Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.
Released: 3 May 2013
Director: Shane Black
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Ty Simpkins, and Ben Kingsley
Suffering anxiety attacks following his experiences in The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) has been busying himself creating a whole slew of new armours. While smooth-talking entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Pearce) woos Stark’s love interest, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow), with his “Extremis” technology, Stark is incensed when his friend Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) is left critically injured as a result of the mysterious and sadistic terrorist known only as the Mandarin (Kingsley). After declaring war on the Mandarin, Stark is left without his vaulted technology and with only his wits and genius intellect to uncover the terrorist’s connection to Extremis.
Although both Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (ibid, 2010) were both incredibly profitable, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was secured after the unprecedented success of their first team-up movie. Moving into Phase Three, the MCU faced some corporate issues that led to Walt Disney Studios purchasing the distribution rights to the films from Paramount Pictures before production of a third Iron Man movie began. Although actor/director Jon Favreau remained attached as a producer and actor, he opted not to return to the director’s chair and star Robert Downey Jr. reached out to Shane Black to take the reigns. Drawing inspiration from Warren Ellis’ “Extremis” arc (2005 to 2006), Iron Man 3 (curiously titled “Iron Man Three” in the credits) sought to strip Stark of his resources and be more of a Tom Clancy-style thriller than a traditional superhero film. Although the film drew some controversy for dramatically altering Rebecca Hall’s role and prominence and including a very ill-advised (in my opinion) twist, Iron Man 3 was ridiculously successful and made over $1.200 billion at the box office. Critically, the film’s reviews vary; some praised the tonal shift towards comedy and more grounded action while others took issue with these same aspects.
Unlike its predecessors, and the majority of films in the MCU, Iron Man 3 is bookended by Tony Stark narrating the seemingly-insignificant events from his past that led to his latest struggle in the film. While this makes for an amusing post-credits scene where it’s revealed that he’s been boring Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to sleep with the events of the movie, his voice over is only really used at the start and the end of the film so it seems a bit pointless to me. Add to that the fact that this post-credits scene is telling us that Tony’s battle against the Mandarin is boring an uninteresting, and this kind of sets a precedent for what to expect from Iron Man 3.
As part of the film’s aim to harken back to the themes and atmosphere of the first movie, Iron Man 3 begins at a New Year’s Eve Party in 1993. Here we are reminded of just how selfish, self-centred, and vindictive Stark can be as he’s too busy drinking, partying, and flirting with Maya Hansen (Hall) than giving the likes of Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub) or the awkward and ungainly Aldrich Killian the time of day. In this flashback scene, Killian is depicted as a bespectacled, awkward cripple and a goof in an employment of one of the worst tropes of superhero movies. However, thankfully, we’re spared watching him undergo a physical and mental transformation and degradation over the course of the movie and his inelegant manner is limited purely to this brief sequence and a subsequent flashback later in the film. This trope is also primarily used to show that he overcame his limitations and Stark’s dismissal of his idea for a collaborative think-tank of the country’s top minds and to further emphasise that Stark’s ignorance and egotism leads to him effectively creating his own villains later in life for not being more considerate to others.
When we catch up with Stark in the then-present day, he’s fully committed to his relationship with Pepper and seemingly in a much more stable place in terms of his personality (though he retains his trademark snark and sardonic nature) but he’s haunted by his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble. Suffering from frequent nightmares and flashbacks to the wide, unknown dangers that lie beyond our world, Stark is stricken by harrowing panic attacks any time the subject of New York comes up and has spent more and more time finding comfort in his Iron Man armour and tinkering down in his workshop. Constantly distracted, highly strung, and fatigued, his relationship with Pepper suffers a bit as a result of the fact that, rather than open up to her, he prefers to make more and more Iron Man variants and work on perfecting his Mark XLII armour, which is capable of separating into self-propelling parts that respond to his commands via micro-repeater chips.
Despite having gained new allies in his fellow Avengers, Stark feels more alone than ever; not wanting to worry Pepper, he keeps her at arm’s length and works around the clock to ensure her safety. Happy is busy with his new position as head of security at Stark Enterprises (a job he takes very seriously) and, though Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle) unsuccessfully tries to ask about Stark’s mental health, his loyalty to the military necessitates keeping independent costumed heroes like Iron Man out of the loop. Indeed, in an extension of Rhodes’ sub-plot in Iron Man 2, President Ellis (William Sadler) has officially commissioned Rhodes to ditch the War Machine moniker and don the garishly patriotic red, white, and blue armour of the “Iron Patriot” and act as governmentally-sanctioned superhero to help allay fears following the Chitauri invasion.
Since Stark is preoccupied with his mounting anxiety issues, Pepper is left feeling unappreciated and shunned. Though she stays loyal to Stark, despite his eccentricities, she is more than a little impressed when Killian shows up at Stark Enterprises having transformed into a physically gorgeous, confidant businessman. After Stark’s dismissal of him back in the nineties, Killian resolved to make Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) incredibly successful and profitable and, through A.I.M..s research, was able to not only cure his own degenerative physical condition but potentially offer a cure for those suffering from all kinds of mental and physical ailments in the development of Extremis. However, while Killian’s presentation and charisma are impressive, Pepper ultimately turns down a proposed business venture between Stark Enterprises and A.I..M. out of fears about the potential weaponisation of the Extremis technology. Pepper is right to turn down this proposal as, very quickly, it is shown that a number of ex-soldiers have been exposed to Extremis and become living weapons as a result. The virus, cultivated from Maya’s research, promises to spontaneously heal wounds and even regrow limbs as well as curing mental and physical deficiencies and granted a degree of superhuman strength and dexterity to its subjects.
However, Extremis is, as the name implies, extremely volatile and many of those exposed to it burn out and explode as veritable suicide bombers. When Happy is critically injured in one of these attacks, Stark is incensed and openly challenges the one responsible for these, and many other devastating terrorist attacks, the terrorist known as the Mandarin. The Mandarin, who flashes up the symbol of the Ten Rings and frequently issues ominous threats by hijacking the airwaves, directly threatens President Ellis and proudly takes credit for the deaths of innocents in his unrelenting attacks against the United States. However, despite Rhodey cutting Stark out of the Mandarin investigation, Stark publicly (and recklessly) calls out the Mandarin after Happy is put in the hospital; the result is an all-out attack that devastates his home, burying his armours and technology, and leaves Stark stranded in Tennessee cut off from Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Paul Bettany) and with his Mark XLII armour powerless. Stripped of his resources and technology, Stark is forced to team up with young Harley Keener (Simpkins), who helps Stark link the Extremist terrorist attacks, and the Mandarin, back to Killian.
Given that it’s written and directed by Shane Black, Iron Man 3 takes place around the Christmas season; while Christmas doesn’t really factor into the overall plot in any tangible way beyond a few trees, decorations, and Tennessee being covered in a frigid snow, it does help the film to stand out against other MCU movies, and superhero films in general, as there aren’t very many that take place in the festive season. Thankfully, despite some of the flaws in the direction of the film and the decisions the filmmakers make regarding certain characters, the change in directors doesn’t diminish the perfect blend of snark and humour at work in Iron Man 3. Indeed, Stark’s interactions with the likes of Rhodey, Happy, and Harley are one of the film’s highlights and it’s great to see that he’s still a droll prick when he needs to be despite being a “piping hot mess”.
Indeed, the film adds further layers to Stark’s complex personality by adding post-traumatic stress to his laundry list of character defects; traumatised to the point where he suffers from insomnia and a deep-seated urge to build and create armours for every conceivable scenario, the last thing Stark needs is to be left without his tools and technology and yet that’s exactly where he finds himself. Stark’s efforts in Tennessee effectively return him to the cave where he must rely on his innovative genius to survive; when he tracks the Mandarin to Miami, he infiltrates the terrorist’s base with little more than some cobbled-together armaments that ape his usual Arc Reactor-powered arsenal. Teamed with a similarly suit-less Rhodey (whose henchman, Eric Savin (James Badge Dale), appropriates the Iron Patriot suit to kidnap President Ellis), Stark becomes much more of a resourceful spy than a colourful superhero and he spends a great deal of the film (arguably too much, in my opinion) outside of the armour rather than in it.
When he confronts the Mandarin, Stark is confused and enraged to find that he’s little more than a drunken, substance-dependent eccentric English actor named Trevor Slattery. Trevor willing reveals that he was contracted by Killian to pose as a credible terrorist threat in order to kill the President and replace him with Vice President Rodriguez (Miguel Ferrer), a puppet leader who will do exactly as Killian dictates. This twist on the traditional Fu Manchu sorcerer figure who I grew up seeing as Iron Man’s archenemy is undeniably amusing but, in retrospect, was a pretty awful idea; you had Ben Kingsley, Ben Kingsley, who absolutely crushed it when portraying the Mandarin and you turned him into an alcoholic buffoon. Indeed, the MCU producers backtracked on this depiction of the Mandarin pretty quickly and eventually brought the true Mandarin into the fold but even then the character was significantly altered from the source material. Sadly, though, this came out long after Stark’s emotional death so we were robbed of seeing him go toe-to-toe with his most iconic nemesis, which remains a bitter pill for me to swallow.
As has been publicly explored, Maya’s involvement in the plot as a tertiary antagonist is similarly swept under the rug; rather than be a significant threat to Stark, she merely ends up being a pawn of Killian’s who is gunned down the moment she has a crisis of conscience. Consequently, it’s Killian himself who acts as the film’s primary villain; a malicious, ruthless, and cunning adversary, Killian is yet another dark mirror of Stark (at least in terms of his business acumen) who subjects numerous desperate souls to his Extremis process despite knowing full well that it could kill them. He even forcibly infects Pepper with the virus, though this ultimately proves to be his downfall when she conveniently proves to be far more stable than most of his usual subjects. Killian ultimately takes on the Mandarin moniker for himself, showcasing superhuman strength, unparalleled regenerative abilities, and even the ability to breathe fire (making him like a composite of the comic’s Killian, Mandarin, and Fing Fang Foom).
While there is a noticeable lack of Iron Man action in Iron Man 3, the film does make up for it with a particularly exciting sequence where Stark has to rescue a bunch of the President’s personnel when Air Force One is destroyed, which is quite the innovative and unique rescue scene. Still, one of the primary selling points of any Iron Man movie, especially for me, are the various different armours Stark constructs for himself and Iron Man 3 culminates in a veritable smorgasbord of suits for our viewing pleasure. Sadly, though, while many of these were a significant aspect of the film’s marketing, they only appear onscreen for the briefest of moments in the finale, where Stark has J.A.R.V.I.S. remote pilot every single one of his suits to assist in the battle against Killian. Even his apparently revolutionary Mark XLII armour is pretty underwhelming as it constantly breaks, shatters, and loses power, making it probably the most ineffectual of all of his armours. Once Pepper kills Killian off, Stark immediately orders every single one of his suits to self-destruct and then just fixes not only Pepper’s condition but also his own, removing the shrapnel from his chest and apparently retiring from the superhero life. This, however, would simply be the start of another sub-plot and character arc for Stark throughout the remainder of the MCU which specifically dealt with his inability to walk away from Iron Man, the Avengers, and the thrill of being a superhero.
It’s not that Iron Man Three (I still don’t get why it’s credited like that…) is a bad film. For much of its runtime, it’s actually pretty entertaining and dark thanks to the intense and menacing nature of Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin. Even seeing Stark genuinely affected by his experience in Avengers Assemble was intriguing to watch and showed that the character was clearly growing and learning and influenced by the ever-escalating nature of the MCU, to say nothing of further solidifying Rhodey’s growth as his own legitimate armoured superhero. I didn’t even mind, conceptually speaking, the idea of Stark being robbed of his resources and having to improvise as it went a long way to showing just how adaptable, intelligent, and increasingly neurotic the character is becoming about safeguarding his friends, family, and the greater good. However, the execution is flawed in a lot of ways; the film “feels” just as big and exciting as the previous Iron Man movies but any and all of its positives are immediately soured by that God-awful Mandarin twist. Imagine if a Batman movie gave us the most perfect casting and interpretation of the Joker and then threw a curveball by revealing that he was a simple janitor playing dress-up; people would go crazy and, while I understand that the Mandarin comes with many cultural issues, the fact that the MCU eventually managed to translate a more faithful version of him to film years down the line makes me wish that they had stuck with the casting and the magic they had in Kingsley’s casting and given us (and by “us” I mean “me”) the long-awaited showdown between Iron Man and his greatest foe. Instead, we’re left with a decent enough film but one that gambles, and loses, its credibility on a nonsensical decision and one of the weaker films in the MCU line-up, in my opinion.
Could Be Better
What did you think to Iron Man 3? Can you explain to me why the credits spell the number three out because I honestly don’t get it? What did you think to the aspect of Stark suffering from anxiety attacks? Did you like that he was forced to innovate and work without his armour or were you annoyed at how little Iron Man action there was in the film? What did you think to the twist regarding the Mandarin? Did you enjoy it or, like me, were you annoyed by it? Which of Stark’s new armours was your favourite and would have liked to see more of and what did you think to the introduction of the Iron Patriot suit? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Feel free to drop a comment down below and thanks for being a part of Iron Man Month!