armor and puts Savin in it. Savin heads to Air Force One to escort Ellis home for Christmas.

An alarm on a watch Stark borrowed from Harley (actually Harley’s sister) goes off, which makes Stark happy, as it means his armor is back to full power. It flies to Miami and attaches itself to him (well, parts of it do—the rest don’t arrive until a bit later, after Harley unlocks the garage door), and he takes care of security. Rhodes takes advantage of the distraction to mount an escape of his own.

Stark calls Vice President Rodriguez to warn them of the attack on the President. When Rodriguez says it’s okay, Iron Patriot is on the job, Rhodes comes on the line and says, “Not so much.” Rodriguez says he’ll take care of it—then hangs up and does nothing, returning to his Christmas celebration. We see that his daughter has only one leg.

Savin takes the President hostage by putting him in the Iron Patriot armor and sending the armor off to Killian. Iron Man then shows up and fights Savin, eventually killing him and saving the thirteen passengers who survived Savin’s attack, but who are falling to their doom. Iron Man is then hit by a truck, at which point we discover that Stark is operating the armor remotely.

Killian’s plan is to kill Ellis, which would put Rodriguez in the Oval Office, and he’ll be Killian’s puppet in exchange for curing his daughter. Stark and Rhodes head to the oil rig where Ellis has been taken. J.A.R.V.I.S. informs Stark that the repair crews have dug out Stark’s basement in Malibu, and Stark calls for all his armors to be sent to Miami. They arrive, and J.A.R.V.I.S. coordinates their attack on the Extremis soldiers while Stark wears one suit. Rhodes rescues Ellis and puts his own armor back on, and Iron Man and Iron Patriot continue to fight Killian’s soldiers.

Stark sees Potts fall two hundred feet into an inferno, and thinks she’s dead. He commands the Mark 42 armor to go onto Killian and then destroys it. But that’s still not enough to stop him—however, another Extremis soldier is, and it turns out that Potts survived the fall and is able to stop Killian with her own enhanced powers. Stark, by way of showing his dedication to Potts, blows up all the Iron Man armors.

Rodriguez is arrested, as is Slattery. Stark gives Harley a ton of high-tech equipment to play with. Stark is able to use what he learned at Killian’s place to cure Potts of Extremis, and then decides to have surgery to remove the shrapnel from his heart. Even as he tosses away his ARC reactor, he muses that he’s still Iron Man.

In a post-credits scene, we discover that the voiceovers we’ve been getting of Stark telling this story have been him telling Dr. Bruce Banner about it, but Banner fell asleep right around when he was talking about Bern in 1999.

 

“That’s the thing about smart guys, we cover our asses”

This is a remarkably uneven movie. Parts of it work brilliantly, others stumble rather badly. It’s eminently watchable mostly due to the (as usual) superlative work done by Robert Downey Jr., who completely owns the title role.

The one way in which this movie works 100% is in chronicling Stark’s post-traumatic stress following the Chitauri invasion. Stark’s obsession with creating new suits of armor, with trying to do anything to distract himself from what happened in New York, is played perfectly; Stark’s usual manic intensity is turned up several notches, and his verbal diarrhea even more random than it has been in his prior appearances.

The one way in which this movie does not work is in making Stark into a bloodthirsty bastard. I have a serious problem with an Iron Man movie in which Iron Man gleefully informs a bunch of thugs that he’s going to kill them and in what order he’s going to kill them. And he kills the other bad guys, from Brandt in Tennessee to Savin on Air Force One, without hesitation. Yes, right after killing Savin he saves thirteen people, but still, I prefer my superheroes not to be murderers. Especially not murderers of guys who are just doing a job. One of my favorite moments in the film is when one of Killian’s thugs throws up his hands and says, “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird!” Truly, more thugs should be doing that. (“I surrender, Spider-Man, they ain’t payin’ me enough to get put in the hospital!”) But it also points out that Stark’s litany of how he’s going to kill the hired hands makes him no better than Killian.

Speaking of Killian, wow, what a dull antagonist. The original drafts of the script had Hansen be the actual villain, but Marvel’s Disney overlords didn’t think that kids would buy an action figure of a female villain, so they changed it to Killian. Yes, much better to make the formerly crippled guy who cured himself, and who was treated like dirt by the hero, be the villain, than some girrrrrrrrrrrl. Of course, having them team up works nicely, but then Hansen is disposed of without a second thought, making you wonder why they bothered having her in the movie in the first place. (A deleted scene reveals that, before she succumbs to the bullet wound, she transfers all the information about Extremis to Stark, which if nothing else explains how he was able to cure Potts in the end.)

Killian’s overall plan seems to be to have control over the person in the White House, which seems—odd? Boring? Simplistic? I dunno, it just didn’t have any bite to it. But neither did Killian. I actually felt sorry for him watching the opening, but then he’s so incredibly sleazy to Potts later on that the sympathy is mitigated somewhat. Still, Stark actually taking some ownership of his mistreatment of both Killian and Hansen might have been nice, but the movie was more interested in him getting past his more recent trauma than his dozen-year-old dickishness.

Having said that, the use of the Mandarin is brilliant. The notion of the Mandarin as a construct used to cover for the Extremis soldiers exploding is fantastic. It enables them to use Iron Man’s greatest foe, and also shine a light on the stereotype that he was created as. Ben Kingsley deserves tremendous kudos here, as he plays the Mandarin as genuinely menacing. His speeches about the massacre at Sand Creek and the origin of fortune cookies (“They’re actually an American invention, which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth”) are quite clever and scarily delivered justifications for the bombings. And then his later performance as drugged-out Trevor Slattery is just hilarious.

In addition, I love Killian’s explanation for the Mandarin being at least in part inspired by Thor’s arrival in his titular movie. Thor showing up in the southwest in Thor has a lot of the same implications for the MCU that Dr. Manhattan’s arrival did in Watchmen. Prior to that, every hero the world had seen (and this includes ones retconned into the past like Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Goliath) had been human with enhancements of some sort, whether mechanical or chemical. But Thor is something other, a god-like being who brought a bunch more god-like beings and a big giant robot—and later an alien invasion—to Earth. As Killian said, “When the big dude with the hammer dropped from the sky, subtlety became a thing of the past.”

I do like how much Stark uses his brains in this. While on the one hand, the repeated destruction/disrepair of his armor is a good way to keep Downey Jr.’s famous face on screen a lot, at the very least, we see him using his smarts to keep himself from getting killed, whether it’s using the stuff in the restaurant he runs into when being chased by Extremis thugs or the gadgets he threw together before driving to Miami.

Kudos to Don Cheadle, also, who’s similarly kept out of his armor for a chunk of the movie, but Rhodes proves himself able to handle himself just fine without the Iron Patriot armor. (The constant complaining about the rebranding and the new paint job are hilarious, as well. It’s worth watching the extras on the Blu-Ray to see the full talk show segments about that rebranding from Bill Maher and Joan Rivers.) Cheadle brings a pleasant competence to the proceedings, a nice balm to Downey Jr.’s endless snark. Though that snark from the lead does keep the scenes with Ty Simpkins’s Harley from getting overly precious.

The climax is a mess. Watching armor after armor get blown up grows tiresome, and Killian seems to have gone from a small handful of Extremis soldiers (only three of whom actually have personalities, and all three are dead by the time we hit the climax) to an infinite supply of them for J.A.R.V.I.S.-controlled Iron Man armors to fight. Also, why is Killian still doing his perform-for-the-cameras act without Slattery around to play the Mandarin? He must know that that charade has been compromised, because Slattery’s not actually there to film his bit. If he’s not expecting Slattery to be there, why is he going ahead with it? It’s never adequately explained.

And then we have the wholly unsatisfying ending, where Stark gets heart surgery to remove the shrapnel. If it’s that easy, why didn’t he do it when he got home from Afghanistan the first time? The whole point of, well, every Iron Man appearance prior to this is that he has to wear the ARC reactor or he’ll die. Hell, an entire subplot of Iron Man 2 was that the reactor was poisoning him, so why wasn’t this surgery mentioned as an option then? It’s completely out of left field, makes no sense, and does nothing to advance the character. All it does is mean that Downey Jr. doesn’t have to wear a cylinder under his shirt in subsequent movies…

This is an excellent next chapter in Tony Stark’s saga of trying to be less of a dick and only partially succeeding. It’s a terrible superhero movie, though, and it didn’t need to be.

 

Next week, we see how Asgard is recovering from Loki’s shenanigans in Avengers, as we look at Thor: The Dark World.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is also going to be reviewing each episode of season 2 of Star Trek Discovery as they’re released starting in two weeks, and will be covering The Punisher season 2 later this month as well.

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