Marvel's Cine-CHAT-ic Universe: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Matt Looker,
Ali Gray,
Becky Suter,
Luke Whiston,
Ed Williamson

14th January 2019

It’s the first film of Phase 2, the last film of the Iron Man series, the seventh film of the MCU and now the latest reason for us to email each other again rather than just use WhatsApp or Snapchat or text like any other cool kids with smartphones and stuff. Oh shit, no one texts any more, do they? Gah, why am I so old?

Previous Marvel musings
The Avengers (2012)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Thor (2011)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man (2008)
Ali: Oh yeah. This is the good shit. This went straight to the top of the pile for me, and probably still is to be honest - I don't keep a mental ranking of the MCU like some people do. It's just so damn watchable. It's one of the only Marvel movies that I think is absolutely flawless. I wouldn't change a thing. Shane Black is one of those hires where it just instantly clicks, and everything makes sense from the word go. Joss Whedon gets a lot of credit for setting the template and the tone of the Marvel universe, but really I think Shane Black and Drew Pearce deserve some of the credit too.

Matt: Yes, absolutely Black and Pearce share some of the credit for the current Marvel tone. The films certainly weren't as self-aware before this one. Now, whenever the films have a moment that suddenly puts these comic-book heroes in a real-life context - Cap and Black Widow talking to an Apple Genius, or when Okoye mentions a Starbucks coming to Wakanda - I think that kind of gag can be traced back directly to this film.

Becky: This was a game changer, without doubt. This was the switch for me when I went from “liking” the Marvel movies to “bloody hell, this is actually really good” and anticipating the next one rather than passively waiting for it to arrive. It’s definitely in the God tier.

Luke: I tried to watch this film several times, and it's only when I was meant to be doing something else did I actually find myself able to get through it. It's the zingers. Too many of 'em, and even though they come from different characters, they all feel like the same voice. Is that the Shane Black effect? Didn't work for me, and I do like his films...mostly. Am I out?

Ali: Here he comes, the ghost at the feast, the fun-hater has logged on.

"Entering 'Utter Disdain' mode"

Matt: What struck me most upon rewatching this is that it seems like a massive step-up in maturity from the previous films. Obviously hiring Black to co-write and direct gives it a more character-focused approach, and that grounds the film in a huge way following the Colourful Superfriends Fight Monsters crossover that came before it, but it also just has a real personal grit to it. It's the first (only?) MCU film where the main conflict is an inner one. The film is about Tony battling his demons - his post-traumatic stress, his obsession with his suits, his reliance on his tech - and everything is tied into that. Every great character moment, every ropey villainous motive and even what has to be one of the best rug-pulls in cinema in recent years. It feels like a massive step up from what came before it.

Becky: To make it about Tony’s inner battle just fleshes out the character more: you never think about how all this saving the world actually affects the people doing it. Much in the same way that Captain America was rounded out and was less about dumb displays of masculinity, there’s a real sense of what motivates and drives Bucket Head rather than a single-minded, “I’ve got to be the good guy.”

And then it goes in ways that you totally don’t expect. I don’t want to get onto the whole Mandarin thing just yet, but... woah.

Ali: I will stand by the Mandarin twist until my dying day.

Matt: I absolutely stand by the Mandarin twist. So let's just get straight into it now, shall we? Aside from the fact that being true to the original character would be reinforcing a horrendously racist stereotype, and aside from the fact that it is just a brilliant gag-twist for any movie to have, and aside from the fact that Ben Kingsley is just so amazingly funny in those scenes - aside from ALL OF THOSE FACTS - if you still need a reason for why the twist works, and obviously I don't think you do, it actually makes for a great thematic reflection of Tony Stark's own conflict.

Tony is struggling to find his own identity away from that of his Iron Man alter-ego and when he angrily declares a war on the Mandarin out of personal revenge, it exposes his own blind prejudices about heroism because he arrogantly does it without fully understanding the threat. When he discovers that the Mandarin is just a fake character played by actor Trevor Slattery, it helps him to appreciate the difference between an ideal and reality. So, in a film that is about Tony Stark trying to reconcile man and myth, it totally makes thematic sense to have a villain who is actually just a normal guy that has been overhyped.

Ali: The Mandarin twist is the last time, and probably the only time in the last arbitrary unit of time where I have been genuinely shocked by a twist and simultaneously delighted by it. It was an absolute rug-pull and it went down an absolute storm in my screening, the entire room was gobsmacked. That just doesn't happen any more! Nobody can keep secrets! The fact that the twist is subsequently integrated properly into the story and the themes and the character motivations, as to Matt's point, is the icing on the cake.

Matt: Plus he does that really smelly shit in the bathroom and then they force the girls in there and it's really funny.

Becky: I seem to recall at the time there were concerns over including The Mandarin being a bit racially suspect - didn’t Black even deny that the character was even in the movie at all, at first? Because there was also lot of wailing and teeth gnashing that this version of The Mandarin wasn’t going to be like the one in the books because he didn’t have his magical jewellery or whatever, but here’s a perfect example of when straying away from the original source actually improves it. Quite audacious of them really to include a suspect throwback character, risk pissing off hardcore fans by admitting they've altered him and then subsequently market him as the Big Bad; I think that’s what made the ultimate reveal such a shock. Plus, Sir Ben is an absolute delight.

Luke: I kind of wish I had seen it at the cinema now purely for the reveal. Instead I watched it at home on Netflix in my boxers, and the only reveals that took anybody by surprise were most certainly unwelcome.

Becky: were....were know what. I don’t want to know

Luke: That said. I appreciate the risk they took with The Mandarin - giving audiences who perhaps didn't want a huge twist something to throw them way off balance. I just found two and a half hours of 'serious moment followed by sarcastic note' a bit too much. Thor Ragnarok suffers for it too. Can't wait to discuss that one.

Luke, emailing his opinion on Chris Hemsworth's comic timing.

Ali: What I love most about the film is its own keen sense of self-awareness. It knows it's part of a big silly ol' playground and it has loads of fun poking holes in it and pricking the pomposity of superhero movies in general. There's that great moment where Guy Pearce breathes fire and your first reaction is 'Whoaaaah hold on a second' but then all the other characters react in exactly the same way, and you know then the movie is on your side. The line from the henchman ("I hate working here, they are so weird") is absolutely pitch perfect and 100% a Shane Black grace note.

Matt: One of my favourite things about this film and subsequent Marvel movies is the work and effort that must go into creating throwaway moments. I like it when Stark is strapped to the upturned bed and, when he uses his hand blaster, it sends him reeling backwards, and then when he gets a boot on he spins around erratically for a second. Plus, one of my favourite MCU gags of all time is the sweeping build-up of the Mark 42 suit saving the day - "The prodigal son returns" - only for it to hit a pole and smash to pieces. Such a stupid, expensive gag to have in the middle of a climactic showdown.

Ali: They do that gag twice, actually - when a remote-controlled suit rescues all the passengers of Air Force One, then gets hit by a truck on the highway. I guess it's a different sort of reveal because you assume he's in it the whole time, but it's still the same basic punchline.

Matt: While we're on the subject, and I know I'm banging the 'THEMES' drum a lot in these discussions, but I love the fact that the technology at the centre of this film directly relates to Stark's conflict too. While he's trying to use his tech to become Iron Man in new and innovative ways, Maya's/Killian's work literally fuses the person and the weaponry together... with terrible consequences. That's just a sweet, sweet juxtaposition.

Becky: Yeahhhhh, I don’t really buy the super soldiers. All they seem to do is make Tony’s suit get hot. He’s got like, loads of weapons, why can’t he blast them from a distance?

Ali: He does! Repeatedly! And anyway, for the most part he doesn't have his suit. It's easy to slip into Top Trump style analysis after the fact - "Iron Man clearly should have won this battle due to the fact he has the superior range weapons *SNORT* so the very hypothesis is flawed" - but none of it matters in the moment. It's all so slick and funny and exciting while you're watching it.

Matt: Yeah, I think the film does a pretty good job of explaining that Iron Man's weapons don't work on Killian or the super-soldiers. Stark spends that whole last act working his way through all of his suits and none of them do the trick. The thing that works in the end is not wearing the Iron Man suit, but transferring it on to Killian instead and then blowing it up (again THEMES).

Luke: Stop analysing the cape films. They are just pixels. I don't have daddy issues, or a dream where my own father is consumed by metal. It never happened. When are we going to talk about the many instances of Tony Stark befriending young boys?

I think I've devalued these films - fairly, to a point, because they did suffer from the infamous Marvel Third Act Syndrome for a while until they started letting things go off the wall a bit. Seeing such a different reaction to Iron Man 3 intrigued me. Matt has nailed everything really: Tony's struggles mirrored back at him in various ways to help him grow up.

Tony's other option is to float the possibility of a three-way.

Ali: The absolute best bits of Iron Man 3 are the scenes where Tony Stark has to perform in the absence of Iron Man - I love all the sneaking and systematic takedowns of the henchmen using only the palm repulsor and single jet, and Tony and Rhodey doing Lethal Weapon during the finale creases me up every time. Little micro jokes in among all the macro stuff.

Matt: Ali is right, the joy of this film is seeing Tony being resourceful and reactive: the dog tags in the microwave, his detective work in tracking the origin of the explosions. It's just great seeing Stark The Engineer being the hero, not to mention it means that we get a whole film starring Robert Downey Jr's face, rather than half RDJ and half CGI.

Ali: Can you imagine if DC dared make a movie where Bruce Wayne was out of his bat-suit for most of the movie? For what it's worth I think that'd actually be great.

Matt: They actually touch on that for a microsecond in Batman vs Superman, where Jeremy Irons' Alfred says something like "Batman interrogated 6 people and got nothing, but Bruce Wayne managed to get that information" and it brings up this idea that maybe Bruce Wayne can be just as effective as Batman just by using his wealth, resources and detective skills. What an interesting theme to explore! But then it never comes up again.

Becky: So he really was a superhero all along - he just had to look inside himself...

Matt: The real Dawn Of Justice was the one he made along the way (joke format, trademark Ali)

Becky: Can we talk about what doesn’t work? Because as good as the Mandarin twist is, it still doesn’t quite make up for the fact Killian (nice name, guys) is just a carbon copy of the dudes from the other Iron Man movies.

Ali: I quite like Aldrich Killian cast as a kind of alternate universe Tony Stark - he has the same smarts, style and charm, but he chooses to use his gifts for services to douchebaggery rather than the greater good. The problem is, even though the Mandarin twist was well hidden, you never quite bought that a guy called 'Killian' was going to be introduced as a throwaway gag character. He's not the best villain in the MCU by a long stretch, but I think that twist goes a long way towards forgiving it.

Matt: For me, there are two massive problems with the film, and they stem from the same issue: Killian and Maya Hansen. Killian isn't fleshed out enough - you're right, Becs, he's just an angry evil scientist trying to... take over the world?... with his... faulty biological soldiers? Whereas Maya is written out far too easily following a sudden change of heart that makes no sense.

It's on record now that Maya was supposed to be the baddie of the film but execs had it changed because they thought that female character toys wouldn't sell, which is probably the most damning thing to come out of Marvel Studios since these films began. I remember having an issue with Maya's character being underused at the time of release and being a bit blah on Killian, but couldn't put my finger too much on why. In hindsight - knowing that's the decision that was made - it puts these problems into context, doesn't it? Think how much more sense it makes for Killian to not be in the film at all and for Stark to discover that - twist - Maya is behind the Mandarin all along. She then becomes a villain with a much more significant personal history with Stark and acts as a better parallel character to him: a scientist who has developed world-changing technology but ends up being corrupted by it. As it stands, I still don't quite get Killian and Maya's relationship in the film, because I don't really feel like it has been thought through.

Ali: I think the only bit that doesn't really work is when Tony gives The Mandarin his address and dares him to come to his house for a fight, then he turns up in a helicopter about an hour later and blows him to shit with a rocket launcher. I mean, technically you asked him to do exactly that, what did you expect? He's not going to ring your doorbell. You're not going to have a fist-fight on your lawn. He's a terrorist: they generally don't arrange a time and a place to commit their atrocities, the uncivilised swines. Also, surely, SURELY, it would not be a secret where Tony Stark/Iron Man lives. If literally any villain had wanted to find him, it would have been easy to do so. In the first movie, he literally invites all the press to his house for the press conference!

I found you... on Google Maps.

Matt: Can we just give mention to Ty Simpkins? He's a great find among all of this film's other great points, and his trade-offs with Stark are so great. I love that Shane Black basically uses this whole relationship to subvert father figure cliches by having Stark act just as childishly as the kid - the "no need to be a pussy about it" line is brilliant.

Ali: I would like to take this moment to point out how amazing My Very Good Friend Jon Favreau is throughout all these movies. I think Iron Man 3 is his best work, and I particularly enjoy his Vincent Vega haircut in the 90s flashback. The way he exacts petty revenge on the plant at the beginning cracks me up.

Becky: Should Pepper have died, just to spice things up a bit?

Ed: I don't know, she's really been through the mill already.

Matt: I don't know if anyone else feels this, but with each MCU sequel that comes out, I keep expecting them to escalate the drama, or 'make it personal', or even just let some players out of their contracts, and so quite often I find myself convinced that some of the supporting characters are going to die. I thought that with Pepper for this film, and, for example, at some points I thought Michael Douglas was going to kick it in Ant-Man & The Wasp. I think the films really know their audience and play on these expectations, walking that line really well.

Basically, I feel genuinely invested every time someone's in peril, much more so than usual for this type of film where you would usually expect that all the main characters will obviously just survive to fight another day.

Luke: I have lost count of the number of articles with every ensemble film speculating which of the heroes will bite it, which haven't had their contracts renewed or don't have the requisite gaps in their filming schedules. It's quite admirable of the actors to honour the MCU. Look at what's just happened with Kirk and Bones walking from Star Trek - what a fuck up. How much of it is bluster to get people in positions is down to the people involved and it’s none of our business how many extra millions Chris Pine needs, but they're not doing Star Trek as a franchise any favours. Can we talk about Star Trek instead?

Ali: Hey everyone, did you get a load of the nerd?

Becky: Stop bagging on our fun, narc

Luke: Oh ok. Does Iron Man poo and wee in the suit?

Aaaand that’s a wrap, right there. Come back again next... fortnight? To read us discussing how Marvel Studios takes the bold choices and refined craft from this film forward into... (*checks notes*)... Thor: The Dark World.

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