Iron Man 3 is probably the most infuriating of the Marvel Cinematic Movies to watch as a fan of the comics, a fan of the movies, and someone who is effectively a critic (albeit an amateur critic). It gives us the second* biggest enemy Tony Stark across his publication history in the Mandarin. It has a fascinating take on the effects of being a superhero and the trauma and PTSD that would absolutely be a part of it. Robert Downey Jr. is probably at his best in showing us the hot mess of a person Tony Stark has become in the movie, and it works incredibly well.
At the same time, so much of the movie just ends up not working. While I personally like a lot about the Mandarin reveal, I totally understand why it sat wrong with a lot of people. There are also a lot of parts that undermine the pacing and direction of the story that it is a bit harder to watch than the other movies we’ve watch.
Iron Man 3 also gave us some of the absolute worst licensed sets that LEGO has ever made. I know that LEGO doesn’t have full access to the movie and a lot of the production, but they get concept art, early clips, and feedback from the production. I’ve yet to see the concept art in Iron Man 3 where the Mandarin, wearing a muscle shirt, was chasing after Iron Man and War Machine in a riding lawnmower.
All of that aside, though… the biggest problem I usually have with Iron Man 3 is that so much of the action is so far over the top as to be… dull. Nearly all of the end fight is Michael Bay-levels of ridiculousness, and that takes what had been an uneven but entertaining movie and turns it into a trainwreck (or maybe a ship crash). Both of the “big” action scenes in the movie suffer from this problem; the attack on Tony’s house and the battle in the shipyard kind of look cool but get so eye-rolling if you brain gets a chance to think about it that you will have trouble to be getting back in.
I mean, think about the start of the attack on Tony’s house. It begins with a missile exploding between Tony and Pepper and it knocks them backwards by a shockwave that is powerful enough to destroy part of the house but basically just knocks the two fleshy bags of mostly water to the ground. They should have been stains, at best, but they get back up and run away.
Was it cool to see the Mark 42 armor fly around and save Pepper? Absolutely. But just about everything else in the scene was wrong. We see later that all of the armors can fly around autonomously… why weren’t they doing that to defend the house? How do those helicopters even fly with enough weapons to take on the Army get all the way inland like that without alerting what has to be every bit of security in California? The Mk 42 wasn’t ready for battle but apparently it wasn’t ready for anything as he simply stumbled around the entire house as it exploded.
Almost all of the action is filled with stuff like that. The only action scene that isn’t like that, and really works, is the one where he doesn’t have the armor on and is going full Rambo/MacGuyver and invading the Mandarin compound. There we got to see what makes Tony Stark so good at what he does, and clearly is more than just the guy inside the armor. Side note… how did he pay for all of that stuff?
The strange thing about the core of the movie, the stuff that Tony is dealing with after the Battle of New York, had all of the potential to be fascinating. Tony dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he most certainly was based on what we saw, would be a great story to go with. He is, despite protests in The Avengers, a soldier, and dealing with a lot of heavy damage that would take a toll on anyone.
That he is playing out the same patterns we see in soldiers (as well as victims of harassment and abuse… PTSD is not limited to combat and not to physical actions) and denying it, desperately trying to find any other reason behind it, could be a great thread to pull on… if they ever would have bothered. We see him suffering and suffering, and then a statement from a kid with a useful garage he ran into helped him work through it, and that was it. We get so much of it at the start, from the Jingle Bells-inspired building for multiple days without sleep to subliminal messages left in fan art, there’s so much meat on the bone they just throw away.
Sure, the end credits scene sort of played into that, but as a joke, and it should have been treated with a lot more seriousness than it ends up being handled with. In fact, the whole of the narration through the movie leads up to that. At the start of the movie in 1999, it all works, because you’re seeing old Tony causing problems for new Tony. But that is always conflicting with ways that new Tony dealing with his own problems, and the movie can’t seem to make up its mind on which thing to focus on. That being said, Happy’s Mullet and Tony being a huge jerk at least establishes something for the villain to be obsessive about with Iron Man in this.
Of course, our villains of the movie, Killian (played incredibly by Guy Pierce) and the Mandarin (played so very well by Ben Kingsley), are in a vacuum; just fantastic. A whole lot of comic book fans focus in on the Mandarin reveal in this movie as the biggest problem, but I’ve always loved it. Despite all the problems I talk about in here, that part just works for me.
The reason I think it works is that it managed to thread a very fine needle with the Mandarin, who is one of the most fascinating, and problematic, villains in Marvel history. Created in the 1960s, he was one big bucket of racist stereotypes of the period. He was a Karate master that basically fell into all of the “Fu Manchu” or “yellow peril” caricature that was part of comics for the decades around World War II and through the cold war, so it was going to be a fine line to walk. Iron Man 3 was one of the first MCU movies made specifically so it would play well overseas, in China specifically, so it was going to be a tough line for them to walk.
There was certainly a lot of noise when it was announced that Ben Kingsley, a British man of Indian descent, was playing the character, it was initially seen as “more of the same” from Hollywood – who has a very bad record with things like this, specifically. That’s what made the reveal that it was all fake, and Killian was the force behind it… both playing directly on American fears to get it done while also falling into a trap of appropriation with his own persona, was quite simply a stroke of genius. Marvel managed to sidestep the problems behind the character with how it unfolded.
Most importantly, if you are familiar with the master manipulator and work-from-the shadows character which the Mandarin finally became in the comics… it was simply a perfect move. It was exactly the kind of thing that the Mandarin would do in the comics, which is why I will always think it worked. It’s not often that a comic movie genuinely shocks me, but I still remember being blown away by Iron Man 3 and how they managed to hide that so well.
Killian, on the other hand, had so much potential that was wasted in the movie, despite a great job by the actor. He had a real menace to him, and I loved that they were bringing in another stalwart organization of the Marvel Universe in A.I.M. Unfortunately, both are effectively destroyed in this movie, beginning a fairly long streak of Marvel having to always kill the bad guys in their films.
Killian was an interesting choice… he was in the comics and was involved in making Extremis along with Maya Hansen. That being said… he was also an extremely minor character who killed himself in the issue over guilt at selling the Extremis virus. I don’t mind that Iron Man 3 made him so much more, and tied him to A.I.M., I just wish they would have done something more lasting with it.
The whole of his plan seemed to be kind of bonkers. Using the Mandarin to cover up accidents in developing the glow juice was brilliant, and using that at the same time to effect a shift in power to control the presidency was a Mandarin-worthy move. But… what we he going to do with Extremis when he figured it out?
The side effects weren’t just that people could explode, it also seemed to make people ultra-violent and kind of insane while they could melt metal and apparently breathe fire. It seems like the exploding part was only one of the issues at hand. Unlike previous Iron Man villains, I got the motivations they were setting up, but like the action, it only works if you don’t think about them for too long.
Part of the problem was the introduction of Maya Hansen into the mix, and just the confusion of it. Rebecca Hall did fine in the role, but it was the character herself that didn’t make sense. Was she trying to kidnap Pepper to get Tony’s involvement, or just trying to find sympathy for the work when the attack happened? Was she in on the whole “Master” thing, or did she believe it (in fact, did anyone in A.I.M.’s employ actually believe it or did they all know)?
She was the one behind the whole of it, but basically all she did was move some characters around and get shot in the end so we knew that Killian was the really bad guy in everything. It was a character that they just wasted, and the only real impact she had on the story is that she is the one who made the glowy goo to begin with. To her point, though, right before Killian shot her… how did he expect to move on with the project without her? He had to know Tony was never going to help, and had been working on it for over a decade at that point.
It’s the middle of the movie, when Tony ends up in Tennessee, where it drags. Adding the kid, who inexplicably has a garage full of everything that he needs thanks to his paper route (I mean, who has papers and since when do kids still deliver them), I guess? The villains happened to be there with the female Extremis soldier who moved exceptionally strange when she went full glowy, to pick up a file the exact day that Tony Stark showed up there? It was all just… convenient.
As an actor, the kid wasn’t bad, it just felt like most of the scenes around there were just wasting our time to fill in things. Yes, it’s nice that he helped Tony get through an attack, but none of it was especially memorable. The best thing about the whole section is the interaction between Tony and his biggest fan, which I have to assume is actually RDJ’s living nightmare put on film.
As bad as the pacing slow down is in the second act, it ends strong with that infiltration of the compound and bringing Tony and Rhodey back together. Their work was the best part of Iron Man 2, and the charisma between the actors is far better here than in their restaurant scene at the beginning. Sadly… that’s the last time the movie will really deliver on the promise, because it’s just going to get silly after they work to go after the President and find Killian.
I mean… the initial foray into Air Force One wasn’t bad, though the security on what is the most secure plane in the world is kind of laughable to advance the plot here (seriously, even Iron Patriot would get ID’d to get on it). The initial kidnapping and stuff isn’t bad… but I have about how the Extremis guys work because we see a guy with glowy hot hands that somehow don’t melt right through the floor go toe-to-toe with armor we’ve seen withstand far worse. What is the level where they can regenerate and where they can’t, because that seems to be super unclear.
That’s the problem with the Extremis soldiers as baddies in the movie… it’s never really defined what they can do, they’re just insane soldiers that seem to have whatever skills they need in the moment. Sometimes it’s heat that can somehow melt titanium composites, other times it’s being able to jump twenty or thirty feet into the airs, others, being immune to bullets. Basically they were just generic action monsters introduced for the final fight.
I should go listen to the commentary track to see who it was that went to an air show and decided that the thing Iron Man 3 was really missing was a ridiculous skydiving rescue number. I mean… nothing about that whole sequence makes sense, and it goes on for several minutes. How are they even conscious given the height they’d need to be at to have time to get together, how can they hear him give instructions, since when can his armor electrify someone, and how is it that being in a circle and having enough force applied to your arms to rip them off would save them?
The actual production behind the shot it a lot more interesting… it was a real skydive stunt done by the Red Bull Skydiving team (they were digitally removed and replaced with the actors and stuntmen/stuntwomen who did the slowdown on wires at the end). They actually did several jumps a day for several straight days, from 14,000 feet, to get everything they needed. The most fun aspect was that they were wearing the clothes you see in the scene over their chutes and packs. The most painful aspect was that they had to do each jump without goggles, which would be like staring into a windstorm… for a week.
I mean, on one hand, it was a fun scene, but it didn’t add anything. Iron Man killed the bad guy in the plane, and we got to see him be a hero saving everyone. We already knew he was a hero, so this was basically filler… maybe as a sly intermission opportunity, I guess. It was really just setting up a chance to get the Iron Man armor smashed so he and Rhodey had to go after Killian by themselves, which could have easily been done by saying it was out of power. After the tight and efficient editing of Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, this movie is just… wasteful… with the time and scenes it had.
Of course, for all the problems I had with the attack on his house, the fight at the end was ten times more (and worse). Most of the fight that is interesting, between Tony and Killian, relies on changing the rules of the world as we knew it. We’d seen the time it takes for Tony to put on the Iron Man armor in every instance where he’d worn it… but here, he was in and out of multiple armors in under a second.
Like I mentioned above, we saw the Extremis soldiers just making up new powers, and nearly all of the fight is between various Iron Man armors that should have been turned into a Collectable Minifigure Line and nameless bad guy grunts. There are explosions, insane moves frome people with no armor and power, and some good comedy moments between Tony and Pepper that are undone by a temporary fridging of Pepper to motivate Tony.
I actually like that she’s the one who ultimately “took care” of Killian, but there’s also the fact that so many people in this universe can seemingly kill another person without batting an eye. I mean, the Extremis seems to cause a whole ton of aggression, but in the other cases, he was recruiting soldiers and people trained to fight as grunts… where did Pepper learn any of that stuff?
Of course, the characterization of Pepper hasn’t gotten much better in this movie compared to Iron Man 2, and we get an equally inconsistent take on the character. I don’t think it’s Paltrow, who does a fine job in the part… more in how she’s presented. She’s still CEO of Stark Enterprise (I think), and she’s doing great, but also she sees the trauma and pain in Tony and mostly ignores or dismisses it. Much like Maya, once it’s time to just move people for the final fight, she’s moved aside and we barely see her until it’s time for the final fight.
This is the last time she’s going to have much past a minor supporting role in the MCU (she appears at the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming and at the start of Infinity War, but that’s it), and I wish she would have had a better showing. While Gwenyth Paltrow may bug me all sorts of ways with her woo nonsense, the character of Pepper Potts was great and she did bring a lot to the role. There was a lot of promise on places it could go (Rescuse, for example), and it didn’t really happen.
This movie was a real step back from the upward swing that we’d gotten with the past two. It’s not… terrible, per se, but it has more problems than the other Iron Man films. It’s just strange that they are different problems than we got in the last sequel. More than that, though, it really doesn’t do much to set up anything in the future. By the time that Age of Ultron comes around, Tony is back in New York and building. The only thing really looking forward here is in the end credits scene… that Bruce Banner is working with Tony Stark.
Other than that, none of the villains or characters have any influence in the future of the MCU. Much like the Incredible Hulk, you can cut this movie out of a marathon and not miss a lot… though it’s a better overall movie with a lot more going for it, so you’d be missing some fun stuff (just not that much fun action). For that reason, I’m going to call it a three out of five, basically average. It hurts in some ways, succeeds in others, and basically cancels out into the middle. Luckily, the next movie is a Thor movie, a film they had so much confidence in that they didn’t even set it up with a stinger scene. It can’t possibly be worse can it.
I mean… can it?
*The biggest enemy Tony Stark, in the comics or the movies, will always be Tony Stark.
Bonus Review: Agent Carter
For all the inconsistently of Iron Man 3, it’s Bluray/DVD release did give us the best One Shot that Marvel ever made in Agent Carter. It’s also the first ones that is part of the bonus features on streaming services if you buy the movie (the other three you have to crack out the discs to see). It’s a revisit of the best female character they’d had in the universe thus far, and was a setup to her woefully underrated TV show (come on, Disney+, bring back Agent Carter for season 3).
After stabbing us directly in the feels with a replay of the most emotional scene in the MCU, we get a fascinating blend of Carter dealing with the realities and sexist nature of 1940s/1950s America, which was a very real thing in the post-war era (one that didn’t go away, it just changed) as men were coming home from battle and women pushed out of roles they’d filled. Seeing what we knew was a complete badass character reduced to clerical work kind of hurt, and you were just waiting for her to prove herself.
Luckily, through her boss being horrible, she gets just that, and what follows is far better action than we got in the movie. It’s a mixture of her being awesome and smart at the same time, more or less effortlessly disarming a gang to get a deadly weapon back. We get to see her be smart, get an insane grouping shot, and show the kind of planning that would make for a great TV show that, seriously, we all want back Disney.
Since there are going to be a lot of these reviews, and it’s nice to see how all of the movies stack up against one another, we’re going to add a little summary section for the Marvel Cinematic movies. When we’re all done, I’ll have an article that goes over my rankings of all the movies (which won’t necessarily reflect the overall quality of the movie in stars, etc, more of how it ranks within the total collection).
- Iron Man (2008) – 5 out of 5
- The Incredible Hulk (2008) – 2 out of 5
- Iron Man 2 (2010) – 3 out of 5
- Thor (2011) – 3 out of 5
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – 4 out of 5
- The Avengers (2012) – 5 out of 5
- Iron Man 3 (2013) – 3 out of 5
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
- Guardian’s of the Galaxy (2014)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Ant-Man (2015)
- Captain America: Civil War (2016)
- Doctor Strange (2016)
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
- Black Panther (2018)
- Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
- Captain Marvel (2019)
- Avengers: Endgame (2019)