With the mega-blockbuster The Avengers unleashed last summer and the various heroes from Marvel’s cinematic universe finally brought together in one film, the only question that remained was: where do they go from here? Enter Marvel Phase Two, which began in earnest with the opening of Iron Man 3 (to be followed by a sequel to Thor and Captain America, as well as a Guardians of the Galaxy movie). If this is what Marvel has in store for fans in the post-Avengers world, they can keep it. This is a disaster. It was almost an irredeemable mess, but it has some really good strengths. In the end, it is fans and the movie-going public who should feel cheated by the conclusion to Tony Stark’s epic trilogy- a great first entry followed by a bland sequel, and now a third entry that had no idea what it wanted to be. Warning: MASSIVE spoilers to follow. If you do not want the film’s plot spoiled for you, DO NOT read ahead!!!
Iron Man and his alter-ego, billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) are back in a big way after the events of The Avengers, and it’s clear Stark feels a little out of place in a world with gods, alien invasions, and Hulks. Captain America’s line to Stark in the film: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?” resonates in Iron Man 3 as Stark seems haunted by his alter-ego and whether or not it defines him. The film sets out to answer this question; it is far more about Tony Stark than it is about Iron Man, so anyone who went into the film expecting the opposite left disappointed. Stark’s character arc concludes magnificently in the film, and if this were the only merit on which it were to be judged, it’d be five stars out of five. Sadly, the film that surrounds this wonderful piece of cinema is drowned out by a colossal red herring, throw-away characters, and wasted opportunities. Special mention should also go to Downey Jr, because his portrayal of Stark in this film is his best yet, and even though there are whispers he is finished with the character, here’s to hoping they can lure him back.
The red herring is a fantastic plot device if used correctly, totally blindsiding the audience with a great twist that changes everything in seconds. When used as it is used in Iron Man 3, it takes the place of a compelling or interesting story and of good (or marketable) characters. One of the biggest gripes about the Iron Man trilogy to date has been its rather bland villains, especially when compared to the likes of Thor or Cap, whose respective villains (Loki and Red Skull) were excellent. Iron Man 3 decided to resolve this problem by doing absolutely nothing to resolve it, by making a hamming-it-up Guy Pearce as the villain we know next to nothing about, and then by pretending- through trailers, marketing, and the film’s plot itself- that the main villain was Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. Well into its second hour, the film reveals that The Mandarin is little more than a sideshow- a demon, for the public to focus its hate on- and Killian proudly announces at the end of it all that “I am the Mandarin!!!” No, Aldrich, you’re not, and the film could’ve been a lot better had it actually spent time developing your character instead of making you a sniveling crybaby ‘cuz Tony didn’t come up to the roof to meet you.
The entire contrivance is just flat-out bad writing. They either A.) couldn’t figure out how to write a serviceable villain in The Mandarin, or B.) wanted Killian from the get-go, but knew he was another bland, unmarketable villain, so they came up with a better idea to sell more tickets. The Mandarin- especially with an actor the likes of Kingsley behind him- would be an instant sell. As Iron Man’s most-recognizable villain he’d make for great merchandising and was easily promotable as the film’s main villain. The real reveal here is the fact that they wrote another terrible, empty suit of a villain who poses no real threat to Stark, and who is about as menacing as a sunburn. The reveal is poorly-timed and adds nothing to the story- Stark’s point about “creating our own demons” is evident in Killian. It grinds the entire film to a halt to explain the reveal, once from actor portraying him, and then again by Killian. The film does such a bad job of planting this seed that he has to shout it again at the end to make sure the audience gets the twist. Sure, Pearce is having fun with the role, and it’s hard to blame him for what the script gave him to work with, but this entire debacle was nightmarish. After the dismal Iron Man 2, fans deserved better than this, but we got more of the same- sure, Downey Jr. is great as always, but the rest is basically a waste of time. One could argue that the writers were in fact developing Killian the entire time, but they weren’t- his Mandarin was a theater act. He had no ideology or reasoning, he simply hated Stark and wanted money.
Essentially, they had Stark’s character arc written and they had nothing else to write it to. They wanted Tony to prove he’s a hero without his armor on, and he truly was. They just threw ideas against the wall and let whatever stick, stick, and slapped it into the movie and pretended it was a plot. The audience learns nothing about Killian or his chief lackey, played by James Badge Dale. Rhodey (Don Cheadle) returns as the Iron Patriot, but the film doesn’t give him much to do outside of standing around in a big red, white, and blue suit the whole time. The Mandarin turns from menacing super-terrorist to a drunk Ben Kingsley as comic relief, every moment of which just felt like a slap in the face and- again- ground the film to an absolute halt. Speaking of comic relief, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) got way too much screen time. Obsession with security badges? Really? Was any of it supposed to be funny? The only thing that worked about this dreck was Downey Jr. as Stark. He manages to be the glue, and is funny, heroic, and charming all at once. Without him the film would be a colossal disaster.
The rest of the film falls completely flat. Its final battle seems rather anti-climactic, as Stark and Rhodey face off against Killian and his Extremis drones, with Stark jumping in and out of suits of Iron Man armor every other second or two. The film never quite seems to recover after the twist plays off- frankly, Killian is just not as compelling or as menacing as Kingsley, and this is frankly more of a missed opportunity. Their point here was understandable- creating a mysterious, evil figurehead to represent evil, basically in order to frighten people into submission. A chilling point to make in this day and age, but Pearce isn’t up to the task, and his Mandarin reveal comes too late in the film for it to carry any weight or substance.
As far as effects, they’re good enough, for what they’re trying to achieve. There are some great scenes, like Tony trying on his Mark 42 armor for the first time, or his many scenes with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). There is a great deal to like about Iron Man 3, which makes its failings all the more tragic. The action and music are largely forgettable. They throw every brand of armor in the film just because they might as well, who knows if they’ll ever make another solo Iron Man film. In the hands of a more capable writer (a sentence I can’t believe I just wrote about the creator of Riggs & Murtaugh), this film could have been something great. Instead, it feels like they simply had no idea where to take Tony Stark after the success of the first film, and outside of his stint in Avengers, he can’t seem to find a good story- or an interesting villain- to save his life. Three out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
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