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MCU Countdown #7: ‘Iron Man 3’

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We get the theme in the first few frames: “We create our own demons.” Iron Man 3 starts with aspirations for the profound, but is self-conscious about it. Our narrator, Tony Stark, digresses, begins to ramble, asks to start over. His imperfections are on full display. Tony talks to us like a trusted confidant–say, a therapist or a close friend.

We see the Tony we met in the first few minutes of Iron Man. Not only is he a jerk but he’s cruel to those around him. He’s metaphorically kicking puppies left and right. Stark blows off not one, but two scientists at a 1999/2000 New Years party in Switzerland: the scientist who would later save his life in a cave in Afghanistan, and Aldrich Killian, the man who would later try to take everything away from him.

“I’m a changed man!” We hear tony exclaim, both at the beginning and the end of this movie. Is he? Yes, and no, in both cases.

In the present, he’s still kicking puppies. Sure, they’re robots at first. But then he kicks the people closest to him, albeit passive-aggressively. He kicks Happy by ignoring the fact that the man needs a purpose in life now that technology has made him redundant. Tony’s birthday gift to Pepper is an enormous stuffed bunny (an animal strongly associated with reproductive activity), which she isn’t remotely impressed by. Not only did he pick badly, he’s hurt when she isn’t thrilled. He sends “the suit” to do the supportive boyfriend routine when she gets home from work so he can stay in his man cave working obsessively. Oh, they’ve made up and she’s offering him sex now? He’s in. All his relationships have reverted to the kind of transactional quid pro quos of his party days.

The Marvel bug of undermining sincerity with comedy is a feature here, especially when it underscores Stark being a sincere jerk.

Tony is an jerk. But Tony is also in pain. The trauma of nearly dying at the hands of the Chitauri in the Battle of Manhattan has taken a toll and he’s a “piping hot mess”. Tony is a playboy-come-soldier, but he never went to basic training. And he has no band of brothers to lean on, mostly because he’s pushed them away. Even Rhodes calls him a dick (“-tater”, he adds when some kids come around. But that’s an interesting joke. Tony is a bit of a tyrant, mostly to himself.) He’s keeping busy building way more Iron Man suits than he needs. And why wouldn’t he? Becoming Iron Man is what helped him pull himself together before. Why wouldn’t it work again? He uses his suits the way some of us use our phones–a way to feel more in control of the world while keeping dangerous humans at bay.

Enter The Mandarin, a snarling terrorist in robes and a top-knot taking credit for suicide bombings around the country, and invading every broadcast channel with threatening lectures on the themes of American atrocities and the hollow nature of American culture. When one of the apparent suicide bombings puts Happy Hogan in the hospital, Tony rashly calls him out. Tony’s allowed to pick on his loved ones, but God help any terrorist who threatens them. As a result, Tony’s house is attacked and destroyed by The Mandarin’s men. Tony narrowly escapes to the underworld Tennessee, the first stop in an investigation into the bombings.

Tony’s pain deepens, but Tony is about to learn. Pain is a teacher.

Stark tracks The Mandarin to his lair, where, suit-less, he storms the place using only his brains and a few bucks in supplies from Ace Hardware. When his suit is recharged and working, he goes on to save the President and several civilians in a mid-air rescue–one of the most exhilarating, memorable action scenes in the super hero genre.

In the final confrontation, the Mandarin is unmasked and Pepper’s life is at stake. Tony is Saint George here. The Mandarin is the dragon of Tony’s making. Pepper is the golden virgin he has to save from him. But then the golden virgin gets in on the act. Together, the fair maiden and knight in shining armor slay the dragon. The masculine and feminine integrate and defeat chaos.

In the end, Tony accepts that there will never be a happily ever after with him. It’s thinking that there is such a thing, and that you deserve such a thing–that’s the problem. Stop expecting it. The suit is a cocoon. Tony is always growing and changing. Change is hard and messy. The end of one story is just a prologue to the next.

These morals are well taken here, but imperfectly executed. Stark’s made all these cool Iron Man suits, all because he was insecure and felt he couldn’t live without them–an idea that’s clearly mistaken. And then the suits save him anyway. So Tony was … right to build them? Here, Marvel backs away from profundity in favor of a boffo climax. This is redeemed somewhat at the end when Tony destroys his suits. Realizing the suits were like a magic feather he can fly without, he lets them go.

This was supposed to be the Marvel Christmas movie. The script was even loosely structured around Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This was a misstep. For me, there were just enough parallels with Dickens’ classic to be distracting, and not enough for it to be satisfying. Nobody was asking for a Marvel Christmas movie, and we didn’t really get one anyway. Not only was it not released at Christmas, it feels about as Christmas-y as a July day in Malibu.

The villain is also a misstep. What is he? A victim-turned-bully taking his revenge on the world? A would-be billionaire mastermind who started out just wanting to help vets regrow their limbs? His motivations are unfocused and confusing. He’s little more than a dark mirror image of what Stark is and used to be. Killian does nothing here to break Marvel’s streak of lackluster villains, but at least he’s not just another guy with a purple face. Guy Pierce’s performance is solid even if his dialog isn’t, and he reliably plays a compelling bad guy.

I have to admire what Iron Man 3 aspires to, even if it goes at it imperfectly. Marvel movies sometimes aspire to sincerity and meaning, but get shy when they stray too close to the deep end. Tony really is his own worst enemy, and taking responsibility for creating monsters is what slays them. Marvel’s most arrogant character has to find humility–not the kind of posture one usually finds a super hero in, but maybe it would be good if we saw that kind of story in this genre more often.

Are we changed by our pain? Do we transcend what we were before our trials, or do we just keep making the same kinds of mistakes? Yes and no, in both cases.

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