Okay then, onto Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with Iron Man 3.
It’s fair to say that nothing was ever going to be same after Avengers Assemble (or Marvel’s The Avengers in the US) crashed through Hollywood like a wrecking-ball (flipping the bird at all its competition). Marvel Studios had raised the bar so high that I guess you started to wonder whether or not they could even top themselves. I mean, after an event like Avengers Assemble where do you go from there. So it’s understandable why they decided to produce another Iron Man film, considering his character had become very popular (and everyone was digging Robert Downey Jr.‘s portrayal).
Iron Man 3 is certainly an interesting specimen due to its many creative decisions which helped to define it as possibly the best Iron Man film and the worst. Sure, Iron Man 2 had it’s issues but they were more clear (out-in-the-open for every angry fan to look at and fucking despise) but here we have a cluster-fuck of ideas and not all of them make fucking sense. I suppose one of the clear problems with this film is its tone, aided by the fact that Jon Favreau (who directed the first two Iron Man films) stood down as director and was replaced by Shane Black.
Clearly Black was a great director to follow in Favreau’s footsteps, adding in a clear vision of how he wanted Iron Man’s world to look and feel. And to give him a lot of credit it actually really worked and made his aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that bit better, especially where Tony Stark’s character is concerned. But, on the other-hand, it does become rather gritty and realistic in places and pushes the boundaries maybe a bit too far, making me sort of stuck in the middle as to whether or not I like this variation of the Iron Man storyline.
What is impressive though is how Black decided to continue Tony’s journey, particularly when his latest adventure is on the back of Avengers Assemble. Iron Man 3 asks the question of, “How did the battle in New York affect him?”
Of course not only did Tony have to man-up and become a soldier alongside Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, but he also had to make the ultimate sacrifice by launching a missile (which was originally intended to destroy New York at the cost of severe collateral damage) into Loki’s portal to stop the Chitauri (and nearly didn’t make it back in the process). This, in turn, makes Tony rather unstable as he becomes obsessed with building more and more Iron Man suits, resulting in insomnia and anxiety attacks caused by PSD.
Of course this creates problems with his home-life as his relationship with Pepper Potts becomes rather complicated after she becomes aware of his problems, with one incident resulting in Tony having a nightmare that provokes one of his mentally linked suits to attack Pepper in response to his stress levels. It becomes a very personal, and realistic, battle for Tony to face as he becomes almost powerless, no longer in control of his actions. We’re no longer seeing the confident, play-boy Tony from his previous instalments but a rather more toned-down and broken Tony.
This version of the character started to become the baseline of his appearance within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning his tonal shift from the man who’s out of control, extremely whacky, and always has the last laugh, to a man that thinks about the world in a more realistic mind-set, thinking about the consequences of his actions and how they might affect those around him. The words of Steve Rogers, and his confrontation with the real world of heroism, i.e. facing difficult decisions and having to make sacrifices in order to win the day, had completely warped his brain and affected the way he operates as a person, even questioning his position on life.
Most importantly, his drive to protect Pepper has put him on edge because he’s paranoid something could happen to her if he’s not prepared to defend her. Having encountered the idea of aliens, other realms, and enemies that have unlimited power, it’s made Tony’s thoughts of realism that bit more clearer. He isn’t the man who can fix anything just because he’s a genius, he has limitations, and he is under-equipped to deal with the terrors of “what’s out there” (edging him forward to becoming an extremely desperate person who’s willing to do what he deems is necessary to protect his world from threat).
The darker tone of this film fits perfectly with Tony’s shift in character, pushing the boundaries of the type of narrative Marvel Studios usually tells. Lots of important, and tragic, events occur to push Tony over the edge in his state of confusion and vulnerability, to which it even makes him egg-on a terrorist organisation to come to his house so he can end them.
Bold fucking words which ultimately backfires in the worst possible way. This begins the tragedy of seeing our beloved heroes world’s turned upside down (a cruel theme that runs throughout the majority of Phase Two) and Tony’s home, all of his equipment, and all of his inventions are sent crashing to the bottom of the sea, leaving Tony even more powerless than before.
From this point on things become rather interesting as we see Tony at his lowest. He’s homeless, hasn’t got any tech, and doesn’t have any help, as he’s stranded miles away from Miami in a desperate attempt to rebuild his reputation and stop the bad guys. This pushes Tony to have to get help from a young boy, Harley, and this leads to some cleverly written scenes as Harley helps him overcome his demons. Though it has to noted that Tony’s attitude towards Harley is extremely dickish and rude (the kind of attitude you’d expect from Tony, made even worse whenever he has an anxiety attack) but at the same time they hold a unique bond and Tony respects Harley for his constant help, even rewarding him for all his troubles at the end of the film.
I suppose the film falls apart when it comes to the villain. My God did this really bug me on my first watch, ultimately making me hate this film for a long time (to the point where it was my least favourite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). This is where you either applaud Marvel Studios for being daring or shout out, “Fuck you, you bunch of fucking idiots!” Iron Man 3 builds upon this idea that we’d be getting one of the darkest, and realistic, villains thus far, bringing in Iron Man’s greatest nemesis the Mandarin. Now, his organisation (The Ten Rings) had been alluded to way back in Iron Man, being the terrorist group that kidnapped Tony in the first place.
So it would’ve been quite poetic to come full circle and have them return for the third instalment in order to incorporate their leader, giving Tony his most personal battle to date. It was working so well throughout the first two acts, showcasing The Mandarin as this menacing figure working within the shadows, taking over television broadcasts in order to spread fear into every homes as he displayed his power (I mean, fuck, he had someone killed on live-television and even made The President feel completely powerless in front of his entire country).
This act of cruelty and tyranny really rubbed Tony the wrong way and pushed him to want to kill The Mandarin and end his reign of terror. And by God it would’ve been awesome to see Downey Jr. and Ben Kingsley have a spectacular showdown, but sadly this never came.
Instead, we got the biggest fucking middle finger ever! It turned out that The Mandarin was just an invention and Kingsley’s character (Trevor Slattery) was just a fucking idiotic British actor who hasn’t got a fucking clue. Why Marvel Studios? You had something great building-up on your hands and then you had to go and throw it away for a cheap “I pulled the rug from under you” moment that detracted so much from this film, making Iron Man 3 a massive shame.
On the other-hand, I do have to agree with what critics and fans state about this little twist, in which they describe how it’s a clever insight into the world of terror, and how imagery can be used to manipulate the thought-patterns of a nation, i.e. forcing them to think a certain way. The Mandarin (as an invention) created this perfect image of how people perceive “the war on terror”, pushing them to react exactly how the villains wanted them to, thus creating the perfect idea that could be used to exploit an entire nation into bowing to their every demands.
So, yeah, it’s a flip of a coin really, with me sitting awkwardly in the middle. I’ve learnt to accept this idea but I can’t say I’ve become completely fond of it.
As for the real villain, I’d actually say he wasn’t a disappointing substitute. Yeah he’s a clear generic Marvel Studios villain, i.e. a genius scientist sent mad because the hero fucked them over in the past. But, to be fair, Aldrich Killian (played incredibly well by Guy Pearce) is used correctly and he does become a major threat to Tony through his ideology and extreme ambitions. He holds the key to a special weapon called “Extremis” to which can enhance a person’s strength and regenerative abilities (but at the cost of being extremely unstable, with some patients being unable to withstand the condition and ultimately explode).
What makes Aldrich even more personal is the fact that Tony creates him, adding in this whole “demons” aspect to Iron Man 3 in which Tony has to learn from his past mistakes because they keep returning to bite him in the fucking arse. This again adds to the story-arc of him wanting to change as a person because his old ways got people hurt, resulting in him being a danger to the world rather than a protector. Aldrich attacks Tony on so many personal levels, even kidnapping Pepper and injecting her with “Extremis”, whilst thanking Tony for this opportunity due to him fucking him over in the past, thus making his desperation fuel his ambition to new heights.
Also, it was just nerve-wracking watching Tony’s struggle throughout, particularly since he spent a lot of the narrative without his Iron Man suit, pushing him to think outside the box and really test his genius to get himself out of a bad situation. Plus, the grittiness helped to make you realise just how painful this journey was, from Tony’s inflicted injuries, to the graphic nature of his enemies’ abilities, to having to deal with the world of terrorism (resulting in him being taken prisoner), and having to protect The President from assassination.
By taking a step back and re-envisioning how to approach Iron Man’s character, you ended-up with a really well put together concept that redefined the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I think the only negatives I can put out there (apart from the obvious one mentioned above) is the absence of James Rhodes and the underuse of Pepper. Rhodes was revamped perfectly in Iron Man 2 to readjust to the recasting (to which we can all agree Don Cheadle does a much better job in the role, and has brilliant chemistry with Downey Jr.) but here he’s almost completely missing from the narrative.
I can see why this was done in order to allow Tony to have this more personal, terrifying, journey of discovery and he couldn’t have had that if he had familiar faces by his side. But still, it’s a shame to see Rhodes shoved to the side-lines (and have War Machine randomly changed to Iron Patriot, before becoming War Machine again in his next appearance without any clear fucking explanation).
Pepper has always been a hard character to understand because of her multiple layers of personality and usages. One minute she’s the perfect companion for Tony, to which she’s stern, intelligent, and has a means of keeping his mad behaviour in-check. And for the rest of the time she plays the perfect damsel in distress (which gets old really fucking fast, especially when it feels like it demeans her character and abuses the sexist formula).
Iron Man 3 mostly had her as a misunderstanding, and useless bitch (which only makes her moment of not hearing her phone [which was right fucking beside her] during Tony’s potential last phone-call in Avengers Assemble worse – don’t complain when you find that miscall afterwards and realise you may have never said goodbye to the man who just saved your fucking life!)
I guess they realised that Pepper was becoming quite useless (and maybe not representing the female demographic very well) and so made her an unexpected badass for the third act, to which she’s now enthused with “Extremis” and ends up saving the fucking day. This feels incredibly forced and kind of ruined another potential moment that could’ve elevated the tragedy of Tony’s journey had he been unable to save Pepper and watched as his failed efforts got her killed.
At least this would’ve been a better conclusion to their confused relationship compared to Pepper just vanishing off the face of the Earth in later films (What the fuck is up with that anyway? Does Gwyneth Paltrow not want to do any more films or what? Tell us Marvel Studios, this information is important!)
Ultimately, Iron Man 3 ends on a rather strange note, almost as if it could be his final adventure. He pretty much comes to understand himself a lot more, finally realising that he himself is Iron Man without the need of a suit. And he finally gets rid of his arc-reactor through surgery, thus freeing him of the burden that started his journey (though this part becomes more fucking confusing than satisfying because it means Iron Man 2 makes even less fucking sense, I mean, why not go to a surgeon to prevent yourself from dying, and of course it makes me wonder how the hell he now powers his suits?)
The messages are certainly mixed at the end as it seems like he’s overcome his issues, only to trip over them fairly quickly at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron. So you could say that Iron Man 3 is either a great film for developing his character, and pushing him into this more realistic, and paranoid state of thinking, ultimately putting him at odds against his fellow Avengers in his strange attempts to protect the world, or it’s just a film of missed opportunities, which results in a confused conclusion because clearly Tony hasn’t fucking learnt anything.