I confess, I’ve been a bit out of the loop lately. I didn’t realize how imminent Iron Man 3 was until after Christmas, and still it managed to take me by surprise on opening weekend, so much so that it took me nearly a week to make it to a theatre to become eagerly absorbed in the next film in the Avengers canon. Waiting a week to see a film based on the comic books of my childhood is…well, nearly unheard of for me, so much so that I grabbed the first show that I could when my schedule permitted, even though it was in (what I consider to be vastly over-rated) 3D.
I had, of course, heard rumors abounding of how this Iron Man film was taking a different directorial approach than the first two, and I tried to distance myself from those, because they’re the sorts of rumors that make me nervous. And, let me say up front that the rumors proved true, but not in a bad way. This is a new tone for an Iron Man film, but its consistent with the evolution of Tony Stark’s character that unfolds during it’s two hours and fifteen minutes.
This film walks us through Tony’s past, before he became the self-sacrificial hero that we witness him become in the Avengers. The story is connected with flashbacks to Tony’s self-absorbed history, during which we discover that his arrogance is at least partly responsible for spawning the villains with which he is confronted today. This is a technique of comic book storytelling that has a thorough history, and I think that it’s done well here. Favreau show his artistic depth as he explores a different way to tell Iron Man’s story.
Stark has always been a fragile person behind his bravado. This was seen in the comics in his struggle with alcoholism. Iron Man 3 picks up with the emotional aftermath of the Avengers, with Stark experiencing what is likely post-traumatic stress symptoms that are crippling his health as well as his relationship with Pepper. He begins making rash decisions as his flashbacks and anxiety escalate, and he becomes absorbed in his technology during his sleepless nights. He forms, in fact, a relationship with his technology, even more symbiotic that we have previously seen. He tells Pepper early in the film, “I am Iron Man,” and the undercurrent is explicit to the audience that his self-perception of his identity is completely enwrapped in his armor.
Robert Downey, Jr. delivers another outstanding performance as he portrays an insecure and nearly broken Stark who can’t move past his near-death experience shown in the Avengers. His insecurity, however, escalates into foolish bravado in the face of an attack on those close to him by a terrorist known as the Mandarin, and impulsively challenges the villain on the airwaves in a manner that places everyone near him in mortal danger. The writing of the screenplay shines, though, as Stark comes full circle to a repentant stance as he apologizes to Pepper for placing her in danger, and promises that he will never do so again.
The bulk of the film involves the Iron Man without his armor, a broken Tony Stark struggling to not only win confrontations with powerful villains but also to come to terms with himself as he finds himself stripped of the identity behind which he has hidden. The process of his working through this crisis in fascinating, and there’s almost a theology of a broken man relying on his creations to make him whole, only to find his creations also imperfect in his image, at play here. Ultimately, Stark chooses to accept his imperfections and confront them with his own humanity instead of attempting to mask them with seemingly perfect technology, and becomes more whole for it…complete with new relationships as evidence of his change. This, I think, is a new component of the nature of a hero.
Now, back to the 3D. This film is actually worth it, as the effects are not overbearing or distracting, as many 3D films are. The action sequences are all well-paced and well-choreographed, but I’m a bit disconcerted with Stark’s raw motivation for revenge in this film, and his willingness to use his weaponry so quickly in lethal force (he even instructs J.A.R.V.I.S. at one point to “terminate with extreme prejudice”). The level at which this occurs seems contrary to how we’ve seen Stark’s character develop in recent films.
Rhodes returns, not as the War Machine, but as the Iron Patriot, an extension of Captain America’s symbolism for the country and one of many (and the most subtle) references to the Avengers scattered throughout the film. The continuity here is excellent, but long-time comic readers will find it a bit odd to see Rhodes in the armor at its inception. The Extremis virus is a central plot point in Iron Man 3 (you might want to familiarize yourself with the Iron Man: Extremis animated mini-series before seeing this film…it’s available on Netflix), but what transpires with it seems a bit too wild in the very end…I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.
The major disappointment of the film is the Mandarin. While visually stunning, this arch-villain of the Iron Man comics is transformed into a character that is quite impotent here, and to say that liberties were taken is to call major body work a paint job. I am left frustrated with Marvel’s failure to make such a rich villain into a critical character. It was as though two villains are too many to introduce in one film…which makes me think that the writers shouldn’t have tried.
While this is a good film in general, it left me feeling empty and disconnected, especially after the compellingly complex storyline of Iron Man 2, and the amazing experience that was last summer’s Avengers. While Stark’s character evolves in striking ways here, the overall plot of the story I found wanting…an odd juxtaposition of a thorough through-line with conflict that fell flat.
Still, I’ll call it necessary viewing for super hero or comic book fans. And, as if you haven’t gotten used to this by now, yes there’s a hidden ending after the credits. A humorous, but odd, hidden ending that will leave you with little to go on regarding upcoming Marvel events. Which, while perhaps disappointing in its own right, is in step with the rest of the film: a character-driven interlude that left me snatching in the air for something more, only to leave with a tasty appetizer instead of a delicious feast.