My Marvel Diary: Iron Man 3

Image: Marvel/Disney

Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.

Release Date: 25th April 2013

MCU Phase: Two

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Shane Black, Drew Pearce

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Ben Kingsley

May contain spoilers.

How do you follow The Avengers? When that film was a critical and commercial mega-success back in 2012, Marvel needed to have a good answer to that question. They did. It was to hire Shane Black, a writer-director with a known distinctive filmmaking voice, and to make a ‘better’ film. Iron Man 3 is a shift in gear from all its predecessors; it is more serious, darker, deeper, more human, and undoubtedly one of the best MCU films yet.

Kicking off what is now known as Phase Two, Iron Man 3 feels fresh and bracing, like Iron Man did when it began the whole thing several years earlier. To recapture that feeling, Shane Black (along with co-writer Drew Pearce) had to find an approach and tone that gave audiences the Tony Stark they loved, but wasn’t just a re-tread. The critical consensus on the MCU is that it defies normal movie logic of sequels always being a case of ever-diminishing returns. Iron Man 3 is the best of its trilogy, because it is a bold film that takes the risk of making something that does not really feel like a sequel to the first two films. In fact, it comes across more like a long epilogue to The Avengers, whilst embracing what makes Iron Man different from the gods, monsters, and aliens around him – he is human.

When I discussed Iron Man 2, I applauded it for being brave in trying to dig a little deeper into Tony Stark as a person; this film blows that out of the water. It has the conviction to take that notion of a deeper, more introspective superhero film and see it through. Its villains, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and ‘The Mandarin’, are directly involved in Tony Stark’s story, hitting him where it hurts and giving him something serious to fight for and against. In Iron Man 2 the villain was only there to provide action spectacle; Iron Man 3 will happily build threat into Tony’s personal story and even neglect action for human emotion.

For about two thirds of this film Iron Man is not present. This is not really Iron Man 3, it’s Tony Stark 1. Burnt out and suffering anxiety attacks after the large-scale destruction and near-death antics of The Avengers, Tony Stark is as close as ever to being a broken man. He isn’t giving Pepper Potts the communication and connection she needs, he’s ignoring the advice of friends, and he is frankly stunned that he, the great Tony Stark, could be suffering a panic attack. In early plot developments, Black and Pearce really have it in for Tony, destroying his house and gadgets, splitting him from Pepper, Happy and Rhodey, and generally trashing everything he has worked for over the previous films. It leaves our hero vulnerable and for the first time, despite all his lone genius posturing, truly alone. Even Jarvis shuts down. 

Tony’s anxiety and his need to heal himself (and save his friends, the president and most of America of course) drive this film, and it is something I admired immensely. Not only does the film show audiences watching that superheroes can have bad days and ‘imperfections’, it also shows that nobody, however extroverted and arrogant, is immune to anxiety. Most importantly, the film does not just drop it in at the start of the film, showing Tony having trouble sleeping, it properly runs with the idea and gives it the attention it deserves.

Scenes that could have been cut for the sake of thrills and speed show Tony having an anxiety attack multiple times throughout the film. It almost actively interrupts the plot at times, disrupting a scene where Tony begins to unravel the film’s central mystery, for example. For Tony anxiety is difficult, it gets in the way, and it doesn’t just vanish. Just like in real life. To my eyes at least, the film is a sympathetic, convincing, and accessible portrait of a very real human problem. The whole thing is excellently played by Robert Downey Jr. too.

Iron Man 3 is an admirable venture again in taking a more ‘realistic’ approach to the superhero genre, asking what really would happen if you lived like this. The Avengers was joyous and spectacular, but it did all feel very neat and Hollywood. Near the end Iron Man, for all he knows, sacrifices his life to save New York, but of course he manages to slip back through that wormhole to space and is caught on his way down by the Hulk. Hooray! I, and everyone else, had a massive smile on their face.

However, not that I’ve ever tried it myself, I imagine falling thousands of feet out of the sky and almost dying isn’t something you just brush off. In superhero films, though, near-death battles are treated lightly, and it is one of the core things that make them ‘light entertainment’ and stop them being seen as ‘proper, serious films’ (which is almost certainly something I’ve said to a Marvel fan before). This is a film that tries to rectify that. Tony really did make a sacrifice and it will shape his character forever.

Stripping away the armour to probe Tony Stark the man makes for great filmmaking. Where Iron Man 3 further delivers is in proving that a deeper, more grown-up film like this can also be barrels of fun. This film is a hoot. Funny as the Iron Man films have always been, but in an ever-so-slightly different way, and with great action, Black’s film remembers to be a blockbuster amid the darker stuff. This is the most serious MCU film yet, but it has a levity and sense of fun about it; it manages to add weight, without becoming leaden with its own self-importance. 

It might take a while for the Iron Man suit to get a proper outing but when it does, it’s glorious. There’s a whole fucking army of them. This is the most excited I have been watching MCU action scenes yet. I think it’s because the film has really earned the right to the bombast. I’ve gone on this journey with Tony Stark, so I’m going to care and invest myself when he becomes Iron Man again. The scene where a dozen people get flung out of a plane and Tony manages to save every single one of them is punch-the-air great. Too often action films have a big explosion that would certainly kill loads of civilians but it’s just ignored; that’s what I thought was happening when they all fell out of the plane. But no, Iron Man to the rescue. This is at once the least-superhero and the most-superhero film in the franchise. A film that has its hero alone and frightened, and also a climax that involves saving the president.

You can tell I’m a fan of the film, can’t you? Despite definitely being on board with what Shane Black has done here, I do have a couple of reservations. The focus on Tony is the film’s strong point, but it is slightly to the detriment of the supporting characters. Sidelining them all in favour of him is perhaps a sacrifice which needed to be made for the sake of a quicker and more digestible story that still works as a Tony stark character study. However, I do think the film missed some opportunities. Rhodey not being too involved I don’t mind, even though I like him. We know and like the character from the previous films and he gets his moment in the action at the end, so I’m happy with that.

Pepper, though, deserved better. I really like the chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey Jr., and have been waiting for more detail to her character for a while. Here, she basically just plays damsel in distress the whole time. It is important to Tony’s arc that he save her, I know, but I just think those romantic final moments would soar even higher if we understood her love of Tony, and her experience of these events a bit more. The scenes between her and Rebecca Hall’s Mia were the prime opportunity to do this without interrupting the plot, but instead they’re basically just used as exposition, dimming the power of both characters. Perhaps ‘healing’ Pepper of the regenerative powers at the end wasn’t the right call. Maybe she would be more interesting going forward with some sort of cross to bear.

Aldrich Killian, I am uncertain about. The Mandarin plotline I loved, and found the least predictable and therefore most fun of all the films so far. The big twist, as the man we thought was international terrorist the Mandarin is revealed to just be a drunken actor – Ben Kingsley is hilarious in the role – and the Mandarin invented all along, I was very much on board. It’s clever, it’s fun, and it poses interesting ideas about manufactured terrorism and the idea of owning the war on terror. Killian himself, however, doesn’t quite do it for me. The ‘rejected years ago by the hero’ idea is too clichéd for a film this fresh and smart. The fact his villainy was all based off a noble idea to heal the wounded is not really reckoned with either. There’s not enough backstory to convincingly sell a seemingly good man now being so unquestionably evil.

These failings in Iron Man 3 are a shame, and hamper it from being truly exceptional, but this is a very good entry into the MCU nonetheless. Where the film leaves us is bold. Tony is in many respects no longer Iron Man: he destroyed the suits; he no longer has an arc reactor heart; he’s a different person, and that’s great. The original Iron Man was the driving force behind Phase One, but for the MCU to progress forwards, its characters need to progress too. How the new Tony slots into a later Avengers lineup will be very interesting. 

The Sting

An unimportant one, but a fun one. The voiceover that opened and closed the film is revealed to be Tony getting a lot off his chest with Bruce Banner. Whilst Banner may not be the best therapist, having fallen asleep early on, it’s a nice touch that suggests to the audience a world where the Avengers hang out and chat beyond their superhero exploits.

Where it Ranks

In a lot of ways this is my favourite MCU film yet. It’s aimed more at me; it goes into the psychology of its hero, amps up the emotional stakes, and doesn’t forget to have fun whilst doing it. Yet it has a couple of small missteps that mean Black doesn’t quite achieve his goal one hundred percent. The Avengers, whilst in some ways a simpler and less ambitious film, hit its mark dead centre. Iron Man 3 is the best solo film yet though, and lands at a close second on my overall list.

  1. The Avengers
  2. Iron Man 3
  3. Iron Man
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. Iron Man 2
  6. Thor
  7. The Incredible Hulk

Andrew Young