SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!
I saw Iron Man 3 last night and I loved it. I mean LOVED it. I was satisfied with Iron Man 2 (unlike plenty of other folks) but it had its flaws, and it certainly didn’t fill me with as much joy as the first Iron Man did when I saw it in theaters. But when I heard Shane Black was going to be co-writing and directing the most recent installment, I knew we were going to get something special. In case you didn’t know, Shane Black is responsible for writing the first two Lethal Weapon films, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Action Hero, and for directing Robert Downey Jr. back in 2005 in the excellent comedic noir thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which he also wrote. I’m a fan of all those movies, especially the last one I mentioned, so you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that Shane Black was writing AND directing Iron Man 3. I was not disappointed; the movie I saw last night was heartfelt, hilarious, and full of jawdropping action. I can think of very little I didn’t like about it. And because I can’t contain myself when it comes to Iron Man, I have to talk about it at length to no one in particular. For the sake of convenience, I’ll assume you’ve already seen it. Sound good?…I don’t care. HERE WE GO!
The Extremis story arc from The Invicible Iron Man comics ran from 2005-2006, and it always kind of irritated me. Despite being well-written and beautifully illustrated, there were just elements of the story I didn’t care for. I won’t go into everything that went down in the comics, but the story basically ended with Tony Stark embracing the Extremis technology in order to defeat a criminal who had been augmented with it; he integrated it into his armor and his body, so that he could operate his tech faster than thought and essentially became a living computer. I won’t pretend like my ideal of Iron Man is more valid than other fans’, but I didn’t like that. Tony is Iron Man, but he’s still Iron Man when he isn’t wearing the armor; it doesn’t define him, or at least it shouldn’t. So of course I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to discover that Shane Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce essentially had the same notion! We’ve never seen Tony so effective without his armor, and it reminds us that he’s plenty dangerous with just the random stuff a ten-year-old kid can gather up from around the house. And, at the end of Iron Man 3, Tony decides that he’s got everything he needs to be complete and the armor had become a distraction for him, so he destroys the armor he has and removes the arc reactor from his chest (with surgery of course). Given the fact that Tony operated without any kind of life-support system for years in the comics, I don’t see any reason to think that we won’t see Tony as Iron Man again. I suppose there’s another, somewhat controversial plot element I ought to address. So I will. But first, an aside.
I’ve read every single issue of The Invincible Iron Man that exists. EVERY. SINGLE. ISSUE. Years ago, Marvel thought it would be cool to release digital versions of their comics on CD-ROM so as to be “hip.” They had one for all of their main characters, including Iron Man. I have plenty of hard copies of my favorite issues, and plenty of graphic novels, but between the 500 issues of The Invincible Iron Man on the aforementioned CD-ROM and the remaining issues I collected to fill in the gaps, I’ve read pretty much every appearance of Iron Man in the Marvel Universe. I remember watching reruns of the Iron Man animated show from the ’90s (it was terrible, but it was Iron Man). So yes, I’m quite the Iron Fan. What I’m about to say next, I don’t say lightly.
Are you ready? Come closer…closer……GUESS WHAT?! I DON’T LIKE THE MANDARIN! THAT’S RIGHT! Yeah, I think The Mandarin’s dated and dumb. Marvel should have let him die with the other racist stereotypes from the Cold War era. But no, he stuck around for decades afterwards, even acquiring this weird status as Iron Man’s greatest foe. I still don’t like him. He’s got magic rings (I don’t care what kind of techno-babble he uses to describe them; they might as well be magic, the way they’re shown to work), he thinks he’s a modern-day Ghengis Khan, he wants to rule the world (with the occasional variation in his plots as time goes by), he has super martial art powers, and he lives in a palace in the mountains of China. You know what all of that says to me? Meh. MEEHHHH. Even at his most sleek and modern, the Mandarin never seemed any different from Fu Manchu or Shihuan Khan from The Shadow series. I was actually thrilled when Ben Kingsley was announced as the Mandarin and he was revealed to not be Chinese. I figured that at least his motivations and personality would be different from the stuff we usually see in the comics. So when “The Mandarin” was revealed to be a besotted stage actor being manipulated by the REAL villains? YES. YES. In addition to being a remarkable ego-free performance from Sir Ben, we sidestepped all the weird awkwardness we would have gotten if The Mandarin actually was some kind of Far Eastern warlord. And, without being TOO obvious about it, Black’s decision to have unethical American businessmen be the REAL villains makes for good political commentary (and it keeps the theme we had from the last two movies with crooked executives pulling strings as well). Plus, having “The Mandarin” be an actor who was desperate for work is consistent with the theme the movie has of the best intentions and goals being twisted for unethical purposes. So no, I don’t agree with people who were disappointed with The Mandarin’s depiction in Iron Man 3, and yes I’ve read the comics, and no I don’t think he’s worth much in the comics either.
A word or two about Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, the real villain of the movie. I think he does a great job portraying a sort of anti-Tony. When Sam Rockwell played Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, it didn’t quite work. I saw what he was going for, but it rang false for me. He was never threatening in the slightest, and while I didn’t care that Hammer was altered from the comic books to be closer to Tony in age, I DID feel that he needed to keep his ruthlessness. Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 is never in control, and he’s never shown to have any deeper motivation than competing with Stark Industries for government contracts. Aldrich Killian, on the other hand, is a great character. He starts off as a brilliant, eager-to-please, nobody who has nothing but ambition. Tony’s rejection is what gives him the motivation to move forward with Extremis and reinvent himself. He wants to be like Tony in the sense that he wants the same kind of power and respect, but unlike Tony, his defining moment as a scientist was divorcing himself from morality and taking what he wanted regardless of the costs. At the same time, he also can’t completely divorce himself from the validation he craved as a nobody. Which he recognizes. Guy Pearce gives Killian the charisma, confidence, and borderline lunacy that makes him a perfect dark mirror for Tony.
Oh, and I don’t know if this was controversial for anyone, but I also should mention that I don’t care if Rhodey is in the Iron Patriot armor. I know Norman Osborne was in the Iron Patriot armor. Who cares? If I were the United States government and I had access to mobile weapons platform, OF COURSE I’d call it Iron Patriot and not War Machine! Especially after the events of Iron Man 2. I didn’t care for the Iron Patriot armor in the comics, or much of the Dark Reign saga either, for that matter, so I prefer to see the Iron Patriot armor in something I DO like.
I really like how Tony’s relationship with Pepper is shown to be deep but not untroubled. Clearly they’re meant to be together, but also to fight a lot, too. And Pepper finally gets to wear the armor for a bit AND kick some tail in the finale! You’ll notice, she’s never not instrumental in saving the day at the end of an Iron Man movie. Incidentally, how does Gwyneth Paltrow get progressively MORE glamorous with every one of these movies she’s in?! Really, how?! WHAT IS YOUR SECRET GWYNETH PALTROW??!!
What to say about the action except that it was breathtaking? I was worried that the final fight with all the armors vs. the Extremis operatives was going to be boring and repetitive, but man was I wrong. The plane crash scene was fantastic (I applauded), and as I mentioned before, I loved seeing Tony in action without depending solely on his suit. Black was able to combine really well-choreographed action set pieces with expertly timed humor, and it works wonders on film. I really hope this isn’t Black’s only foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Speaking of…
THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE
As promised, Iron Man 3 is not a tie-in to any larger story. That was one of my biggest problems with Iron Man 2, so I’m glad they learned their lesson. Not that the events of The Avengers weren’t referenced; in fact, it was really cool of Black and Pearce to make Tony’s PTSD from his near-death experience in that movie serve as his motivation in this one. The reason Tony can’t sleep, can’t stop building armors, can’t stop improving his techonology is that his technology almost failed him in New York that day; it’s got to be better. And he has to deal with The Mandarin and the Extremis operatives by himself because he needs to believe that he can still cut it, not just as a superhero, but as a scientist. Seriously, Shane Black and Drew Pearce are real champs. I wish them success. I have to say, though, I would have preferred a post-credits scene that was a little juicier. Maybe there isn’t enough out there to work with yet. But hey, there’s always the next Thor movie.