Since I did that whole Marvel Movies Project, it seems appropriate to blog about the latest effort from Marvel Studios. Iron Man 3, which is the first film in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released on Friday. It sees the post-Avengers return of Tony Stark, who’s back and taking on a new adversary called The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley. There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it here.
The Iron Man movies have all been somewhat political, dealing with the arms trade the moral issues surrounding high tech warfare. Iron Man 3 looks at this from a different angle, focusing on the even more philosophical question of how societies create enemies, or “demons,” as Stark puts it in the film, in order to have someone specific to fight. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I liked what they did with this. It’s fairly subversive in its way. Having said that, I am not an expert on Iron Man, and I’m not sure how comic book purists will feel about the way The Mandarin is portrayed in the film.
The movie’s other main theme is identity: “you know who I am” is repeated a couple of times, and Tony’s famous line “I am Iron Man” also comes up again. Rhodey’s name is changed by a marketing team from War Machine to the Iron Patriot, and The Mandarin’s true origin is very ambiguous for much of the film. Identity in this film is very much a construct, and Tony feels his falling apart after the final battle against the aliens in The Avengers (which the filmmakers reasonably assume everyone has seen). After the attack by the Chitauri on New York, suddenly people are aware that there are possibly hundreds of other alien worlds out there just waiting to attack the Earth. This has put Tony Stark in a questioning mood, and his uncertainty manifests itself in some anxiety issues.
The idea of cosmic events creating profound changes also came up in The Avengers, with Nick Fury revealing that it was Thor’s arrival on Earth which made SHIELD investigate the possibility of using the Tesseract to create weapons. Tony’s anxiety therefore seems symptomatic of a larger global anxiety within the Marvel Cinematic Universe: it’s all part of the continuity tying everything together as Iron Man 3 kicks off Phase Two. (The other piece of continuity comes in the form of a very amusing post-credits sequence.)
Iron Man 3 places Tony’s closest allies in jeopardy as Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy all find themselves victimized by The Mandarin’s schemes. Two of Tony’s old acquaintances, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (an uber-smarmy Guy Pearce), are also involved in it all somehow, and The Mandarin even invades Tony’s personal space, completely destroying his Malibu home. (Granted, Tony kind of invited him to do that.) The battle becomes very personal for Tony, who gradually recognizes the role he’s played in creating his own demons, as he says in the film’s opening narration.
All of this is interesting and there are some very cool action sequences to remind us we’re watching a superhero movie as well. But in the end I felt a bit let down by Iron Man 3 overall. I don’t know if it was the awesomeness of The Avengers that spoiled me or what, but there just seemed to be something missing here. I don’t think this film is as funny as Iron Man or even Iron Man 2, and there might be a little too much going on for the story to be totally coherent.
For one thing, I felt Tony as a little too quick to make The Mandarin his problem: he doesn’t yet have all the background about why The Mandarin is his personal demon when he calls him out, and his overblown televised call for revenge feels rather out of place coming so early in the film.
Another problem is the number of pieces in the villain puzzle. The Mandarin is essentially running a network of terrorists, so it makes sense that several people are involved in his plans. However, the number of distinct villain characters seems a bit too large for a movie like this. On the other hand, the random people infected with the Extremis virus created by Maya Hansen are mostly anonymous, which is both a good thing and a problem: maybe I missed it, but I was never completely sure what motivated the Extremis volunteers (or were they forced?) to go along with The Mandarin at all. Plus, and this is just personal taste, I did not find the Extremis soldiers, whose main power seems to be extreme heat, particularly compelling adversaries.
I think I’ll have to watch this again before I can judge it completely. Right now I’ll say there were things I liked a lot, and things that weren’t so appealing to me. My initial reaction is that Iron Man 3 is a good movie, not a great one. It’s miles better than any other Marvel threequel — which is a rather back-handed compliment, as the other three (Blade: Trinity, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Spider-Man 3) were all terrible — but it might still be the worst in its trilogy. I don’t think it’d make a list of the top 10 Marvel movies, but it’s not in the bottom 10 either.