More Human than Human: Iron Man 3

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“Is that all you’ve got? Just a cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner?”

“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography.”

It’s worth pointing out that Iron Man 3 – and indeed, the whole of the MCU – does not take place in the real world. According to the people at Marvel, events take place on Earth-199999, which has many of the same features as our reality, but has diverged in a number of fundamental ways. Like, Asgardians and so forth. This being the case, when the President of the United States is being threatened, I don’t have to see the head of a complicated and often flawed world power, I can just see the Good Guy, being threatened by the Bad Guy. It… simplifies things for me.

Anyway, normally I don’t have to think about politics in the course of reviewing super-hero movies. Then again, normally we’re fighting aliens or Nazis, or that big giant robot in Thor. Iron Man 3 brings us back to the theater of the sort-of real; our adversaries are mortal, more-or-less,  and the stakes are more down-to-earth. Aren’t they? I’m actually not sure what was at stake, to be honest. Certainly there were nefarious deeds perpetrated by the villainous villain, and yeah, I can see why he’d have to be stopped. But I never understood what Aldrich Killian’s actual plan was, or what he actually wanted.

We meet both him and our protagonist in flashback as the movie opens in Bern, Switzerland. It’s New Years Eve 1999 and Tony is wasted at some kind of conference? I think? He’s with Maya Hansen played by Rebecca Hall and they’re flirting and sciencing and hey, neat! It’s a cameo from Dr. Yinsen, also known as The Guy Who Saved Tony’s Life In A Cave in Iron Man.

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It’s a nice continuity nod, even if I’m still a little confused why they’re having a scientific conference on New Year’s Eve. But it doesn’t matter because they are, and Aldrich Killian is there, played by Guy Peirce who looks… horrible. Just sweaty and disheveled, and maybe a little disabled. Bit of a palsy going on there. Is it that okay to point out? It doesn’t feel okay. I need to shut up about this now.

Anyway, he’s clearly looking to have a serious talk with Tony about some serious science, but equally clearly, doesn’t know Tony Stark as well as we do by this point. We just get out of the way when he gets like this, Aldrich. So Tony snubs him, cruelly, because at this point Tony is super-jackass Tony, instead of just the regular jackass he’ll become after the Cave. And this is at least one solid motivation we’re given for Killian’s actions: revenge. He’s a jilted scientist lover. Much like Maya Hansen is about to be, actually, and thus it’s very appropriate that they team up under Killian’s A.I.M. (short for Advanced Idea Mechanics, a go-to Science Adversary in the comics).

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But team up to do what, exactly? Extremis is the name of their project, which on the one hand can regrow the limbs of amputees, and on the other turns them into fire-breathing monsters.

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Or, unwilling bombs, as it so happens. So Killian is trying to perfect Extremis, but he’s also trying to cover up the explosions that are the side-effect of an imperfect Extremis. To this end he has a think tank dream up the ultimate terrorist to take the blame: the Mandarin (portrayed by Trevor Slattery who is portrayed by Ben Kingsley. Spoiler alert.)

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So far this is relatively straight-forward, even though I’m not really sure what the end game is. Is it to perfect Extremis and sell it? To who? How does killing the President of the United States help that, besides the fact that you’ve bought off the Vice President with the promise to regrow his daughter’s amputated leg?

In the scene where he… sort of explains his master plan, Killian says this:

“This time tomorrow I’ll have the West’s most powerful leader in one hand, and the world’s most feared terrorist in the other. I’ll own the war on terror. Create supply and demand.”

So I guess the takeaway is that Killian’s just an insane, power-mad maniac, and I should stop overthinking it and move on to other things.

Like talking about Iron Man 3, a movie I just saw, and the seventh movie in the greater MCU. It acts as both an Iron Man sequel and an Avengers sequel, picking up with Tony basically being a hot mess after his brush with death in the Battle of New York.

It’s a brilliant turn for the character, as is his coping mechanism, which is to build dozens and dozens of Iron Man suits. Seriously. In Iron Man we have Mark’s 1-3, Iron Man 2  gives us 4-6, and Mark 7 is the suit we see in the Avengers; the one that attaches to him as he plummets to the ground after being window-tossed by Loki. And then we open Iron Man 3 with Mark 42.

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Oh, hai Mark.

The point is, Tony doesn’t feel safe anymore; and the only thing he knows to do is making his anxiety worse, leading to not just a crisis of confidence, but of identity. From a dramatic standpoint, it’s great, and as usual Robert Downey Jr doesn’t let us down.

Speaking of not letting us down, it’s worth noting that Iron Man 3 has a different director than the previous two; with Shane Black taking over for Jon Favereau. And as much as I enjoyed both Iron Man 1 & 2, and the way they kickstarted an entire cinematic universe, I’ve gotta say, Shane Black is kinda better.

I never know for sure in these things where the writer ends and the director begins, and what-all is being mandated by the studio, etc, but I noticed the difference in the first big action set piece. Also known as the One where Tony’s house gets exploded.

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Now, gripping action and the destruction of iconic imagery aside, this is a glorious-looking scene, lit by the setting sun so that everything has this rosy, golden glow. As it gets blown up. And I did mention the destruction of iconic imagery, right? Because while maybe not on par with the Starship Enterprise crashing, we do see Tony’s cliffside Malibu home plunge into the ocean, and with it, I’m afraid to say, the scrappy little arm robot that we’ve come to know and love over the course of three films.

I have a feeling I’ll be saying this more and more as we proceed, but this is the genius of this franchise, or brand, or universe, or whatever. But these things resonate; they do. And it’s because we have time, over multiple films, to grow attached to even the peripherals. Scrappy little arm robot (who’s actual name is Dummy but I’m uncomfortable using it), I cared about him, and was sad when I saw him go.

All of this sets up the genius premise of the film’s second act: take everything Tony uses to define himself – the suits, the house, his relationship with Pepper, even Jarvis – strip him of them and strand him in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think you could come up with a more perfect visual metaphor for Tony Stark than him literally dragging the suit behind him like the stone of Sisyphus:

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This brings us to possibly the biggest risk of the movie – the one I winced at when I first heard about it – the Kid. Oh my god, you’re kidding me, they’re gonna saddle Iron Man with some cutesy kid sidekick? There were so many ways this could have gone wrong and absolutely none of it does, and although their relationship is heartwarming, there’s nothing forced or unnatural about it. It doesn’t hurt that Tony Stark is a casual jerk to him like he is with pretty well everybody.

Speaking of people who are people, Pepper Potts and Maya Hansen share a scene:

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It’s a little over a minute long, and we learn that Maya started out idealistic and has since compromised herself by working with Killian, and it’s fine, it’s a good scene, but something was legitimately bugging me as it went on, and on, and on, and still a man failed to show up. What, were they just gonna have them talk about their periods for the rest of the movie? But then Killian does show up and kills the room service guy, who was also a guy, so it’s fine.

Seriously Marvel, what the hell? I’m almost certain this is the first time I’ve seen two women share a scene in the absence of men, and it just blows my mind; partially because I’m almost certain it’s true, and partially because I didn’t even realize it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad about Nick Fury and Heimdall, but we have a ways to go as far as representation goes.

Wait a minute, do Darcy and Jane Foster pass the Bechdel in Thor? I don’t think so, but since I honestly can’t remember I’ll give this whole thing some serious side-eye and move on. Or wrap it up. Or something.

Iron Man 3 is a fantastic movie, and I award it 700 conversations between two women in the absence of any men whatsoever out of 750. While dealing with such themes as PTSD and anxiety, terrorism and the media, consequence and revenge, it still manages to be probably the funniest MCU movie to date – unless we’re counting the Avengers, which yeah, of course we are, so… close second. Still, very funny.

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The returning support cast are spot-on as usual;  Rhodey is an absolute badass in this, and Pepper – jacked up on Extremis – saves the day in the end. Both are used very well, and as the best friend and girlfriend respectively, they bring out the best in Tony Stark.

Guy Pearce as Killian is slimy and maniacal, Ben Kingsly is terrifying as the Mandarin (until the hilarious reveal), and Maya Hansen is a woman in a comic book movie – which is to say that she doesn’t have a lot to do, but Rebecca Hall still manages to add depth and presence to what could have easily been a stock character. She also gets this BAMF line:

“That figures. What I actually am is a biological DNA re-coder running a team of 40 out of a privately-funded think tank. But sure, you can call me a botanist.”

But the star of Iron Man 3 remains… the star of Iron Man. With each performance, Robert Downey Jr adds a little more to the character, and his journey in this film is powerful as he comes to terms with who he is: a hero. The magic of his performance is that he makes me want to be Tony Stark, that despite the lack of money, charisma, looks, wit, that I could be Tony Stark. I’ll literally find myself speaking faster after one of these things, in short clipped sentences, unconsciously emulating the mannerisms. What’s more is that when I do catch myself, I don’t stop, but rather let it run it’s course.

Because who wouldn’t want a bit of that awesome, for as long as they could have it?


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