IRON MAN 3: Subtlety’s Kinda Had Its Day

Iron Man 3

Hi all, I’m not writing as many reviews these days due to time constraints, but I will try to write reviews for most of the movies I watch this summer. If you’re new here be very aware: SPOILERS ARE COMING. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I do not hold anything back in my reviews. I talk about whatever I want, so if you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 and you don’t want to know anything about it, don’t read any further. If you’re simply unable to make decisions and are looking to a stranger on the internet for advice on whether you should see this movie or not, the answer is, Yes. One last time, spoilers lie beyond this point.

Iron Man 3 (2013) – The 7th Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed Shane Black – Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Ty Simpkins, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Paul Bettany, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Ashley Hamilton, and Stan Lee.

“Ever since that big guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kinda had its day.” – Aldrich Killian to Tony Stark

In Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel needed to win mainstream audiences over to characters they were likely only partly familiar with, and the payoff for this was THE AVENGERS, the third highest grossing movie of all time.

Creating a superhero cinematic universe on this level had never been attempted, and Marvel cleverly built one film on top of the other, using Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, and Tony Stark to connect the films. Anticipation for the post credits scene became an actual thing; it became a sign of membership in the Church of Marvel. Theaters emptied out but a few remained to get the thrill of evidence of the connection. Comic fans had spent forever waiting for the films to acknowledge that they weren’t just watching Spider-Man in New York, but Spider-Man in Marvel’s New York. The nature of film rights made this difficult for Marvel, of course, and DC and Warner Brothers had only a halfhearted interest in doing anything except printing Batman money. They tried and failed with Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s $200 million love song to Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner, and then tried and failed with Green Lantern, Martin Campbell’s $200 million gamble on the precociousness of Ryan Reynolds.

Both films were stuck in the past. Superman Returns was clearly designed as a nostalgia fest, but Lantern was the more disheartening film, and not just because Martin Campbell had previously directed Casino Royale, the best action movie since Die Hard. It’s not awful, but it’s empty and cobbled together. Both films commit one of the largest sins of cinema in the 2000s – they had no souls of their own. They lacked vision: Singer borrowed his from Donner and Campbell got his from … marketing execs? Focus groups?

Forget quality for the moment – the truth of it all, the actual, honest-to-goodness, real difference between Marvel and DC at the moment isn’t that Marvel knows what it’s doing and DC doesn’t, but that Marvel and Disney want to make superhero movies and DC and Warner Brothers doesn’t.

Be real – if DC/WB had wanted a Wonder Woman movie to get made, it would have gotten made. There were rumors, there were people hired to write scripts, but … nothing. Remember when Vin Diesel was going to play the Flash? When David Goyer was going to do a Green Arrow prison movie? When Halle Berry was going to play Catwoman?

What happened to these movies? (Go with me on that last one.)

Chris Nolan’s Batman movies are excellent and it seems that DC/WB thought that was enough. (Watchmen is a DC movie but it’s not about the DC Universe.) The first and third movie in the Dark Knight trilogy aren’t so much Batman movies, anyway, but Bruce Wayne movies. As good as the films are, there’s a hint of “putting on a costume really is a silly thing to do.” Across town, Marvel has no access to Spider-Man or the X-Men, but they’re pushing on, getting a loan from Merrill Lynch to take control of the movies that get made with their characters. DC is commissioning scripts from everyone but barely committing to anything, and Marvel is tossing Iron Man and Hulk and Thor and Captain America onto the screen in solo movies and people are going to see them.

Seriously. All of a sudden, people not only know who Iron Man is, he’s the coolest superhero on the block. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. created the blueprint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and everything built to the phenomenon that was THE AVENGERS.

So … where does one go from there? Does one regress to the past or push on to new stories?

Sequels have tended to operate on the bigger is better model: more villains, more action, more of everything. I was very curious about how IRON MAN 3 would work – was it going to be a sequel to IRON MAN 2 or AVENGERS? Were we going to get a video call to Steve Rogers? Lunch with Thor? A double date with Bruce and Betty? Was there going to be a nice easter egg on a screen somewhere about Thanos? When you’ve gone and made the third highest grossing movie of all time by filling the sandbox with all of your toys, how do you take the next step? How do you outdo what you’ve already done?

Short answer: you don’t even try.

IRON MAN 3 beautifully blends both the IRON MAN films and AVENGERS. There’s no Cap, no Thor, no Fury, no Coulson … only Banner (Mark Ruffalo) shows up for this go-round and they save him for the post-credits scene. Marvel clearly set out to make a film which refocused on the individual characters. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is haunted from his experiences in AVENGERS which has made it hard to go back to his old life. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is running Stark Industries now and she’s committed to Tony’s “no weapons” decree. When Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) shows up, having lost his old Igor appearance for a GQ look and pitching a new, admittedly impressive piece of tech, Pepper turns him down because it’s a tech that’s too easily weaponized.

There’s a nice mix of personal growth between Stark Industries’ three main actors: Pepper has never been better, Tony has never been worse, and Happy has never been better and worse at the same time. The expanded roles for Pepper and Happy (Jon Favreau) at the start of the film feel right. Deep in the film, when Tony has been captured by Killian, the antagonist tells the protagonist, “Ever since that big guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kinda had its day,” but amidst all of the explosions and Iron Man suits, IRON MAN 3’s central argument is that subtlety has definitely not had it’s day.

Shane Black’s film will not be as influential as Favreau’s first IRON MAN, but there are some very nice, very subtle examples here that other films in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would do well to emulate, and the key to that is seen in how Tony, Pepper, and Happy are used. Black deftly balances the decline of the first with the rise of the latter two. In this film, Pepper still loves Tony but she doesn’t need Tony. She’s more important to the company than he is, and while he’s still giving her large stuffed animals for Christmas, tinkering with new suits of armor, and reliving New York, she’s running a company.

In the previous MCU movies, Tony Stark goes to his lab because that’s where he wants to be, but now he’s in the lab as an escape. He’s hyper aware of his public image, of course, so he’s not Howard Hughesing it, but he’s definitely a man in crisis, a man exhibiting post traumatic stress disorder over the Chitauri attack. It’s important that Killian references Thor in his “subtlety’s kinda had it’s day” speech and not the Hulk because it’s Thor and the Chitauri that Tony focuses on as the reason for his problems. He understands science, but gods and aliens don’t fit into that model. Be clear, though, that Thor and the Chitauri are what he focuses on, but his problems go deeper.

When Happy’s expanded role gets him put into a coma by agents of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), Stark tells the press that he’s going to go after the terrorist. “This isn’t about nations,” he insists. “It’s personal.” It’s a powerful moment but it’s not exactly Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. Tony’s words feel empty and he looks tired. He’s lashing out, desperately searching for a new project to focus on. In a great scene between Tony and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) at a restaurant, Tony practically begs to be let in on the Mandarin issue but Rhodey shuts him down. Contrast that to earlier films where Tony actively resisted working for the government. Now, it’s he who wants them and not the other way around. This exchange is a small part of a longer talk that ends with Tony suffering an anxiety attack when two kids ask for his autograph and present him with a crayon drawing of Iron Man. Tony writes the girl’s name on the drawing but then writes, “Help me” after it as his attack hits.

Subtlety has had it’s day? Not quite. Stark, and the film itself, forwards all the explosions and drama and snark, but look past that and here’s a guy who doesn’t have it figured out anymore. Who’s scared. Who’s unsure of his place in the world. It used to be fun when he was down in that lab, making fun of Dummy and trading barbs with Jarvis (Paul Bettany) and having his new invention not quite work out, but here it’s a bit sad, almost desperate. The billionaire playboy genius philanthropist has stopped being a visionary. Instead, he’s looking for comfort. Instead of building something new, he’s endlessly tinkering with his last invention. Pepper thinks he’s on Iron Man suit Mark 15, when Tony’s actually on Mark 42. The visionary is circling. When Tony looks at his armor now, it’s like he knows he’s created his masterpiece and all that’s left is to refine it instead of leaving the refinement for others and moving on to the next Big Idea.

In most of these sequels, when a character does the same thing he always does, it plays as tired because we’ve been there and seen it, but the subtle smarts of IRON MAN 3 is that it knows you want to see this scene even if it knows you’ll probably end up feeling that it’s just an echo of better scenes from days gone by, so it gives you the scene and makes it a purposeful echo and uses it to not celebrate Tony Stark, but to show how he’s as much stuck in the past as the audience. We’re watching IRON MAN and AVENGERS over and over again on Blu-ray and he’s watching them over and over again inside his mind. We’re all stuck together on the shelf.

So what do you do? Where do you go when you haven’t gone anywhere?

Critically, it’s only after his desperate plea to the Mandarin to come get him results in the Mandarin’s goons coming and getting him, blowing up his California mansion, that Tony gets moving forward again. Tony falls into the ocean and the armor gets him out of it and while Pepper ends up driving away with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a scientist/ex-one night stand of Tony’s, Jarvis delivers Tony to Tennessee. He crashes in the snow and his armor shuts down and he has to drag the heavy suit someplace warm. He breaks into a garage and gets to work, and it’s here, in this small garage, where Tony’s life gets going again. His work is interrupted by Harley (Ty Simpkins), a kid sidekick who manages to make the film better instead of worse by challenging Tony. The two of them cut deals and help each other and give each other crap. I like that Tony actually seems most comfortable in this film with someone who he doesn’t know. Part of being a visionary, one imagines, is a restless spirit. Tony has always treated life like it’s his playground, but over the last six MCU movies, he’s increasingly had to play the grown up.

What has that brought him? He already had fame and fortune, but it gave his life a purpose, it delivered him his One True Love, it put him in position to save the entire freaking world. It’s taken away his restlessness and replaced it with stagnation.

But thanks to the Mandarin, all of that is taken away from him and he has to build himself up again, and from that moment on, you get the sense that as awful as the things are that are going on, Tony’s actually happier now that he has a new problem to solve.

And about that problem …

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely stayed true to the comics. Oh, the details have been altered a whole bunch but there has yet to be a really large disconnect between the films and the comics.

Which brings us to the Mandarin.

In IRON MAN 3, Iron Man’s most classic foe has been turned into a fraud. The Mandarin is presented as a terrorist mastermind, blowing people up and teaching the United States lessons in the process. Kingsley’s approach to the character is to speak in long, slow, monologues punctuated by threats and promises of additional violence. He’s got Aldrich Killian’s Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) think tank helping him broadcast his message of hate out to the world.

Except he’s a phony. Without the benefit of his armor, Stark plays James Bond, breaking into the Mandarin’s mansion in Miami and discovering that the Mandarin is just an out of work British actor-slash-junkie holed up doing drugs, drinking beer, and fornicating with some whores. It’s bound to be controversial, of course, as Marvel has sacrificed one of its greatest villains on the altar of comedic distraction.

For me, though, I thought it worked beautifully. Maybe IRON MAN 3 didn’t need to do something to send shockwaves through fandom the way Nick Fury showing up in a post credits scene, but what this says to me is that Marvel has made a conscious decision to remind its fans that they’re not making films simply to translate the comics into celluloid. Phase One was about establishing the heroes and building up to AVENGERS. Phase 2 apparently isn’t interested in playing things safe. Marvel doesn’t want to sit on the shelf. It wants to push forward. The risk is that it comes across as disrespectful, but the number of people who are going to be so upset by this and not come back for future MCU movies is bound to be negligible.

And here’s the thing – this might ultimately make the Mandarin and even badder-ass villain than how he appears in the first half of IM3. There’s a couple things to keep in mind here. One, this could all be a ruse. Trevor Slattery (the name of the actor playing the Mandarin) might be nothing more than a backdoor escape the Mandarin created in case he needed him. One of his ten rings of power, after all, allows him to increase his psionic energy. The film presents Aldrich as the mastermind but there’s no reason Marvel couldn’t reveal in the next movie that the Mandarin used one of his rings to make Aldrich think he’s the mastermind.

Two, Aldrich claims at one point that he’s the Mandarin since he created the terrorist to help manipulate the global war on terror. There’s no reason Pearce couldn’t come back as the Mandarin in the next movie, either. Those dragon tattoos on his body could be more than just ornamental.

Three, Slattery claims that he’s completely unaware of any of the violence being perpetuated in the Mandarin’s name. He thinks he’s just playing a role, but even with all the drugs and booze and whores, that seems an illogical stretch of the truth. Does he really not think he’s talking to the President? Was his assassination on live television of a Roxxon Oil Exec all an act? Is he completely unaware that there’s no violence being committed out there? In the film, Stark and Rhodey need information from him that he’s willing to provide, so they overlook any inconsistencies in his story in exchange for stopping Killian.

Black forgoes a personal confrontation between Stark and the Mandarin for his climax, instead orchestrating a CGI orgy of multiple Iron Man suits versus Extremis soldiers. It’s effective without being excellent.

IRON MAN 3 is a very good movie. There’s no way it was going to top AVENGERS but as the duty first fell to Robert Downey Jr. to launch the MCU, it falls to him again to relaunch it. He is, once again, very good: funny, smart, fast-talking but now with self doubt added to the mix. I hate seeing him blow up all of his suits of armor, but I love that he goes back to his destroyed mansion to rescue Dummy from the wreckage without the film milking it for cheap emotion.

Subtlety’s day isn’t over, yet.


Atomic Reactions: Marvel Comics on Film now available.

Atomic Reactions: Marvel Comics on Film now available.

When he’s not talking to other writers, Mark Bousquet is doing some writing himself. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including the recently released The Haunting of Kraken MoorGunfighter GothicStuffed Animals for HireDreamer’s SyndromeHarpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.

7 thoughts on “IRON MAN 3: Subtlety’s Kinda Had Its Day

  1. For me, this movie was actually the weakest of the MCU to date. Not only because of the Mandarin twist (which I absolutely despised and I talked about at length in this WhatCulture article, so no need to go into it twice:, but also because the humor felt like it bordered on self-parody.

    That’s not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed. Up until Tony lands in Tennessee and we meet (ugh) Harley, I was completely glued to my seat. I still sat through the Harley stuff, thinking it would get better, but when we got (double-ugh) Trevor, I still tried to hang onto hope. I kept telling myself that we’d get the real Mandarin in an epic post-credits sequence and that this would all turn out to be a massive fake-out.

    Then came the armor falling apart after getting hit by a bus and Tony missing the armor while jumping and the armor falling apart right after Tony got into it and by that point, I had pretty much given up on this being a serious movie.

    I just really got the feeling throughout this whole movie that Shane Black had absolutely zero love for the comics. This movie just felt like he was doing a favor for Downey. And that’s not to say Black’s a bad director or writer, he absolutely is not. But if he and Downey wanted to work together again, I would have much rather they did a sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or something completely different. Because if this turns out to be Downey’s final outing as Tony Stark, to me it will be the Godfather III of the franchise.


  2. I was hoping you’d post a review on this one. I was curious to hear your take. Seems like we’re of a like mind on a lot of the points here.

    I loved seeing some of the everyday consequences of The Avengers, particularly where it came to Tony’s psychological issues. This was a guy who, more-or-less, always had everything under control. He always felt like he was a step ahead of everyone else and had at least a better-than-average idea of what was going on in the world. Now, in addition to the understandable PTSD and related insomnia from fighting a war with aliens in which he briefly died in deep space, he also has to work his ego around the indisputable fact that the universe is way, WAY weirder than he ever could have imagined.

    He said himself at one point something to the effect of, “Gods, aliens, I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a guy in a metal can.” Only now he’s a guy in a metal can that everyone knows helped save the world on international TV. He’s feeling like all he really has is that can to protect himself and Pepper from the great unknown of a universe full of gods, aliens, and who-knows-what. So what does he do, he buries himself into making the best metal suits he can. He’s doing it as a distraction, but also he’s doing it for the same reason doomsday preppers stockpile weapons and ‘things’: irrational fear and paranoia about the unknown.

    He needed a reason to grow and move on, to face his fears and accept that the unknown doesn’t have to be something to huddle in the corner terrified of facing, to get some perspective. That a lot of that perspective and motivation came with the help of a bullied 12-year-old wasn’t a problem for me.

    In the end, yes, all those suits are gone, but it isn’t an ending. He’s wiping away the past he had spent in fear, and the physical ties to that time, but not going to route of Nolan’s Batman and just giving up to sip lattes in Paris. Jarvis executes operation ‘Clean Slate’ not ‘Swan Song’ or ‘Blaze of Glory’. He’s not going out with a bang, just starting over with a fresh perspective. Hell, he tells Banner flat out “I’m still Iron Man.”

    I think, and hope, this is a sign that he’s coming back with one suit and taking a more proactive role in the world at large. Maybe this is the start of a shift into ‘Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ mode with a fully engaged Stark?

    And I can’t go without a little bit on the Mandarin. Yes, the comic fan in me was a little bummed at how it was played out, I can’t lie. The thing is, I really loved the way this was done in the context of the film universe. Let’s face it, the comic book Mandarin has no place in modern, mainstream pop culture. He’s way too much of the Fu-Manchu ‘china-man’ stereotype. It was never going to happen and everyone said as much from day one.

    Giving this part to Kingsley, and taking it where they did, for my money, was brilliant (and I wonder if Ben asked RDJ for any tips about playing a burnout junkie actor, or if Rob looked at Ben’s performance and said “That could have been me for real”). It was nice misdirection, and played with nicely for tone.

    The thing is, I sort of agree with what the production staff and writers were saying going into the movie. Yes, The Mandarin is an iconic Iron Man villain, but more for his longevity as one than for any really great stories. I was a casual Iron Man reader, so maybe I missed something, but I can’t think of any real iconic storyline that required The Mandarin. As a matter of fact, the place I’d remember seeing him best woven into a real story arc was in the pages of Wolverine, not Iron Man.

    Honestly, for me Iron Man was always more about cool toys and personality clashes than about a great rogues gallery. In that sense, the villains in IM3 nailed it, even if what we got was essentially a cut-rate Fin Fang Foom knock-off and a washed-up junkie.


    • Thing is, though, the Mandarin hasn’t been a Fu Manchu stereotype in quite a long time. None of the stereotypical Yellow Peril aspects are crucial to his character. Read “Haunted” by the Knaupfs, which combined a modern Mandarin without the Yellow Peril tropes and managed to integrate Extremis as well.


      • I still think if any of the Iron Man villains were best served as a sacrificial lamb, it IS Mandarin. Dude’s lame. I do agree with your previous assertions that if played up like an off-the-res madman terrorist, it’s a much better use of the character, but Stane in the first film was doing the same thing in his sleep. Stark couldn’t handle him in this film because of where he was mentally/emotionally. If Stark is seen to come to grips with this, he should rip through Mandarin like he’s nothing. So, I’m not upset that Mandarin is nothing—and I hope he stays that way, the rings are sooo cheesy—but I still don’t like how they handled it in this movie. It played like a huge kick to the gut of the movie, not so much the character.


  3. Someone I know suggested that each new prototype was created to handle a situation that cropped up in the Avengers. If he’d had mk 42 for example, he’d never have had to personally fly the warhead into the wormhole in the first place. Destroying those suits reflected Tony’s realization that he had to stop obsessively trying to plan for every possible circumstance. It’s an interesting theory and I look forward to looking more closely at the rest of the suits the next time I watch.


  4. My bigger complaint isn’t so much that The Mandarin – Iron Man’s BIG BAD – was a fraud, but the fact that the main villain was essentially a retread of The Riddler from Batman Forever. Killian was a big fan of the hero, only to be snubbed, turn evil and devote his endeavours to destroying the protagonist in a hammy way. Iron Man 3 is a very small step up from Iron Man 2. And I don’t see the relevance of bringing in underperforming DC projects – the Iron Man franchise can live & die on its on merits/flaws.


  5. Pingback: Iron Man 3 and Marvel’s Fandom As It Enters Phase 2 | Fandom Evolution

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