We’re back! After wrapping up Phase One with our Avengers Assemble special, and an ebook collection of our words on the first five entries to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we took a little time off to catch our breath. Now it’s time to jump the hell back in, with…
IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Tim: So, Phase One has come to its epic climax, and now we step beyond that into the cinematic refractory period with the first film of Phase Two, the first post-Avengers film, and the first Iron Man film not directed by Jon Favreau. What struck you most on this revisit?
Alex: So, for a long time, I would say that Iron Man 3 was my favourite MCU movie. On this rewatch, at least, I was surprised to find it didn’t really live up to that memory. Part of it might be that, in light of recent events, I feel a little less favourably about director and co-writer Shane Black. Maybe it’s a little that the style, which felt so unique at the time, has been assimilated into Marvel’s repertoire.
But also, taking the movie purely on its own terms, it definitely takes a long time to ramp up to the stuff that makes it really interesting and unique.
Tim: I think that’s fair. People talk about Marvel only recently allowing directors to really steer the direction of the MCU, but this film is full of Black’s tics, from the dialogue to the voiceover to the fact that it takes place at Christmas. However, like you say, that anarchic spirit and self-awareness has become a lot more integrated into the MCU over time, so coming back to Iron Man 3, it’s a lot less fresh than it was.
Alex: It’s deeply excellent that the music playing over the titles is Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Be Dee)”. When we spoke about the original Iron Man, you pointed out that the first thing we hear in the MCU is AC/DC. That Phase Two opens with this ironic kitschy slice of Europop feels like a statement on this next wave of movies, as they try to open up the ‘voice’ of the MCU.
Tim: I can remember that moment getting a huge laugh in the cinema.
One thing that I did pick up on this viewing is that there’s a genuine thematic consistency to the film, centring on what makes Tony Stark Iron Man. After a film like Avengers, which is too busy making sure all the parts fit together to really say anything, it’s a welcome surprise.
Alex: One of the threads we followed throughout Phase One was the continuing story of Tony Stark – but the way this movie works together with the first Avengers is where his long-term arc is really forged. The themes you mention carry through right up to Infinity War, as each film answers the question in its own way.
Tim: There’s a remarkably consistent thread to Tony’s story, given how many different writers and directors have worked on it. The perspective this film gives us on Tony’s reaction to the events of Avengers is really crucial to his actions going forward.
Alex: It’s a brilliant move, to take seriously the weight of what happens to Tony in the Battle of New York, and treat it not as an adventure but a trauma. How well do you think the movie handles that stuff?
Tim: I think it’s actually relatively good at tackling Tony’s PTSD and anxiety. It shows how easily it can be triggered and how overwhelming it is, but it’s not like he’s turned into a useless shaking blob. We see him channelling his nervous energy into building the suits, trying to cope with his newfound fear both for himself and the world around him.
Subsequent movies lean more heavily on that external view – Tony trying to create a legacy, “a suit of armour around the world” – but I think it’s a shame they haven’t really followed up on what’s going on in his mind to the same extent.
Alex: I think those later movies have a tendency to read that channelling of energy as a sign of addiction. The downside of Tony’s serialised characterisation is that we hit the same beat over and over – Tony telling himself he’s going to quit, and then getting right back on the mechanised horse.
Tim: Like another excellent action movie, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it’s funny how regularly the advanced tech in this film breaks. From the word go, we have Maya’s ficus exploding in the bedroom and the Mark 42 struggling to work. In fact, the entirety of Killian’s plan revolves around the fact that his technology doesn’t function properly – if it did, he’d have no ‘bombers’ to blame on the Mandarin.
That focus on technology letting you down has two roles. It strips something else away from Tony in a film that’s all about taking away the familiar things he relies on, and it also emphasises that it’s Tony’s brain, his ability to create and fix, that really makes him special.
Alex: You’re right about the stripping away, and it reminds me of Thor: Ragnarok in that way. The slow beginning I mentioned is because the film needs time to remove the existing baggage, and get to the very different story that this director is interested in telling.
But, more intentionally, given I don’t think Shane Black has precog abilities, it calls back – to Tony in the cave. All the luxuries taken away, proving through DIY science that he’s more than just a dude in a suit.
Tim: Absolutely. This is a story that attempts to get down to the core of who Tony (and Iron Man) is. The fact that he’s struggling in the wake of the Battle of New York means he’s more exposed than he normally would be, and all those neuroses are on full show. Tony is questioning who he is in the wake of disaster, which allows us to as well.
This is very cleverly layered throughout the film, in everything from his ‘You Know Who I Am’ name badge in Bern to Max-from-Happy-Endings‘ copycat haircut.
But as much as the film is about whether Tony is or isn’t Iron Man without the suit, it’s also about who isn’t Iron Man. Rhodey, Pepper, Killian, Savin, JARVIS and even the US President all get to operate Iron Man (or Patriot) suits over the course of the film, but none of them have what Tony does.
Alex: Speaking of people who aren’t Tony Stark, Iron Man 3 maintains a series tradition, in giving us a central villain who is an alt-universe Tony. Obadiah Stane was the ruthless businessman version. Justin Hammer was the ego, unchecked and without the talent to back it up. Aldrich Killian is… I’m not sure what the pithy version would be, honestly.
Which is kind of the problem with him, for me. There are some interesting concepts in the mix – that he’s a ghost of Tony’s past, and explicitly jacks his style, not just the styled hair and sharp suit but in using science to improve himself – but the result is a fairly generic action-movie baddie.
Tim: I do like that we transition from Tony always having to fight more dudes in other robot suits, and there’s a potentially interesting thread about Killian being a ‘nerd made good’ who has got superpowers that make him strong, fast and good-looking, but he’s still a terrible person underneath it all. He views Pepper as a prize to win, he has some ill-advised Asian tattoos, his whole demonstration of Extremis at Stark Industries feels vaguely pick-up artist-y…
Alex: None of which puts a huge amount of blue sky between him and Justin Hammer, though. And Guy Pearce is good, but he’s no Sam Rockwell.
Tim: Also, I realise it’s more to do with his transformation than his flat-out handsomeness, but I don’t buy Killian being worth the ‘woah’ reaction that Pepper gives him when they’re first re-introduced. Sorry, Guy Pearce.
Alex: In our world, he’s a very good-looking dude. But in the MCU, where everyone is a Chris Pratt or higher… He ain’t all that and a bag of potato chips.
Sexiness aside, it doesn’t help that Killian’s powers are fairly uninspiring. From its first appearances in the comics, Extremis has always been a fascinating concept about hacking your genetic make-up. So it’s a real shame that, for Killian and his goons alike, that manifests as a lot of CGI fire, with the odd bit of super-strength and speed.
That said, it must just be that Pokémon has conditioned me so that, if there’s a fire one, I also expect to see a water, electric and grass one. Give me the Extremis Bulbasaur, dammit!
Tim: This film does include the MCU’s best henchman, in the form of the AIM guard who just gives up because “they are so weird here”, but I think it’s a shame that we didn’t get more of AIM’s super-science nonsense from the comics. Killian and Maya Hansen are basically their only brains – beyond that, it’s rent-a-thugs and the Extremis volunteers. Plus, beyond the ability to heal their injuries, we don’t get much of a sense of what’s driving this former military personnel to bomb other servicemen and stage what’s essentially a coup d’état.
I do think it’s interesting – especially given where the Iron Man franchise started – that, as well as Tony and his brush with PTSD, this film also includes former Armed Services members who’ve suffered injuries, and has our main villain preying on that to create his army.
Alex: Those military goons feel like a missed opportunity. Like you say, they tie into both the themes of this film – they’re fellow victims of trauma – and of the MCU as a whole – this film coming after the supremacy of military force has been toppled by, in Killian’s words, “that big dude with the hammer [falling] out of the sky”.
But in practice, they’re led by a guy who looks like what happens in a character customisation screen, when you set all the sliders to dead neutral. And has a personality to match.
Tim: Oh, before we leave the AIM Gang behind, a quick bit of trivia. Originally, Killian and Maya were going to be a single female character. However, Ike Perlmutter, Marvel’s notoriously shitty CEO, who at this time still had a say in the movies, wouldn’t allow it because, supposedly, boys wouldn’t by the action figure of a female supervillain.
You also have Perlmutter to partially thank for Marvel dragging its feet on, for example, a solo female-fronted film, or a Black Panther film. He’s close friends with Donald Trump, which should tell you everything you need to know.
I’m pretty sure this was one of the last films where Perlmutter had any kind of control over Marvel Studios – shortly after this, it was spun off into an entirely separate business. But I suspect this is why Maya’s death feels so unnecessary, and it’s possibly even why Pepper is the one to actually finish Killian off.
Alex: My criticisms of Killian & The Extremis Crew – ‘generic’, ‘lacking personality’ – certainly do not apply to this film’s other villain, the one they call… The Mandarin.
Alex: He’s the toast of Croydon, don’tcha know.
Tim: I know several attempts have been made at remaking the Mandarin into something functional in the modern landscape, but none of them have really stuck because he’s a character so rooted in ugly Yellow Peril stereotypes. The twist that they come up with here is really the smartest possible thing they could have done, and anyone who doesn’t like it is a dumb-dumb.
Alex: That reveal might be my single favourite thing in the entire MCU to this point. Honestly, I think it might be the primary reason I remembered Iron Man 3 so fondly.
Tim: What really sells it is that the direction they seem to take the character in feels like exactly what a less smart film would do: ‘oh, let’s just make him Osama Bin Laden’. Basically substituting old racism for new racism. The fact that they undercut that is utterly delicious.
Tim: We’ve already spoken a lot about this film in the context of The Avengers, how it fits into Tony’s larger narrative, and Shane Black’s directorial voice. Given all that, where do you think this film sits in the wider MCU?
Alex: The biggest issue for me in this regard – and I think these blogs have pretty firmly established it as an obsession of mine – was how casually the movie treats killing. Some of it is ambiguous, some of it not so much, but Tony murders a lot of dudes here.
Obviously Iron Man is inherently a character who fires missiles at things, but when it’s this up close and personal, it feels like there’s less plausible deniability.
Tim: Do you think that ties back to Iron Man’s origin as a sort of revenge thriller? At one point in this movie, Tony literally says into a camera that his mission against the Mandarin is founded in vengeance.
Alex: I mean, that’s certainly present in the moment where Tony blows a huge, smoking hole in the lead goon’s chest and coldly says “walk away from that, you son of a bitch” as his corpse slides down the wall.
Tim: It’s sort of a fascinating split. We talked in our Avengers coverage about how that film transitioned him from a primarily selfish figure to someone willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In this film, we get, as you mentioned, a significant amount of killing, often delivered up close, but arguably the best action sequence of the film features no killing whatsoever, as Tony attempts to save the people who’ve fallen out of Air Force One.
Alex: I would argue there’s at least one better, but we’ll get there. That scene stands out because it’s about the most pure bit of superheroism we’ve ever seen in the MCU. To me, though, it does always feel a little like it’s taken from a different film.
Tim: It’s really refreshing to see pure superheroics on screen, and the punchline at the end where we discover Tony wasn’t even in the suit it terrific, but it does definitely feel like they came up with the sequence before they wrote the film, then found a way to include it.
Tim: Given that we’ve already started about some of the film’s best moments, let’s talk about our personal favourites.
Alex: My two picks actually fall right next to one another in the film. There’s a five-minute run in the middle that I think is basically unparalleled, and it all starts with Tony, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, walking into a DIY store.
You get this brilliant suiting-up montage, where he’s back to doing some of that homemade MCU science we love so much. It shows us all these slightly shonky gadgets he’s building, and leaves you wondering exactly what they all do… And then transitions straight into a heist-style sequence of him using them all as he infiltrates the villa in Miami.
This feels like the movie Iron Man 3 really wants to be, and it’s excellent at it. A quick succession of these beautiful snapshots of inventive violence: The bolas! The exploding Christmas baubles! The electrified gardening glove!
Between the surroundings, the improvised weaponry and the binocular’s-eye-view shot, it’s like the highlight reel to the best Hitman level I’ve ever played.
Tim: Going back to your point about murder, it also seems like most of the methods used to take out the goons are non-lethal, albeit very painful.
Alex: It’s an interesting touch that he only pulls out the handgun – such a pedestrian little weapon – as he approaches The Lair of The Mandarin.
Which brings us right to the aforementioned highlight of the film: “My name is Trevor! Trevor Slattery!”
You’ve already talked about how the film’s handling of the Mandarin smartly sidesteps a lot of racist landmines – but just the sheer audacity of this moment still open-hand slaps me around the face every time I watch it.
Ben Kingsley is an inspired choice, partly because his (Academy Award-winning) brownface is exactly the kind of thing this Mandarin is satirising. But also, to be fair, because he has the sheer acting chops to jump between the gravelly-voiced boogieman and the caricature of the cowardly London Actor, and make both believably feel like the same person. It’s an incredible comedy performance, and a great plot twist, all in one neat little bundle.
And then our old friend the blank videogame character shows up, and – as is his wont – brings one of the best five minutes in superhero cinema to a sudden close.
Tim: I’m going to tackle my gems in reverse order, starting with the film’s finale, the so-called House Party battle. After Tony spending so long out of the suit over the course of the film, it brings them all back with a vengeance for the finale. It might have been nice to see some slightly weirder variant armours among the fracas – but in terms of sheer Marvel Comics Bullshit, it’s one of those sequences I never thought I’d see up on the cinema screen.
In fact, the comic where Tony first pulls this trick isn’t that old, and is one of my favourite single issues, so the speed with which it was adapted and the joy of seeing it fully realised combined to give me a massive grin in the cinema.
Alex: The Hulkbuster! The Sniper! The Heartbreaker! Actually, you know what all these suits of armour are an awful lot like, Tim?
Tim: Do tell.
Alex: Trick arrows! They’re just really big trick arrows!
Tim: You son of a bitch.
Alex: Am I wrong?
Tim: Don’t make me quote The Big Lebowski at you.
My second Gem is a tiny moment just preceding all the action kicking off in the finale, and is probably the most Shane Black Moment in the film that doesn’t directly involve Christmas
As Tony and Rhodey are infiltrating the shipyard, Tony attempts to sneak a look at where the guards are, and upon returning to cover, reports “too quick, couldn’t see”. It’s a perfect deflation of typical action movie tropes and a little tension breaker before the fireworks begin. It’s also a great example of the skills that Rhodey brings to the game that Tony lacks – while Stark may be able to make an arsenal from a trip to a hardware store, Colonel James Rhodes knows how to act in a high-risk environment, and can take out a spotlight from 500 yards.
Alex: Rhodey isn’t Iron Man, but equally… Tony isn’t Colonel James Rhodes. Which is pretty much the point of the entire movie.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
- Like so many of Shane Black’s films, Iron Man 3 is set at Christmas, and unlike Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and others, the trip to Tennessee means we actually get snow.
- Very happy to see the Slap Chop commercial in the mix in the Mandarin’s montage before one of his terror broadcasts. I wonder what meme would have been included if this had been filmed today?
- US Patriot telling the workers in Pakistan that they’re “free, uh, if you weren’t before” is a great example of US foreign policy being treated with a lot more of a satirical eye in this entry than the first Iron Man.
- The Extremis technology later makes some interesting reappearances in the Agents of SHIELD series, as it’s one of those cans of worms that’s easy to loose upon the world, and endlessly adaptable for creating new threats.
- Another great moment of Shane Black having reality intrude on action movie tropes is when Rhodey interrogates Trevor by holding the recently-fired gun barrel to his ear. Guns get hot, yo!
- Between Elon Musk in Iron Man 2 and Bill Maher in this one, these films have developed an unpleasant habit of giving a cameo to some really shitty dudes.
- Given that it’s implied that Tony can perfect the Extremis formula pretty easily, one wonders why Pepper didn’t just elect to keep it after the film. Pretty hard to be a damsel in distress if you’re super-strong and regenerate from injuries.
- We’re actually teased a superpowered Pepper twice in the movie – when she’s in the armour, it feels like a wink at the time the comics gave Pepper her own armour, and the moniker ‘Rescue’. It’s frustrating that neither ever lead anywhere.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: I know Alex isn’t a fan of him, but I like James Badge Dale as Eric Savin, Killian’s main enforcer. He’s a little underwritten, especially for a Shane Black henchman, but Dale has a lot of fun with the role, and he quietly pulls off two of the film’s best looks – his slightly rumpled suit when accompanying Killian to see Pepper, and his cheeky pilot’s cap just before he attempts to escape Air Force One.
- James Badge Dale, aka ‘Did You Know Jason Statham’s Stunt Double Went to Drama School?’ aka ‘Who Shaved This Ken Doll?’ aka ‘The Guy They Cast to Play Best Man Dominic Parsons in the Porn Adaptation of My Wedding’.
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