Marvel Studios did something amazing with the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): they released six successful movies in a row. With the exception of Hulk, the remainder could be described as “extremely successful”. The last Phase One film, The Avengers, earned over $1.5 billion and is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Not bad for a new studio. Iron Man 3 did almost as well, earning $1.2 billion. How many studios can say that they didn’t release any failures in their first seven outings?
Iron Man 3, like Iron Man before it, is the first film in the next phase of the MCU, Phase Two. The function of Iron Man 3 is, however, different. Iron Man introduced Tony Stark, Iron Man, and other characters from the Iron Man family of characters to moviegoers. Those characters were important because they showed up in other movies and the end of the series, The Avengers. Iron Man 3 introduces Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) an important adversary from the comic book universe, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), likewise an important character from the comics, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). None of these characters appear again after this movie. At least, not in any other Phase Two or Phase Three movie. On that level, it makes Iron Man 3 seem like a standalone film, with no real impact on the remainder of the series.
As a standalone, how does it stack up against the MCU films released before it? From my perspective, it is a cut above the Incredible Hulk, and that’s it. In some ways, I much prefer the Hulk movie because I found Edward Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner compelling throughout the film. I only started to lose interest at the end, when the Abomination was introduced. If not for the Abomination, I’d rank the Incredible Hulk above Iron Man 3.
I had a hard time identifying why I felt this way about Iron Man 3. And then it hit me: the story is fragmented and the characters were unappealing. It has some genuinely good parts, some are even great cinema, but overall, it doesn’t come together as a story as well as I would have liked.
The rough strokes of the plot start with Stark (Robert Downey Jr) explaining in a voice over how he made the disfigured cripple Aldrich Killian and beautiful Maya Hansen into the villains they became. Stark doesn’t show for a business meeting with Killian so that he can get into Maya Hansen’s hotel room for a one night stand. Unlike in previous films, Stark comes across as mean rather than charming. After that teaser, the Mandarin enters the story. The Mandarin, played by Kingsley, is a shadowy terrorist responsible for multiple bombings and terrorist threats against the president of the United States.
The mysterious Killian approaches Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) about a collaboration between his company, Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) and Stark International. Now, he stands straight and tall, is well-proportioned, and has a handsome face. Potts is amazed by the transformation. Still, his idea or a joint project doesn’t appeal to her, “This sounds highly weaponizable. I’m afraid it’s going to be a no.” Before she brushes him off, there is a serious creepy vibe coming from Killian, as he stands inappropriately close to Potts, then puts his hands on her bare shoulders, then kisses her good-bye before he leaves. As if in echo, Killian’s henchman sits splayed all over a chair in the lobby, in what appears to be an attempt to show off his genitals in a state fair contest. Happy isn’t pleased by the display but tolerates it because Stark and Potts have told him to stand down.
Happy follows the genital man (James Badge Dale) to a rendezvous at Mann’s Chinese theater in Hollywood. He meets another man who cannot “regulate” and subsequently explodes. Happy is seriously injured and others, it is implied, have been killed. Genital man (Eric Savin) survives. After visiting Happy at the hospital, Stark publicly threatens the Mandarin, “I’ve decided you just died and I’m going to come and collect the body.” As can be expected, Stark is then attacked at home. His home is demolished, he is knocked out within the Iron Man suit, which then flies off to an unknown destination. Potts and Hansen escape the scene together. Up to this point, I liked the movie.
I did not like Killian’s creepiness, nor Savin’s vulgarity. However, both defects could be overlooked thanks to other story elements that were interesting. After Stark’s home is destroyed, the story splits in two directions. One follows Stark to Tennessee, where he can explore his wormhole-related anxiety attacks (see The Avengers for more info). The other thread stays with Hansen, Paltrow, and Killian. Hansen is revealed to be working with Killian, who is in turn working with the Mandarin. They kidnap Potts for no immediately cognizable purpose. Later it is revealed that Killian has a crush on her, so she is intended essentially as a sex slave.
Most of the rest of the movie is action, a lot of which is very well done. I’m going to skip for now to complain about the movie a bit.
First off, I had the distinct impression that some kind of sex criminal had a hand in making this movie. The subtle references to sex were too frequent, too odd, and too uncomfortable to be coincidence. There is Killian leering all over Potts and his crotch-displaying partner. Stark gives Potts a huge stuffed rabbit that is designed in such a way that the arms look like breasts because of their shape and placement. When Stark goes to bed with Hansen at the beginning, it is long, drawn-out, and awkward, unlike the very quick and funny scene with Christine Everheart in Iron Man. This is all forgivable, but then we are treated to creepy scenes between Stark and a young boy in Tennessee.
There is a particularly creepy moment that looks right out of a pedophile’s fantasy, where the boy adopts a petulant attitude of helplessness to gain entrance to Stark’s vehicle, even biting his lip as he does so. In another scene, a fan accosts Stark in a media van. He is his greatest fan, but he also seems to have an erotic fixation on Stark. After this, Potts is wearing sexy clothing, sweating, and tied to a table rotated to an almost vertical position. It is here that Killian admits that she is his “trophy”. This isn’t the first or last time she will be bound, helpless, and dressed in a very revealing way. As a trope of science fiction, I can understand it, but the way it is handled here comes across as very creepy to me.
Then we have the Mandarin. It turns out that the Mandarin is a fiction invented by Killian. The Mandarin we have seen so far is actually actor Trevor Slattery, played by Kingsley. Every scene with Kingsley is either terrifying or hilarious, making them the best scenes in the film by far. Once we know he is really Slattery rather than the fictitious Mandarin, he becomes a fantastic source of comedy. At the same time, we are treated to prolonged scenes of debauchery. Slattery is in bed with two women, he (and they) are all on drugs and drunk. Other drugged up women are scattered throughout the scene. The impression left by these scenes and others is that someone involved with the film wanted to sneak in as many hidden or overt references to sex as he could get away with. The problem is that they aren’t that well hidden.
Looked at from the perspective of politics in film, this movie appears to have made an attempt to normalize debauchery. If there is any liberal influence at all, that’s it.
The end of the film reminded me of a scene from an old Carl Barks Donald Duck comic book. In it, two big cranes manned by Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge fight each other until both are destroyed. In Iron Man 3, something similar is played out at a large dock, then all is resolved when Stark commands Jarvis to self-destruct all of his armor in a silly and gratuitous romantic overture to Potts.
The best parts of this movie were Kingsley’s scenes as Slattery/the Mandarin and the action sequences. Everything else was weak. I did not enjoy the sexual innuendo nor the frequent displays of moral depravity. Maybe there are people like that in the world, and worse, but I don’t want to see them in an MCU film.
Downey jr. is usually fun to watch as Tony Stark but in this film he came across as weak and weird. Both were bad looks for him. Potts came across as very sexy, but her “damsel in distress” scenes were too disturbing to enjoy them as comic book fare.
Overall, I don’t think this movie could have been made by conservatives because they would have avoided the more disturbing portrayals and story elements. The story itself was fairly neutral, but the settings, situations, and character portrayals come across as very liberal. My opinion is that this movie represents Marvel’s first tentative step into the liberal version of the MCU. What’s your take?