Author’s Note: Enough time has passed since the film premiered around the world. So this gives me an opportunity to discuss its content in greater detail. Which means getting into HEAVY SPOILERS. It’s necessary, considering some of the controversial choices made by the filmmakers. So, please proceed only if you’ve seen the film, or don’t mind knowing its secrets…
“Iron Man” is the foundation upon which the almighty House of Marvel Studios was built. As the spearhead of their ambitious new development approach in 2008, a lot was riding on it. When the film became a success, it paved the way for a whole slew of superhero flicks, culminating in US$1.5 billion Box Office titan “The Avengers”.
Looking at where they are now, it all seems predestined. But Marvel’s path to glory wasn’t an easy one. It took foresight, careful planning… and some serious gambling, for which the studio is now renowned. In a business that is notoriously risk-averse, Marvel has consistently displayed real balls in the choices they make. The trend of hiring lead actors and directors considered unproven risks started with the first “Iron Man”, and continues here. Commercially their gamble has paid off, to the tune of US$1 billion worldwide (and counting). Creatively however, the results are mixed.
For “Iron Man 3”, Marvel put writer-director Shane Black at the helm. And when you get a guy like Shane Black, you can bet your bottom dollar you’re not going to get a conventional, straight-up telling of a story. At practically every turn, Black toys with then subverts expectation. Usually for the sake of laughs, occasionally for the sake of the plot. More often than not, it works. But there are times when he either takes it a tad too far or makes changes that are actually worse than the conventional. I’ll get into that in a bit.
There’s a scene early in the film that kind of stands as a metaphor for what Black has done with the Iron Man property. When our billionaire protagonist Tony Stark taunts the bad guys, they respond by blowing up his lavish seaside mansion. On a subtextual level, I see this as Black making a statement that he intends to tear down superhero genre conventions. Not in a disrespectful way, but enough to allow a rebuilding of things to suit his vision. The best Marvel superhero films — and any great film for that matter — bear the unmistakable fingerprints of their creators. And there is no mistaking this as anything other than a Shane Black picture.
In some ways, this film is a spiritual sequel to Black’s last effort “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, a criminally underseen little gem. That indie flick was chock-full of quirks like messing with the rules of storytelling, and breaking the Fourth Wall by talking directly to the audience. Similarly in “Iron Man 3”, Black has a lot of fun catching the audience off-guard. We’re so spoonfed on genre clichés that we never see his gags coming. Nothing is sacred in Black’s book; everything is fodder for jokes. Take the Classic Hero Moment for example. You just don’t mess with that. But Black does, several times. And it’s frickin’ funny.
Humour has always been Black’s strongest suit. The guy writes dialogue that crackles on the page and zings in the hands of a capable cast. Even the bit-parters get to shine. Some of the best one-liners here come from the henchmen. Confronted with the prospect of a Repulsor Beam to the face, one goon confesses: “Honestly, I hate working here. They are SO weird!” Cracks me up every time.
Black’s trademark is being playful and irreverent, something that’s evident as far back as his scripts for the “Lethal Weapon” series (as is his penchant for setting all his films during Christmas). Of course, irreverence suits the snarky Stark to a tee. Ironically, this time his snarkiness has been toned down. To be honest, I felt Stark was starting to become a bit of a douchebag in “Iron Man 2” and “The Avengers”. It’s good to see him back to being a likable guy again. Every instalment, they give Stark some personal crisis to deal with in order to make him a sympathetic figure. In the first film it was his conscience over his legacy as an arms dealer (worked well). In the second it was Daddy issues and a fear of his own mortality (fell flat).
Here, they’ve used the events of “The Avengers” to render him a nervous wreck. As a setup it works, but only to an extent. There’s a vulnerability to him that plays nicely into the relationship element with girlfriend Pepper Potts. I don’t think Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce really knew where to take the character after that, though. As the story wears on, his anxiety attacks feel more like needless baggage rather than a crucial part of his journey. I say this because his so-called personal crisis gets resolved in an almost by-the-way manner about halfway through. Besides, how much gravitas can you have when half the time the director is taking the piss?
Ah. Let’s get into that. Yes, humour and irreverence may be Black’s strongest suit. But it can also lead to some highly questionable decisions, and what he’s done with main villain The Mandarin is both incredibly inspired and a terrible cop-out at the same time. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that they build The Mandarin up as the ultimate evildoer — a terrorist zealot… only to reveal that he’s merely an actor playing a role as a smokescreen for the real behind-the-scenes bad guy. Longtime fans of the comics will be the ones who will feel this betrayal of the character the most. After all, The Mandarin isn’t just the main villain, he is THE villain in the Iron Man universe. Like what The Joker is to Batman, or Lex Luthor to Superman. His presence has been hinted at since the first film. In the comics, The Mandarin wears 10 rings imbued with incredible powers, and the film version had this re-imagined as a terrorist setup called the Ten Rings Organisation, presumably headed by The Mandarin. I always liked this direction, and was looking forward to it being given its due in the third film.
Black & co still have the “real” Mandarin exist in a different form, but it is a wasted opportunity in my book. The initial depiction of The Mandarin makes a lot of sense in our current socio-political climate. He is a carefully-selected amalgamation of terrorist/militant imagery, ranging from Islamic extremists to South American guerillas to ancient Oriental warlords, all put together to evoke a singular response: fear. That’s exactly what terrorism is about. His video broadcasts (peppered throughout the first act) are chilling, effective because they feel like messages from a real-life madman with a cause. If they’d stuck to that, conventional as it is, Stark would’ve had a very relatable threat on his hands. But Black had other ideas. A number of those were taken from the famous “Extremis” comic book storyline, and even then he did some extensive tweaking.
The only reason I’m not mad at the filmmakers is because, well, the fake Mandarin is just so bloody hilarious! Once you’ve gotten over the initial shock — and I’m pretty sure this twist blindsided absolutely everybody — you’re left with one of the year’s best comedic creations. Seriously, he is a laugh riot. Like I said earlier, Black’s dialogue is great. But what will make it endlessly quoted and mimicked is Ben Kingsley’s performance. The Brit actor’s history of playing serious, weighty roles like his Oscar-winning “Gandhi” makes his buffoonish turn here all the more delightful. Based on this, Kingsley should be cast in way more comedies.
Moving on to the real Mandarin, it’s a partial save for the character since they at least keep the essence of him as a mastermind. Unlike total fumbles like say, Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”. To that end, they got the right actor for the job. Guy Pearce gets to chew the scenery in various modes ranging from socially awkward nerd to suave megalomaniac. He’s got some solid action chops too, with his impressive physicality giving him the edge over Robert Downey, Jr in their climatic fight scene. Who’s no slouch to begin with. This is Downey, Jr’s fifth appearance as Tony Stark (including his cameo in “The Incredible Hulk”), and he shows no signs of fatigue. If anything, he comes off more invested in the role than ever before. It helps that Black’s written some engaging pair-offs for him, be it with Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, or child actor Ty Simpkins who plays a kid Stark is stuck with after losing all his armour. I especially like the buddy-cop vibe of his scenes with Cheadle, who finally gets to show what a badass his Col. James Rhodes (aka Iron Patriot) can be.
While this instalment features the most action of the three movies, a good majority of it is outside the suit. I appreciate Black trying something new, like Stark remote-piloting his armour, or wearing only parts of it in battle, or having nothing except his wits to rely on, but somehow it isn’t as satisfying as having the man actually inside an Iron Man suit. We do get a tonne of new suits during the end showdown, and it’s cool to see Stark hopping around from one into another. For a while. Then it gets tedious and confusing to follow. Black also subverts the notion of the damsel in distress, though it’s done at our hero’s expense. Put all these minor quibbles together and it kind of diminishes the overall impact of the action.
Don’t get me wrong. With all the elements that Black misjudged, the film is still quite entertaining. It sure is a heck of a lot better than the messy, unfocused Part 2. And it raises some interesting themes, albeit subtly, about the binary relation between terrorism and capitalism, and the manipulation of the media through manufactured iconography.
It’s just that “Iron Man 3” works better as a Shane Black film than it does as an “Iron Man” film. If you’re a fan of the man’s work, you’ll be able to appreciate what he’s done here significantly more than the average filmgoer, or the hardcore comic fan. And even that’s subjective. If this is to be the capper in a trilogy, it’s a somewhat strange place to leave it. By the end of this particular story, Stark’s journey is complete. Yet it feels like there are more stories to be told, and other ways to tell them, perhaps in embellishments less idiosyncratic or more organic to the property as well as the character. Marvel being Marvel, they’ve assured us in the end credits that “Tony Stark will return”.
Maybe next time they won’t feel the need to rebuild Iron Man so extensively.