Roundtable: Iron Man 3

SPOILERS regarding Iron Man 3 will follow, so if you haven’t see the movie (and judging by the box office numbers, you have), beware!

Aren: Marvel Studios is on a roll. Last year the big gamble of The Avengers paid off with a $207 million opening box office and a final total over $600 million. In retrospect it seems preposterous that the film was even considered a gamble, but I guess anything that’s new is considered risky. This past weekend Iron Man 3 debuted to a huge $174 million, second only to its predecessor The Avengers. Clearly the studio is doing something right with audiences.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s main trick is replicating the feel of comic books on the big screen. By pumping out a linked movie universe that acts very much like a long-form TV show, I think they’ve tapped into the part of the audience that relies heavily on comfort. The audience gets to know these characters over the long haul and is safe in the knowledge that these characters will act in the ways they want them to act, and that each individual film will bring a slight variation to the formula (perhaps a generic bent), while still ultimately offering up the same. “Same but different,” is a key concept in showbiz. Marvel Studios has aced this concept.

But all this audience pandering is beside the point. The real question is whether Iron Man 3 lives up the heights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—namely Captain America and the first Iron Man—or whether it’s just another big corporate beast with most of its spark coming from Shane Black’s zippy dialogue?

In short, is Iron Man 3 any good?

Anton: What bothers me is how little I care about answering that question. Is Iron Man 3 good? It was pretty good. But at this point, it almost doesn’t matter. Marvel has me hooked. It’s like asking if the lastest episode of Mad Men was any good (not that any of the Marvel movies are nearly as good as Mad Men). Whatever the case, I’m not quitting the series. In that sense, your comment about the influence of long-form television is spot on, but you also can’t overlook the influence of the original superhero medium. What Marvel Studios has done is introduce the never-ending serial nature of comic books to franchise filmmaking. As long as the Marvel films keep making money there is literally no end in sight. So if we’re talking about television, the best comparison is a show like The Simpsons. Disney also seems intent on converting their latest valuable acquisition—Star Wars—to a similar never-ending serial format.

To be fair, if someone reading this is smarter about their money than me, and he or she is wondering if Iron Man 3 is worth paying to see, I would say I enjoyed it. It’s funny, witty, and entertaining. But it’s also incredibly flippant and wholly superficial. It’s pure fast food—fleeting pleasure.

Anders:Iron Man 3 is definitely a fleeting pleasure. Twenty-four hours later, I’m not compelled to think about it much or filled with a desire to see it again soon. Anton mentions the film’s entertainment value, and, yes, this might be the funniest Marvel film thanks to Drew Pearce and Shane Black’s screenplay. But conversely, one of the biggest problems with these films is that I end up feeling exhausted by the end of them, despite their ostensible function as light entertainment. Every single film has to raise the stakes, make it more personal, or deconstruct the hero so that he questions whether he wants to even be a hero. In short, they are all operating at extremes. I think there are places to do that, but not every single superhero film has to be The Dark Knight or even The Avengers in terms of being an event or tackling serious subject matter.

Which is to say that while I agree that Marvel clearly wants to replicate the ongoing nature of the comic books and that the long-form serial television comparison is fair, on the other hand, to borrow Anton’s Mad Men comparison, not every episode needs to be world shattering. Mad Men allows itself numerous episodes that merely develop character (or, as in the case of this season’s 3-4 episode stretch, to set a pervasive mood or tone), between the episodes that propel the overall plot forward and shake up the status quo. Where are the episodes of Iron Man where we just get to see Tony Stark be a superhero? Or just be a cool “mechanic”? What is his day-to-day superhero life like, or is he just known for the few events we see in the Iron Man films and the “New York Incident”?

Perhaps Marvel is afraid that if they don’t make each film an “event,” that people will grow tired of them. But I think the opposite is true and viewers will suffer burn-out. If we’re going to have two or three individual hero films each year and an Avengers film every 2-3 years, I would love to see a more modest-in-scope Marvel film.

Aren: Probably the ballsiest adaptation choice in Iron Man 3 is how the Mandarin is portrayed. In the comic books, the Mandarin is Iron Man’s nemesis. It’s not even that he’s the most interesting or dynamic of Iron Man’s many villains (Iron Man doesn’t have that many memorable villains, to be honest), but that he’s been around forever. The Mandarin as he is conceived in the comics is super powerful, with magic rings of varying ability, but the character is also a pretty racist stereotype. I don’t blame Marvel Studios for avoiding the tricky waters of having a Mandarin who could be seen as a racial caricature. But to completely jettison the character, as they ended up doing, seemed like wasted potential.

In Iron Man 3, the Mandarin is this theatrical figure played by Ben Kingsley who hijacks the airwaves and delivers these Bin-Laden-esque videos threatening the U.S. and taking credit for various bombings. However, the Mandarin is actually a fictional creation played by a drug-addicted actor who was meant to take credit for the explosions caused by Aldrich Killian’s malfunctioning Extremis experiments. This take on the Mandarin is supposed to make a statement about how villains can be illusory creations and that this kind of grand foreign bogeyman is an outdated and harmful figure, distracting away from the real villains, like the amoral CEO Aldrich Killian. Matt Singer has a good defense of this portrayal on the Mandarin over at Indiewire (read it here). But here’s what I think the Mandarin as portrayed in Iron Man 3 really says:

Always go for the joke.

The subtext about villains and illusions is there, but when it comes down to it, the Mandarin reveal is a joke. Ben Kingsley is funny playing the idiotic actor (I was reminded of his playing himself to hilarious effect on that Season 6 Sopranos episode), but what this choice says is that everything but the humour of the moment is expendable. The Marvel Studios films are all about the in-jokes and the giddy humour of the moment. Why the filmmakers didn’t want to try to tackle an actual supervillain, someone who could give Tony Stark a run for his money and really make him feel insignificant (a big theme this film is trying to explore), I don’t know. The Mandarin was the villain to bring Tony Stark to his knees. But now that opportunity has come and gone.

I think the Mandarin also shows that the Iron Man films have a serious problem with villains. I wasn’t expecting the villain here to be as memorable as Joker or Bane, but could they at least make a villain as compelling and entertaining as Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull in Captain America? The first two Iron Man films had villains who were practically robots bashing against Iron Man in the final act. Iron Man 3 tried to avoid that, and I admire that, but the way they avoided it is by not having a villain who can really fight Tony. The only reason Killian is at all a threat to Tony physically is that Tony doesn’t have his suit on every time he faces him.

My thoughts aren’t based on any kind of fanboy zeal for the comics. I don’t particularly care how faithful any films are to their source material. But when Ben Kingsley came out of the washroom, drunk and slovenly, I was hoping that the film wouldn’t confirm what I thought was happening. When it did, the theatre was laughing. I was chuckling. But I wasn’t impressed.

Anton:Iron Man 3 is also probably the most cynical mainstream superhero movie ever made. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark has always been a rakish hero, but whereas the first film was about a selfish, brilliant playboy learning the value of selfless actions, this third entry only makes a few faint gestures towards traditional heroism. I mean, Tony’s pretty much an asshole to the quasi-sidekick boy introduced in the middle of the film. (I’m not sure if Tony’s calloused comment to the boy that daddy issues are for pussies is just a mean joke or a jab at DC’s characters; either way, it’s pretty rough.) Tony’s behaviour towards the boy never really improves; he just buys him a bunch of stuff at the end.

In the film, Tony’s primarily driven by a crushing fear of loss of control and “good old-fashioned revenge” (as he puts it), but neither of these dubious motives are significantly questioned, as they are in films like Watchmen or Batman Begins. It’s true, at the end, Iron Man has to save his girlfriend Pepper Potts, but although the film briefly suggests he must choose between his personal life and social duties—that is, between saving Pepper and the President---the choice is soon dropped and the film descends into robot mayhem.

Oh yeah, did I mention that it’s revealed that the “good” President helped out greedy oil tycoons after a big oil spill, and that the Vice President is secretly in league with the villain? What sort of America is Iron Man defending? Furthermore, as Aren already said, the supposed big baddie, the Mandarin, who seems determined to make the U.S. accountable for its mistakes, turns out to be a fake—a mere decoy-terrorist meant to conceal the machinations of an evil scientist-turned-CEO. This film is wholly cynical. I’m not saying it’s dark and serious. In fact, Iron Man 3 couldn’t be more different than, say, The Dark Knight Rises. Rather, it both sneers at and relishes its material. The only thing Iron Man 3 believes in is that people are motivated by self-interest—even Iron Man—which is fitting since Iron Man is the great hero of capitalism.

As much as I dislike the film’s cynicism, it does offer us something new. Writer-director Shane Black has jettisoned the noble pretensions that so often veil the base desires that drive most action films. It’s a brash, flashy deconstruction of a superhero movie, at the same time that it’s a pretty standard superhero movie. It’s both something novel, and something you could easily skip.

Anders: The Shane Black connection was always the most fascinating one to me going into this film, since I didn’t particularly care for the second Iron Man film. I was hoping that the RDJ/Black team-up could inject some of the humour and genre understanding of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang into a franchise seemingly running out of steam after two films. In the resulting film, Black’s authorial stamp is hard to miss for anyone who familiar with any of his other films or screenplays, particularly noting the kind of genre deconstruction that Anton mentions. But what results are fairly major tonal shifts as Black is forced to shoehorn that vision into the larger template set by the Marvel Studios brand. There’s never a sense of real existential threat or rage that, say, we get from Riggs in Lethal Weapon, because audiences have no doubt that, as the end credits announce, “Iron Man will return.” But that aspect has to sit next to elements that I suppose are adding to the combined Marvel Cinematic Universe (and sell toys!) and those elements don’t always sit well next to each other.

I think if I was going to criticize one thing about the screenplay here, and I think this has to do with part of what interests Shane Black as a screenwriter, is that the film is sloppy in defining powers and rules with which to lend the film its superheroic aspects. It’s as if Black and Pearce didn’t really care. What exactly does Extremis do? Why is it that sometimes the Iron Man suits can fly on their own and other times they can’t? Why can’t the President use the Iron Patriot armor after it’s reprogrammed, but Killian can? It seems that there is little explanation given, and that the reason is the screenwriters don’t care. Black is more comfortable with Tony and Rhodey running around with guns like Riggs and Murtaugh than with exploring what the relationship of the armor to Tony actually is. I’m not one to harp on so-called plot holes (see my support for the much maligned Prometheus last summer) but Iron Man 3’s disinterest in these questions was distracting to me while I was watching it, not just later when I really analyzed it. That doesn’t bode well for the film.

Anton: But that devil-may-care attitude, which interferes with the superheroic rules and world-building, is precisely what gives other, more mundane, moments such energy.

Aren: As Anton said at the beginning, if you’re onboard with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’re onboard for the long haul. Iron Man 3 may be my least favourite of the Marvel Studios films (I need to reexamine Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk), but come November, I’ll still be there to see Thor: The Dark World. We may be feeling superhero fatigue at this point, but audiences clearly aren’t. The Iron Man formula isn’t broken, so don’t expect Marvel Studios to fix it.

Iron Man 3 (2013, USA/China)

Directed by Shane Black; written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black; starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, James Badge Dale, and Ben Kingsley.