Heart of ‘Iron’

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know oneself.”
– Benjamin Franklin, 1750 Edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack

Iron Man 3 poster

It’s tough to admit one’s limitations. Whether to result of age, injury, or any number of unaccounted-for variables, even the most resourceful of us will inevitably come across an obstacle we cannot overcome. An athlete will eventually no longer be able to perform at their prime, a cook may one day lose his/her sense of taste, even a great scientific mind might be susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. Whatever the cause, it’s only a matter of time before what was once so simple can only be achieved with the greatest of difficulty, if at all.

How we respond to this inevitable decline says a lot about our character. If we accept the inevitable, we are afforded a certain level of dignity, but will possibly be haunted by the idea that we have admitted defeat. If we attempt to conduct ourselves as if we were still in our prime, we may find that we aren’t as far gone as suspected, but we risk doing a great amount of damage from which we might not recover.

With mere mortals asking these questions every day, one can only wonder how these questions would manifest in the hyper-realities of superheroes. Superheroes are intentionally exaggerated; they represent blatantly unrealistic fantasies of in order to help us deal with our shortcomings: “if only I could fly,” “if only I could move at lightning-fast speed,” “if only I had enough money to dress up like a rodent and strike fear into my enemies.” As such, their problems will manifest in ways that are equally exaggerated; a super-powered being having a meltdown doesn’t just pose a danger to friends and family, it could pose a danger to the entire world.

There have been some genre-defining stories about these sorts of problems in comic books: Jean Grey of the X-Men felt the dark side of near-omnipotence in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”; the-hero-past-his-prime story was famously explored in stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come; Green Arrow’s ward, Speedy, was had an addiction to heroin in the ‘70s; and even Iron Man Tony Stark had to confront his own alcoholism in the famous “Demon in a Bottle” storyline. Though superheroes are our greatest aspirations heightened to the Nth degree, it is these sorts of internal conflicts that keep them grounded and relatable.

And it is, in fact, the most recent cinematic story of Tony Stark that is the subject of today’s writing. Of all the aspects of the Iron Man story that were both abandoned and translated from the comic, the most definitive of the films has been his hubris. Since the opening frames of Robert Downey, Jr.’s first adventure in Stark’s billion-dollar shoes, a recurrent theme is that he truly believes he’s invincible – look no further than his “genius, billionaire, philanthropist” speech to Captain America in The Avengers – only to suddenly realise that he’s a mortal as the rest of us. Hell, in the first film, it’s the very catalyst for him creating the Iron Man armour.

But it’s always temporary; no matter how many kind old men die for him in caves or how many SHIELD agents have their blood splattered on trading cards, Tony Stark will only feel it for a second, then go right back to being his old cocky self all over again. And the reason for that is that he feels he has to live up to his own legend. You see, the difference between Tony Stark and that other famous billionaire-turned-crime-fighter is that the boy from Gotham buts on the playboy routine purely as an act; he knows how to fake it, but his mind is always on the business of beatin’ up baddies. Always.

Tony Stark isn’t faking it. He goes back to his vices and hubris – during heart-breaking moments, no less – for one simple reason: addiction. And although the films haven’t made him into the hardcore alcoholic from the “Demon” storyline, they have made clear that Stark’s coping mechanism is to live up to his own legendary debauchery. And when you spend more time trying to be myth more than man, it’s only natural that someone will come along to try and shatter the myth.

In the time that’s passed since his the events with The Avengers, Tony Stark hasn’t been the same. Although he’s hiding it from the world at large, he’s suffering from insomnia and panic attacks. What’s worse, his condition is beginning to put a strain on his friendships and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

None of this is helped by the appearance of a new would-be competitor Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) or an upstart terrorist organisation lead by a mysterious figure known only as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley).

With his very home being destroyed and his friends being attacked, Iron Man looks to lose everything that has ever mattered to him.

I must be the only one in the world who didn’t hate Iron Man 2. Mind you, subsequent viewings show that it’s not as solid as the first film – mainly due to director Jon Favreau’s allowance of more ad-libbing of dialogue, whereas in the first, it was mostly just Downey – but it had solid action, at least one good villain (no, not Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer), and continued Marvel Films’ establishment of their wider cinematic universe.

If anything, I feel that the Iron Man films will be scrutinised more than their contemporaries; having both started the series on such a high note and being the first of the “official” Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think Iron Man 2 fell victim to this scrutiny and is better than people give it credit. Besides, we can all take solace in the fact that Iron Man 3 is better than Part 2.

Under the direction of Shane Black (writer of the first two Lethal Weapon movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and several uncredited others), the tone of the film is reminiscent of his last collaboration with Downey, the neo-noir comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (Jon Favreau, who directed and co-starred in the first two films, continues his role as Happy Hogan and serves as this film executive producer.) Whereas Kiss Kiss had a tone inspired by the hard boiled pulp crime novels of the ‘40s, Iron Man 3 – though set in the 21st century – has more of a ‘60s spy film-vibe to it. It’s almost like a classic James Bond film with The Big Incident happening, the hero chasing after the villain in the shadows, the hero eventually getting kidnapped, the villain monologue-ing his master plan when he could just kill the hero right then and there, even Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is reminiscent of Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter.

All of this pretty much works in its favour. In addition to these classic tropes, there are such modern twists as the fact that Stark is not only Bond, but also his own Q (creating deus ex machina devices established in the first act so that they may be used at just the right moment in the third) and suffering from the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that we’d only expect in the more contemporary Bond films. There’s even a suicide bombing that serves as a plot catalyst; something more apt for a contemporary film commenting on modern terrorism.

And that’s the difference between this film and the heroes (super or otherwise) of days past: there’s no guarantee that this hero will walk away. The most relatable thing about the Iron Man films is the fact that Tony Stark can, and often will, be hurt. Although the tropes of superhero films establish that the hero will win in the end and fight another day, the Iron Man films trump even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films in putting their hero through the physical ringer. Stark will most likely win in the end, but you know he’ll bleed in doing so.

Unfortunately, in going for that classic vibe, it does pick up a few of its worst traits. The most notable is that of the Disposable Woman. English actress Rebecca Hall is effective as the intelligent Maya Hansen, but she serves the purpose of being the seductive honey pot who leads the hero to the villain and is brushed aside later on. The rest of the women are nameless, bikini-clad sexual objects. To the film’s credit, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is a break from this trope by having a solid relationship with Tony. In fact, one of the better surprises of the film was that she was actually useful during the climax of the film. Still, this film continues Iron Man film trend in which any other female character introduced (in that film it was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow of SHIELD) will be treated hostile by Pepper.

Another flaw is the fact that film will occasionally suffer from an overabundance of plot mechanics. With two (perceived) villains, two established heroes, and every character shown to have some internal strife, there are times when the film feels as if it’s trying to spin several plates in the air at once. They’re all accounted for in the end, but it was hard to keep track at times.

And, once again, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a racially sensitive casting decision: English actor Ben Kingsley as Tony Stark’s comic book archnemesis, The Mandarin. It was the question on every comic reader’s mind when the decision was announced “Why is a White guy playing Mandarin? You do know he’s Chinese, right? His frickin’ name is ‘Mandarin’!” This wouldn’t be the first time a comic book film changed the ethnicity of a well-known character, as seen with The Kingpin in Daredevil and Nick Fury in MCU thusfar (although Fury’s appearance can be attributed to Marvel’s Ultimate comics, which, in 2002, specifically redesigned the character to resemble Samuel L. Jackson). The difference is that those characters’ ethnicities were not crucial and could easily be changed without contradicting their core character traits.

"No, I'm totally Asian! You just can't tell with the glasses on."

“No, I’m totally Asian! You just can’t tell with the glasses on.”

I will not spoil the revelation made of The Mandarin in the film, but I will say that it makes sense to the degree that the Iron Man films try to stay grounded in reality. Think about it: The Mandarin is a character of blatant supernatural power and the only time Iron Man comes into contact with the supernatural is when he steps out of his own film series, namely The Avengers. Everything he goes against in his own films have some sort of scientific basis to them, even if one must suspend their disbelief for the sake of the film. As such, the revelation made of Mandarin in this film makes sense inasmuch as it tries to give a realistic explanation for his presence, rather than giving him superpowers.

But that still leaves the question: why is he a White guy? Well, if your only knowledge of Iron Man and his world is from the films, then you won’t much care when the revelation is made. For those of us who know the comics, it was inevitable that we’d be disappointed. It’s a revelation that strips the character of any sense of menace. The role could have easily been done by an Asian actor (for my money, either Ken Watanabe or Chow Yun-Fat would made for perfect casting), but would have faced the same problem, namely that he’s turned into someone who is absolutely no match for Iron Man. And when you’re introducing a character’s archnemsis, said nemesis had better be scary (see: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight and Jared Harris’ Moriarty is Downey’s other franchise, Sherlock Holmes). There was just no way to win with this Mandarin.

All said, the film is fun to watch. Its biggest strength – its ‘60s tone, complete with “groovy” closing credits – is also the source of its biggest flaws. It is neither helped nor hindered by the 3-D (which, admittedly, looked good), so it could have done well without it. The film ends on a note of uncertainty for the entire Iron Man film franchise. It’s inevitable that there will be another, but where they go from here isn’t nearly as clear as it was in previous films. But it was still fun getting there.

Grade:            B-

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