The latest installment of Iron Man is perhaps the Marvel Universe’s most ambitious bit of cinema. Which is not to say most successful. If Avengers was ambitous in scope and scale, bringing together all the heroes and their accompanying baggage, Iron Man 3 is ambitious for the opposite: it’s a drama about a man in love, suffering from trauma.
Tony Stark, having lived through the horrors of New York (as we recall from Avengers), now suffers from anxiety, insomnia, public breakdowns, all the emotional impacts that we can expect from warring with an alien army and falling unconscious through a worm-hole in space.
This is the question of Iron Man 3: what happens when a superhero suffers PTSD? A majority of the film features Stark without his armor. Here is just Tony, still remarkable but not made of iron. A man dealing with the emotional and physical difficulties of living an extraordinary life.
That may sound dark and perhaps for Marvel it is. But Iron Man 3 is mostly a blast. Shane Black, now at the helm, wades through “issues”, murkily dripping the movie into the US’s role in extradition and the war on terror. Such subjects are not provided with the depth one might find elsewhere–nor should we expect as much. But they bring a richness to the world Marvel is creating. In the Marvel Universe, a man like Tony Stark, alongside gods and monster, must be capable of suiting up for battle with an alien army transported through a doorway in space, as well as suiting up in the war against extremists.
And after all of this, he must take off the suit and buy his girlfriend a decent Christmas present (spoiler: he fails). Iron Man 3 may not be perfectly constructed, but it’s a fascinating path for Tony Stark and Marvel to embark upon. I always thought there was a sadness about Tony Stark, and here Robert Downey, Jr. is permitted to be worn down, sad, and struggle. Don’t get me wrong. Downey’s Stark is still witty and cocky and brash, just in a different way. And Downey, as always, is wonderful company for a few hours in the theater, especially as he rounds out Stark as man with low lows to accompany his braggadocios.
What Black makes Stark finally realize is that his own life is not his most prized possession. His life is now not about protecting himself or the world or making money or doing good. His life is first and foremost about protecting Pepper Potts. Stark loves someone he cannot live without. And with great loves come great anxiety.
This is the progress of the Marvel Universe that Shane Black provides Iron Man 3: Tony Stark falls apart and Pepper Potts comes alive.
Pepper Potts makes Iron Man 3 what it is. I didn’t expect to write that sentence, but I think it’s true. Pepper is central to every scene that Gwyneth Paltrow appears in, and even off-screen, she is rarely far afield. Now a leader in Stark Industries, Pepper has become a woman of great strength. Fearing the consequences of Tony’s mental state, Pepper is strong enough to say No to man in a suit and the man in her home. And, even more fun, strong enough to suit up herself.
The domestic life of Tony Stark, post-Avengers, is a worthy subject for a film. The problem, of course, is that Iron Man 3 is still a Marvel Superhero movie. It requires a traditional villain, in a traditional good-guy v. bad-guy narrative. Shane Black does his damnedest to free his picture from these strictures, but ultimately, the film suffers when it transitions from Stark’s story to the Mandarin’s. What made Avengers special (and it is) was Whedon’s embrace of the genre structure–which is, of course, what Whedon does. His villain in the Avengers makes everything else thrive (Tom Hiddleston’s delivery of “mewling quim” is the villain highlight of the Marvel catalogue). The Mandarin, in Iron Man 3, makes the movie stumble.
The Mandarin goes almost completely unmotivated. The what and how of the Mandarin and his henchmen distracted me for nearly the entire film. Because, really, what are these guys? How do they work and why? Apparently there was a geneticist/botanist doing something 13 years ago, but what? It’s one thing to grow limbs; it’s another to be a fire-breathing indestructible lava-person. I have no idea what’s with these things. The Big Bad speechifies as a villain must do, but even then we are given very little direction or reason to care. A wonderful super-villain is the steeped in weird science and the batty back-story and long-winded monologues justifying what he or she is doing. The justifications/ science/craziness don’t have to be comprehensible, but they need to exist. Ben Kingsley’s work is brilliant (surprise) but the reveal about his role made me even less satisfied with the Mandarin. Because then even more so, who cares?
But such are difficulties of the superhero picture, and I can live with them. As the Marvel Universe continues its post- Avengers expansion, breaking from the standard genre requirements will be more and more critical to keep audiences involved and coming back. Iron Man 3 offers a richly envisioned tale of moral and emotional complexity that can weigh down any man in love, with or without his armor.