This past Thursday evening we saw the long-awaited launch of Marvel Studio’s Phase II with the release of Iron Man 3. Phase II will include sequels to Captain America and Thor, along with the launch of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers 2 in the Summer of 2015. The plan is to keep right on going later in 2015 with Ant-Man. Who else will join the magical mystery tour that is the Marvel Movieverse? Who knows, but we’ll likely hear something later this summer at Comic-Con. However, returning to the movie we’ve got.
Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the cataclysmic events of the Avengers with our hero Tony Stark (played for the last time on his current contract by the brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (aka PTSD, which the movie does a rather accurate job of portraying early. But that’s another post). It turns out that fighting alongside monsters, Gods, and men out of time against an army of aliens which only ends after you nearly die while traveling through a dimensional portal to personally hurl a nuclear weapon at an alien mother ship resulting in the deaths of thousands of lives can really take its toll on a guy. I found this acknowledgment of the effects of battle to be quite refreshing. It was nice to see a movie hero take the time to actually acknowledge the impact these events have had, before moving on to punch the next baddie.
Tony soon finds himself facing people from his past, and a new MacGuffin called “Extremis” which has the capacity to rewrite a person’s genetic code to give them superpowers. It does have the tiny potential side effect of turning some of its subjects into time-bombs. It’s while investigating these explosions that our hero finds himself coming up against the new villain of the film, the Mandarin played by Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley.
It is with its handling of the Mandarin where we see Marvel take one of the larger swerves away from standard comic lore that we’ve so far seen in the recent movies. Originally created in the 1960s as a reaction to Communist China, the Mandarin has long been a recurring villain of Iron Man. His involvement in the Iron Man movies has been hinted since the first film which referenced the “Ten Rings” which the Mandarin created from alien technology that give him superpowers. With the upcoming expansion of Marvel movies into space and the Infinity Gauntlet which was spied at Comic-Con a few years back, this seemed to be a perfect way to transition into the involvement of more alien aspects of their movie universe. Up to now, Marvel has held quite close to the comic universe adapting the characters quite faithfully. However, the Mandarin represents a giant change in that policy. (SPOILERS BELOW)
When Stark finds the secret lair of the Mandarin he discovers that this potentially supernatural cross between Bin Laden/Chairman Mao/and a man possessing Gibson level hacking ability is, in fact, an actor hired to pretend to be a terrorist mastermind. It is revealed that the films true villain is the slimy corporate raider of Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce (who let me just say I’m really happy to see him back working). While I am typically a stickler for continuity and keeping close to the source material, I loved this change. I felt it gave a new dimension to the character who has always seemed to be a bit of a racist stereotype in the comic book world. In Iron Man 3 we see that our greatest threat is not some outside force, but instead those within our society who would use our own fears against us for the perpetuation of their own needs.
As I’ve prepared to write this article I’ve read numerous reviews which all seem to have a different interpretation of this character change. I’ve come to think of it as sort of a “Cinematic Rorschach” where what you see tells a lot about you as a person. Some have seen the villainization of the modern American businessman as a continuation of liberal Hollywood’s attack on Wall Street. Some have thought it to be a reflection of Tony’s changing Libertarian ideas into a “grown-up” way of viewing the world. Some feel the series is now “Ruined“. While others have viewed the change as a callous attempt by Hollywood to kowtow to their Chinese backers would likely be less than thrilled to see an essentially Charlie Chan level stereotype mocking the people who bankrolled the film and put hundreds of millions into the box office before it even opened stateside.
I for one found it an overall enjoyable movie. I don’t think it was as centered as Captain America, nor do I think the action was on par with the Avengers (IM3’s climactic battle takes place at night obscuring your view of many of his new Iron Men). The newly renamed Iron Patriot (cause War Machine didn’t test well with focus groups) gets some solid action and feels less of a bridesmaid and more of an active participant. Even much-maligned Gweneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots gets her solid “you go girl” moment. The change in director brought a noticeable change to the feel of the movie, which isn’t a bad thing at all and gives it a later 80’s buddy cop feel.
Some will probably be unhappy with the lack of Phase II tie-ins or winking nods to what comes next. This is probably the result of this movie being filmed around the same time Avengers was being released, which would minimize the amount of Phase II planning which had even been done by the time production began. I think perhaps that the greatest lesson if IM3 is that the Marvel heroes can work both as a team and as stand-alone characters. I am quite excited for what the future holds for the Marvel movies, and judging by the movies $174.1 million haul at the US box office (plus an additional worldwide gross of over $500 million outside the US) I was not alone.