Mar 9, 2021
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, one of the more inevitable sequels in recent memory. And thanks to it effectively being the first sequel to the mega-hit The Avengers, Iron Man 3 now stands as the fifth highest grossing movie of all time.
And really, I doubt anyone who paid twelve bucks to see this in the theater felt particularly burned. It’s certainly not boring like the previous film; there’s plenty of action, and plenty of Tony being Tony. But somewhere along the way, the Iron Man franchise caught Dark Knight Disease, wherein everything has to be darker, grittier, and more violent.
It would appear this disease has infected the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor is about to enter a “dark world”, and Captain America is set to fight a soldier in “winter”. After several upbeat, high-flying adventures, it seems Marvel is deliberately trying to make this next round of films a lot less fun.
Oh, Iron Man 3 tries to be fun; it’s full of your typical Tony Stark one-liners. But only a couple of these quips garner more than a slight chuckle, most likely because a great deal them come in the midst of Tony killing loads of faceless henchman. And not just with his Iron Man weapons—Tony Stark brandishes a gun a few times, which is a bit jarring for a superhero flick. I mean, just try and imagine a Superman movie where Clark Kent shoots people.
The change in tone is due in no small part to the loss of director Jon Favreau, who’s only here to briefly reprise his role of Happy Hogan (reportedly, Marvel forcing a bunch of SHIELD crap into Iron Man 2 made Favreau not so “happy”—zing!). In his place is Shane Black, director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and writer of the first Lethal Weapon. Which explains a lot, actually. Violent gunfights peppered with one-liners work just fine for Riggs and Murtaugh; not so much for Iron Man.
But the worst symptom of Dark Knight Disease on display here is the need to make everything unnecessarily complicated, solely for the sake of setting up lots of “mind-blowing” plot twists. But whereas The Dark Knight was still more or less a coherent film, Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce have only succeeded in giving us a murky plot and a villain with even murkier motivations.
The movie begins in Bern, Switzerland on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Years before becoming Iron Man, Tony is attending a tech conference at a hotel and inviting Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) up to his suite. It turns out she’s an organic chemist who invented a compound called “Extremis” that could potentially help people regrow limbs (when it comes to one night stands, Tony aims high).
On the way up in the elevator, they’re accosted by a dorky scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Killian wants Tony to join a think tank he’s starting up called AIM, as in Advanced Idea Mechanics, as in an organization that should be familiar to readers of Marvel Comics. Tony blows him off, which is a move that should be coming back to haunt him in, oh, about 13 years or so.
Also at the conference, there’s a brief cameo from Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who you may recall sacrificing himself to save Tony in the first movie. And sure enough, back in the first movie, Yinsen did actually mention meeting Stark at a tech conference in Bern. His cameo is a puzzling one; it’s shot like it’s meant to generate a laugh, but it only brings back memories of his poignant death scene. Not knowing whether to laugh or be bummed out—the whole movie is sorta like that.
Cut to present day Malibu, where Tony is suffering from extreme insomnia due to the events of The Avengers. It’s never made clear what has him so shaken up; he certainly didn’t look all that rattled at the end of that film. But he can’t sleep, he’s obsessed with protecting Pepper (now his live-in girlfriend), and whenever anyone brings up the battle in New York City or what he experienced during his brief trip through Loki’s wormhole, he experiences a panic attack.
His sleeplessness has given him plenty of time to work on new suits, including the “Mark 42” prototype. Each section of this armor has its own rocket, and the pieces can fly through the air and assemble themselves around Tony (and in some cases, around Pepper as a defensive move). The movie is really, really in love with this special effect, though I’m afraid the novelty wears off by around the twentieth time we see it.
Meanwhile, a terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is orchestrating bombings around the world, and hijacking TV signals to broadcast professionally-produced packages in which he claims responsibility. Going by the name, one would expect the Mandarin to be Chinese, but he speaks with a Texas drawl (whenever he says “America”, I’m pretty sure it was literally written out in the script as “‘Murrica”) and bears a striking resemblance to Guru Tugginmypudha, also played by Kingsley.
To fight this threat, the U.S. government enlists the help of Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who evidently got to keep his War Machine armor at the end of the last movie. For little reason other than to sell more toys, he’s been given a red, white, and blue paint job and rechristened the “Iron Patriot”. At one point, Rhodey jokes that the name tested well with focus groups, and it would be funny if it weren’t so very close to actual reality.
Aldrich Killian resurfaces, now looking suave and handsome (if anything, Killian makes an excellent advertisement for cosmetic dentistry—get your teeth fixed, look like Guy Pearce!). He meets with Pepper, still CEO of Stark Industries, and tries to get her interested in Extremis (presumably, he hooked up with Maya Hansen at some point). But Pepper sees the potential for Extremis being “weaponized” and turns him down.
Following this meeting, Happy, now head of Stark security, tails Killian’s right hand man to the TCL Chinese Theatre (yep, that’s its official name now), where he meets up with an army vet whose face is glowing orange from the inside. The glow builds up, until the vet literally turns into a human bomb, exploding onto Hollywood Boulevard and killing several innocent people. As we learn later, this is one of the unfortunate side effects of the Extremis formula, along with bloating, weight gain, severe dizziness, and thoughts of suicide.
The Mandarin takes credit for the bombing, drawing a tortured analogy between the Chinese Theatre and the faux-Chinese nature of fortune cookies, which to me says only one thing: Panda Express, you’re next.
Happy gets caught in the explosion and ends up in a coma for the rest of the movie. This inspires Tony to make it his one-man mission to take down the Mandarin, even directly challenging him on TV and giving out his home address, which makes no sense given how much he’s been obsessing over Pepper’s safety.
Maya Hansen unexpectedly shows up at Tony’s place, giving us a funny bit where Tony thinks he’s about to meet the 13 year old son he never knew he had. But actually, Maya used to work for Killian, and claims to be horrified at what he’s done with her Extremis formula (though later, in a pointless twist, it turns out she’s still working with Killian and is really here to get Tony to help perfect the formula).
Oh, and at some point, Tony felt compelled to buy Pepper a giant stuffed rabbit with large boobs. I’m pretty sure this is never explained in the movie, and could not possibly ever be explained in all the time remaining between now and the heat death of the universe. (Yes, I know those are supposed to be the rabbit’s stubby paws, but I will never be able to look at this and not see an amputee bunny with big boobs.)
Suddenly, several helicopters belonging to the Mandarin show up, and stage a Godfather III-style assault on Tony’s mansion. All of his Iron Man suits get blown up, and eventually the attack sends the entire mansion sliding into the ocean.
Tony, left with nothing but the Mark 42 prototype on his back, travels to Tennessee to investigate a bombing that took place before anyone heard of the Mandarin. But the new suit runs out of power by the time he gets there (I thought the arc reactor in his chest was the power source?). Luckily, he just happens to find a shed full of electronics, which belongs to some random kid. Tony and the boy bond over their love of science and hatred of bullies, giving this movie its very own Cute Kid Subplot. Admittedly, he’s nowhere near as annoying as Cute Kid sidekicks of movies past, but this is a trope that really should have stayed in the ‘90s.
After some poking around, Tony finally thinks he’s figured everything out: Aldrich Killian used Extremis to regrow the limbs of amputee vets, but he wasn’t able to stabilize the formula. So he decided to sell it to the Mandarin, who’s now using it to create super-soldiers who can then be turned into human bombs. But the truth is something else entirely.
Spoilers follow, but if you don’t know the twist by now, exactly which rock have you been living under?
Tony tracks down the “Mandarin” and finds out he’s really a British actor and drug addict named Trevor Slattery. He’s being paid by Killian to play the part of a terrorist, in order to cover up the (accidental? intentional? no clue) explosions caused by Extremis. Killian is essentially hiding behind this manufactured Mandarin character to make himself less of a target, which doesn’t really work out, seeing as how Tony and later Rhodey are able to track him down anyway.
Killian’s men subdue Tony and tie him up to a bed frame for some reason, and soon Killian reveals that he abducted Pepper and is currently injecting her with Extremis. But his ultimate plan is to kidnap the president and assassinate him in the name of the Mandarin, leaving the country in the hands of a vice president who’s under the sway of the Extremis project (solely because he has a daughter without a leg?). Cue a massive battle in a shipyard as Tony and Rhodey try to save the president and rescue Pepper.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Iron Man 3 is a huge improvement over Iron Man 2, simply for the action scenes alone. And unlike the previous film, we have a villain who actually seems like he could inflict some real damage.
But the story falters due to too many plot twists that raise tons of questions. Why exactly does Killian want to control whoever’s in the White House? I get wanting that kind of power, but what does Killian intend to do once he becomes the de facto U.S. president?
Why does Killian kidnap Pepper and inject her with Extremis? It’s hinted that they plan to use Pepper as bait for Tony, but that becomes irrelevant when Tony shows up on his own. Basically, Killian turns his hostage into a super-soldier for no apparent reason, which turns out to not be the wisest move.
The twist involving Maya Hansen was pointless, but when you think about, Maya Hansen herself was kind of pointless. They could have easily cut her out of the movie, and without her, there’s barely any need for the 1999 prologue, so that could have been cut, too. In fact, the intro makes the villain look lamer in retrospect; are we really to believe Killian turned evil just because Tony blew off a meeting with him?
And then there’s the big plot twist with the Mandarin, which seems to only exist so the movie can have a big plot twist. A lot of fans of the comics were pissed off (evidently, the Mandarin is like Iron Man’s Lex Luthor), but for me, it didn’t make the movie noticeably any better or worse. I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, though I do believe a good plot twist should kick a movie’s energy level into a higher gear, whereas this one just brings things down into bathroom humor territory. Also, the trailers did a pretty good job of setting up the Mandarin as a Bane-like villain who was going to bring Iron Man to his knees, so I don’t blame anyone for feeling a bit cheated.
It’s possible the twist came about because the filmmakers feared the Mandarin was too much of an outdated, racist Fu Manchu caricature, but that shouldn’t have mattered. The first movie had no problem taking Iron Man’s hopelessly dated origin story from the comics, relocating it from North Vietnam to Afghanistan, and making it timely all over again. I guess the one good thing I can say about the twist is that it spared us from getting one more big hero vs. villain fight; instead of having to physically defeat the Mandarin, Tony finds out he simply doesn’t exist, and we get to move on.
In the final battle, Tony suddenly summons dozens of Jarvis-controlled suits to come to his rescue, which left many people wondering why he didn’t do this sooner. Upon a second viewing, it appears it was established (but only in very brief hints) that Tony had extra suits in his cellar that would be freed up when they excavated the ruins of his mansion. But it still seems like a huge asspull. This highlights another big problem with this movie: crucial plot points are constantly blown through, and only mentioned in nearly throwaway lines.
And the ending feels completely rushed and tacked on. Pepper gets infected with the Extremis virus, and Tony’s VO simply tells us that he “took care” of that problem off-screen. Just like that! And then he proves his love for Pepper by destroying all of his suits. Because clearly, there’s no reason to be prepared for some other supervillain showing up to obliterate his house. (And since we already know Iron Man will be in Avengers 2, it’s a bit of a meaningless gesture.)
And even worse, Tony up and decides to have the shrapnel removed from his heart. Are we to assume he could have done this at any time? Wasn’t the previous movie about how the arc reactor was poisoning him? Why did he have to come up with a “new element” to power it when he could have simply had the shrapnel taken out and gotten rid of his arc reactor altogether?
On top of all that, Tony is barely in his armor in this movie—I honestly think Pepper wears it more. Is it that unreasonable to expect an Iron Man movie to actually feature Iron Man? On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a film where Tony finds out he’s still a hero without the suit, but that really wasn’t how the movie was advertised.
There’s a big set piece where Iron Man rescues people who have been blown out of Air Force One. But after seeing so many henchmen get shot and/or blown up, I just couldn’t bring myself to care. Why should we be thrilled at Tony rescuing a dozen people when we just saw him blasting away at Extremis subjects, who for all we know aren’t really evil and were just seduced by the prospect of growing new arms and legs?
And then the scene is completely undermined when it turns out Tony wasn’t even in the suit for this daring rescue. Nobody was in the suit. He can now just control the thing remotely. I’m assuming the next Iron Man movie will feature two hours of Tony Stark sitting in his living room playing with a Kinect.
Also, where the heck were SHIELD and the other Avengers throughout this whole thing? I don’t expect Thor and Captain America to show up in every Iron Man movie from now on, but when the President of the United States gets kidnapped by super-soldiers, you’d think at least somebody from SHIELD would get involved. Unfortunately, that’s one of the pitfalls of introducing a shared continuity: we expect it to be, well, shared.
(Actually, there is a guest star who shows up in yet another post-credits scene, and I feel sorry for anyone who sat there for ten minutes waiting for that.)
In short, all the violence and death and mayhem (including the rather grisly effects of the Extremis virus) would have worked just fine in a standalone action picture with Robert Downey Jr. as a cop on the edge or something. But it all feels disturbing and out of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The movie tries to suggest this will be Downey’s last solo outing as Iron Man; The closing credits (which oddly play to music that sounds like Tony just got fired by Donald Trump) show a variety of scenes from all three movies, trying in vain to trick us into thinking we got a satisfying trilogy. Unfortunately, the Iron Man movies so far have been too uneven to feel like a complete story. And I seriously doubt Downey is going to turn down the tanker truck full of cash that Marvel is currently backing up to his house to reprise the role. So never fear, everybody will be back to do this all again in Iron Man 4.