Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: "Iron Man 3" Part 2: The Anti-Superhero Movie

You know, I originally mentioned that I liked Iron Man 3 the first year of this blog. I got no flak for it because, well, no one was reading this. And as of yet, I’ve gotten no flak for liking Iron Man 3 as I’ve posted this… probably because I have very few readers. And they’re all very polite people who know how to have a reasonable discussion on the internet. For which I’m forever grateful. Especially now that I’m about to explain why I like this movie so much.

Still, I realize that I'm turning myself into a target. But you know what?

Deal with it.
Themes
Iron Man 3 is a big exploration of masks and identity. Specifically, the difference between who we are and what we show to the world. The Mandarin is a fake for the real villain to hide behind. Maya Hansen, when the chips were down, didn’t have her heart in being on the dark side. And for the first time, Tony had to confront who he was when the fa├žade was lowered.

Captain America: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

And most of the characters go on their own journey to discover their own answer to the question of who they are.

Plot
Mmmmm… I’m gonna pass on describing the plot this time. Because in this installment, the actual events of the story aren’t as important as how the characters react to them. So instead, I’m going to examine the plot as the antithesis of what the audience has come to expect from the Iron Man films. But first, I think I should mention one thing about the plot itself.

The AIM Extremis operatives are largely comprised of American veterans. This… is problematic. It’s easy to see the film painting veterans as people who would willingly sell out the country they fought for. However, I think it’s important to mention that it’s never explicitly stated that all the Extremis operatives are veterans, just a single batch of six. It’s more likely that AIM used amputees from all walks of life. And in the end, as much as we hate to speak ill of veterans here in America, there would probably be a few bad apples in the bunch who would be willing to act as Aldrich Killian’s personal army. Especially when you consider the fact that once they’re hooked on Extremis, they need training and monitoring to keep from blowing up.

But still, I think the film could have gone out of its way a bit more to not paint veterans as more than willing to be turncoats and traitors.

Iron Man 3: The Anti-Comic Book Movie
Iron Man 3’s true brilliance is the way it bends, breaks, and outright inverts everything we’ve come to expect from comic book movies as a whole and the Iron Man series in particular.

Shall I count the ways?
  1. Tony Stark spends most of his time out of his armor.
  2. Tony Stark spends most of the movie struggling with PTSD instead of shrugging off the trauma in his usual way.
  3. The latest armor, the Mark XLII, is pretty much a lemon; a far cry from the ever-better armors of the last couple movies.
  4. The only villain with any name recognition is a false front for the real mastermind.
  5. The movie’s ultimate villain was a character that only appeared for a couple pages in the original comics.
  6. Tony Stark was an utter asshole to what should have been an annoying kid sidekick.
  7. AC/DC music is never played once.
  8. Pepper Potts, the love interest, ends up killing the main villain instead of the titular character.
And plenty more, smaller tropes are played with, like the fake out with the Mark XLII opening up to reveal… nothing. Only for that to be a fake out when Killian reappears.

And to go a step further, let’s compare this film to the “Extremis” story in particular.

In “Extremis,” Aldrich Killian is an incredibly minor character. The real villain of the piece is an Extremis-enhanced man named Mallen. In order to defeat him, Tony takes Extremis and becomes more of a cyborg by the end of the story.

In Iron Man 3, Aldrich Killian is the Extremis-using villain. Pepper Potts ends up defeating him (with a lot of help from Tony and his armors), and by the end of the story, Tony is actually less of a cyborg because he gets his shrapnel removed and no longer has an Arc Reactor in his chest.

Something seems amiss.
Now, I know that I rattle off a lot of trivia and comic knowledge, but I don’t know everything about comics. But what I do know is often enough to figure out what’s going to happen in the film adaptations.

I knew that Obadiah Stane was the bad guy.

I knew that Bucky would return from his fall as the Winter Soldier.

I knew that Samuel Stern would be set up to become a villain.

I knew that Star-Lord was half-alien.

But when I was in that theatre watching Iron Man 3… I had no idea what would happen next. And that was a wonderful feeling that I’ll never forget and always cherish. So even though it might not be a very popular opinion, Iron Man 3 is my favorite in the trilogy. Because it kept me guessing.

Characters
The “Mandarin”/Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley)

I wrote an entire post on him.

Eric Savin (James Badge Dale)
He’s a sadistic smartass played by a man who plays the role perfectly. He’s a henchman you love to hate. In the comics, the character was a small time cyborg supervillain called “Firepower.” So really, this is just a nice little Easter egg for the fans, like Jack Taggart (known in the comics as “Coldblood), or Ellen Brandt. Speaking of her….

Ellen Brandt (Stephanie Szostak)
While she dips a bit into my pet peeve of “sexy evil” mannerisms and voice, she gets the job done. But it’s because of her that Tony Stark becomes the first MCU hero to get in a protracted fight with a female supervillain. But it’s like I always say: There’s no right way to hit a woman. But if she’s trying to kill people, you might have to hit her the wrong way. In earlier drafts of the script, they would have solved this problem by giving her Savin’s job as the number one henchperson, allowing her to have a fight with Pepper Potts at the end. Speaking of her….

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)
No longer is she Tony’s secretary. She’s now his girlfriend. Which means that she’s no longer paid to put up with his crap. But this also means that Tony has someone to shape up for, and there is some noticeable improvement from how he used to be.

And I must say, it’s really nice to see the love interest defeat the main villain. Too often we get women who are only there because they’re in the comics. Every super hero has a love interest, but not every superhero movie knows what to do with a love interest. Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, et cetera. Breaking the mold and letting Pepper do something really cool was a nice touch.

JARVIS (Paul Bettany)
So, JARVIS can control a couple dozen armors at one? Expect that to come into play later.

Maybe Ivan Vanko was right? “Drone better.” Or perhaps Rhodey’s speech in the first film was right; where he said that an unmanned drone would never match a pilot’s intuition, seeing as how the Iron Legion gets ripped apart. Either way, expect this development to have repercussions….

James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle)
Rhodey, deep inside, prefers to be the War Machine. Is it because he prefers to act like Tony does, outside of government supervision? Or is it just because War Machine is just a cooler name? Either way, Rhodey definitely comes across as Tony’s buddy this time around. Terence Howard’s performance didn’t make Rhodey seem like Tony’s friend, and Iron Man 2 put the two at odds. But now that Rhodey fills the role that the government wanted Iron Man to fill, Rhodey’s much freer in his relationship with Tony. For the first time, they come across as the best friends they’re supposed to be.

On the other hand, many people have pointed out that Iron Patriot is said to have a support staff. So… why didn’t they notice that he didn’t check in for a while and then suddenly stopped talking before boarding Air Force One? Personally, I think it’s likely that the support staff is made up of the people who upgraded the armor. You know, AIM. Pretty much closes that plot hole.

Speaking of Iron Patriot, the character from the comics was Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn’s way of looking like he was going legit. Is anyone surprised that the Iron Patriot armor was used to kidnap the president now? But the rebranding makes a lot of sense. After the whole “attempted nuking of New York” thing, the government probably needs all the positive PR it can get.

Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall)
Deep inside, Maya Hansen is not a bad person. She’s just done some bad things in the hope that she can stop doing bad things and get back to saving the world with science. I mean, Killian wanted to kill Tony out of petty revenge. Maya wanted Tony’s help stabilizing Extremis sooner. (Killian only took an interest in Tony after he shot Maya, necessitating a replacement.) She just wanted to end the explosions. Her speech about Wernher von Braun, in retrospect, reflects this. No wonder she’s so popular on Tumblr.

It’s a simple, yet beautiful and elegant character exploration. But there was a draft where Maya was the villain behind everything. Certainly puts “You Know Who I Am” in an interesting context, doesn’t it?

Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins)
This kid should have been annoying. But he wasn’t. Part of this is because Tony Stark snarks at him the whole time, and part of this is because the kid is a good actor who, for the most part, isn’t given stereotypically annoying kid sidekick things to do, like save the day, or have an annoying catch phrase.

In the end, a little kid works perfectly as Tony Stark’s foil because it forces Tony to be the adult, which isn’t a role he can easily take when talking to Pepper, Rhodey, or anyone else.

Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce)
Aldrich Killian never seemed like a choice for the main villain. He’s a nobody from the comics who appeared in a couple pages and shot himself. And Guy Pierce’s involvement was treated as nothing more than a cameo. Nobody ever expected him to be the main villain. But I’ve already gone over the twist, so let’s talk about the character.

Aldrich Killian never left that rooftop in the 90’s. Tony Stark brushing him off is his only motivating factor. His white whale. Aldrich Killian is incredibly rich and powerful, but is still obsessed with Tony. Aldrich Killian, stuck in the 90’s, transformed from the stuttering geek into the quintessential 90’s douche, complete with dragon tattoos. But let’s face it, those tattoos look like exactly the thing a little dweeb would get. Either that or, like, a Triforce on his chest. (Not to say such a tattoo wouldn’t be cool. Quite the opposite. It’s just exactly the thing a geek would use to try and look like a badass.)

But in the end, he still has to slay his white whale, like many of Tony’s other villains. And this is the main criticism of the character that people have. But I would argue that the villain kind of has to be involved with the hero in some way. If not… then why are they fighting? Sure, you could come up with a reason, but there’s nothing as satisfying as a personal vendetta. Why do you think Wrath of Khan is one of the more popular Star Trek movies?

But when the chips are down, ubermensch Aldrich Killian is still a small, sad, pathetic man on the inside. And that’s the important difference between him and Tony.

The fact that the Mandarin is yet another evil rich boy makes Captain America’s lack of involvement make sense. An international terrorist? Sounds like a job for Cap. Evil businessmen? That’s Iron Man’s territory.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing that Killian is the Mandarin, including an abundance of rings on his fingers and the fact that he shares a backstory with the comic Mandarin; that of being a nobody who rebuilt himself as an international terrorist/business force. And like the comic incarnation, he started off buck-toothed and ugly before getting handsomer and handsomer over the years, though that was because of changing sensibilities in the comics. And you thought the fake Mandarin was surrounded by Chinese iconography? Killian seems to really like a certain passage from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

“O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands.”

And more interesting still, in Chinese history, a “Mandarin” refers to a bureaucrat who would run things from behind the scenes if the “true leader” wasn’t up to the task. Sound familiar?

Looks like Killian was a pretty faithful depiction of the Mandarin, in the end. Or at least a Mandarin.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)
Who is Tony Stark?

He’s a builder. He builds to distract himself from his real problems. He builds to hide from them. And finally, for the first time since that Afghan cave, he builds to move on from his problems. It takes a statement from Harley to make him realize that his tinkering was a coping mechanism he’d developed in Afghanistan. And as everything got worse, nearly dying, the Stark Expo fiasco, Coulson’s death, the alien invasion… Tony found himself tinkering more and more and more. And the armor quality suffered for it.

Mark XLII is kind of a piece of junk and all the previous armors were created for very specialized tasks as opposed to being all-around armors to go out and be Iron Man in. He’s not building them because they’re useful, he’s building them because he’s so desperate to build anything that he’ll construct an entire suit of armor based on a single function. He hasn’t built a “real” Iron Man armor since the Mark VII in The Avengers.

And when forced to confront the real world, he has panic attacks and makes terrible decisions like calling out the Mandarin, putting Pepper in danger. Kevin Feige described the movie as a love triangle between Pepper, Tony, and his armor.

Kevin Feige: “But the real stakes are, is Tony going to be able to set aside spending every day in that workshop tinkering with the suits in order to focus on Pepper, the one thing that matters most?"

And in order to do that, Tony needs to fix his compulsion to create; the emotional damage that’s been festering since 2008 or so. This time, gallivanting as Iron Man can’t distract him; not with the stakes as high as they’ve been in The Avengers. With that outlet lost to him, no wonder he focuses on building nonstop as a way to occupy his mind. There’s a fascinating essay on his mental state that I highly recommend, as it can explain this better than I ever could.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201305/does-iron-man-3s-hero-suffer-posttraumatic-stress-disorder

If I may quote in important part of that essay….

Langley: “Whereas coping with the attack and abduction by terrorists in his origin story required Tony Stark to muster his determination to survive, protecting New York from a nuclear weapon in The Avengers meant accepting his own demise in a way he had never done before.”

Snark can’t save him. Wit can’t save him. Tricks can’t save him. Which leaves Tony with no weapons against this existential horror. Until Harley points him in the right direction. Don’t build to hide, build to confront.

And this change in attitude is reflected by the surgery he gets. Instead of sticking an electromagnet in his chest to slow his own death, he uses an electromagnet during the surgery to remove the shrapnel once and for all. And now that he’s stopped building to create a cocoon around himself, he can build to create… well, anything. For better... and worse, as we'll see.

Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)
Bruce’s inclusion, though it was added at the last second, was a really nice touch; a cool bit of continuity with their budding friendship from The Avengers. And really, the fact that Tony just launches into another story without getting too upset with Bruce just shows how much Tony needs somebody like him to vent to at this point. And Bruce’s willingness to at least try to lend an ear shows how much of a friend Bruce is.

Science Bros forever!
Besides, Tony learned through Harley that talking about his problems helps to ease the internal pain. And who would be more willing to help another with internal pain than Bruce, despite the fact that he doesn’t have the temperament of a psychiatrist?

And the fact that the whole movie is Tony’s story might explain why everyone in the movie is snarky, or why the guy who hurt Happy seems to be a really nasty person; we’re seeing the story through Tony’s eyes. Heck, he could be intentionally embellishing parts of it.

"She doesn't get killed by Extremis at this time."
"What?"
"Extremis doesn't get her. I'm explaining to you because you look nervous."
"I wasn't nervous. ...Maybe I was a little bit concerned, but that's not the same thing."
Music
Bryan Tyler, the composer, intentionally made the score darker than the bombastic, heroic scores of the last few films. And notably, no AC/DC. While I like the score just fine, I simply feel that the lack of a heroic theme as iconic as the theme from Iron Man makes the music feel like there’s something missing.

Visuals
The effects themselves are as good as ever, and easily meet our increasing expectations set by each film in the MCU. Which is pretty impressive when you consider that ILM was replaced by Digital Domain and Weta Digital. So I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about the armors.

THEY’RE AWESOME AND I WANT TOYS OF ALL OF THEM.
A lot of people were upset that the Mark XLII was mostly yellow (calling it “Mustard Man”) and that it was, as I said, a lemon. But keep in mind, like the other armors in the meantime, it was probably built to perfect the splitting-apart mechanism, meaning that it has that tendency to fall apart easily.

As a nifty fan-theory, Tony mentions that it was tight in the crotch. And it’s apparently calibrated for Pepper, but not Rhodey. Perhaps protecting Pepper in a crisis is its primary function? It would explain a lot And be a cool nod to Pepper’s time as the armor-clad Rescue in the comics.

As for the other armors… well, on second thought, I’ll go over them in detail next Saturday when I’ll be showcasing my top 10 favorites.

Until then, let's all wonder why the Mark II is in that case when it was turned into the War Machine armor.
Best Character: Tony Stark
The ever-continuing tale of Tony Stark goes in a new direction, and actually allows Robert Downey, Jr. to do more than snark. Though the snark is, as ever, through the roof, despite Stark’s incredibly real-looking panic attacks.

Best Actor: Ben Kingsley
Not just because he was an actor playing an actor playing a terrorist (much like how Robert Downey, Jr. was once the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude), but because of how he helped hide the twist from the world by giving interviews as if he was really playing the actual Mandarin.

Best Line
Killian:
“Anyway, the point is, ever since that big dude with a hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety's kinda had its day.”

You will never find a better acknowledgement of how ridiculous the MCU ended up getting since Iron Man.

Final Verdict
Does it have flaws? Yes.

Do people have valid reasons to dislike it? Yes.

But it will always be my favorite Iron Man film, and one of my favorite entries in the MCU as a whole. I’ve made peace with the fact that this is not exactly a widely-held opinion and will continue to hold it, in all honesty, until the end of time.

I await the rebuttals.
Next time, I’ll be taking a look at the next chapter in the life of Thor. It involves a lot of grumpiness, both in the film and behind the scenes. See you then!

8 comments:

  1. Little Thought: I generally prefer to think about it as "Don't hit people unless they started it, period" (oversimplification of course, but still) We're aiming for equal treatment right? In case someone points out that men tend to be bigger and stronger that women a) Then why do you keep complaining that there isn't enough female heroes? b) Why aren't you offended when Hulk attacks Hawkeye in Avengers Assemble?

    Big Thought: To be honest? The moment I learned that veterans work for Killian, I immediately believed that and understood why they would join him. Now, I don't want too make this statement too political and I highly suggest anyone who's interested in this to do their own research and reach their own conclusions rather then just trust me; I'm not an expert. With that out of the way: life is not kind of veterans. I think the whole "losing limbs and sanity" part is obvious to everybody but veterans also have a higher rate of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, depression and divorce then the general population. These people might be willing to betray their country because they feel that country betrayed them.

    - Faceless Enigma

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    1. Little Response: Though political correctness is slowly but surely giving both sexes (and everyone in between) equal treatment, violence against women still tends to make people uncomfortable.

      Generally, people tend to equate man-on-woman violence as being unfair, because men are supposedly stronger than women. And yet, it's funny when Hulk knocks Hawkeye into the wall because not only does such a gag depends on Looney Tunes physics, but we as a society have a double standard when it comes to violence as comedy.

      Moe Howard slaps Curly upside his head? Hilarious. Moe Howard slaps Lucille Ball upside her head? ...uncomfortable.

      That's one of the reasons the "women can't do slapstick" cliche exists.

      Big Response: You're absolutely right when you say that life isn't kind to veterans. But on the other hand, the veterans in this film aren't given much in the way of character depth and are pretty much jerks throughout who revel in hurting others. When you combine that with the apparent ease with which Killian gets them on his side.... I completely understand why some people would interpret this aspect of the movie as disrespectful to veterans as a whole, and not just the select few on Killian's side.

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    2. To spare a rant, this kind of double standard is my big pet peeve.

      And on veterans...Well, thats true. This makes me realize that (with obvious exception of Winter Soldier) Marvel doesn't really focus on sympathizing with any villain who isn't played by Tom Hiddleston. Killian admits to considering suicide and it goes in with one ear and out the other.

      - Faceless Enigma

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    3. Yeah, the villains are all pretty flat, with the exceptions of Obadiah Stane (though I'd say he's only 2.5-D) and pre-editing Ivan Vanko. And Loki, of course.

      At least with Killian, there's enough flash to distract from the lack of characterization, and I'll take what I can get after Malekith....

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  2. Now that I think about it, rebranding War Machine as Iron Patriot works quite well with movie's theme of false appearances.

    Huh, I was wondering what was the point, few jokes aside.

    - Faceless Enigma

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    1. Honestly, I think they just wanted to work in the Iron Patriot armor without involving Norman Osborn, since they didn't own his film rights at the time.

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  3. "And more interesting still, in Chinese history, a “Mandarin” refers to a bureaucrat who would run things from behind the scenes if the “true leader” wasn’t up to the task. Sound familiar?"

    Which hints on both Killian's plan to take control of Government through killing president and on there being a secret villain in charge. Huh.

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    1. Kind of gives the name "Mandarin" an actual meaning, as opposed to just sounding vaguely foreign.

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