Iron Man Poster

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Director:  Shane Black

Comic Book Authors:  Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby

Screenplay:  Drew Pierce and Shane Black

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Don Cheadle as Lt.Colonel James Rhodes

Guy Pierce as Aldrich Killian

Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen

Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

One can argue that the first two Iron Man films were essentially all about the armor.  An essential plot thread is where does Tony Stark stop and where does Iron Man begin?  That’s a question that will be answered definitively at the end of this movie, and Tony Stark will answer it.

But like all great tragedies, hubris–excessive pride–plays a significant role.  As in Sophocles’ Antigone, when the great allow them selves hubris (excessive pride), they are inevitably punished and often lose all they love.  That’s almost the case here, but thankfully, Iron Man 3 is also a tale of redemption, promising greater things to come, which of course means sequels.  Considering the amount of money the movie made in release outside America already, it’s a safe bet Iron Man 4 will be gracing theaters in Spring, 2014.

Some pundits are already proclaiming Iron Man 3 to be a better movie than The Avengers.  I’m not persuaded.  It’s a very good movie, but other than having Iron Man and Pepper Potts (and her shapely, barefoot beautiful legs) in both movies–oh yes, and the obligatory cameo appearance by Marvel head Stan Lee–they’re very different movies.  It remains hard to compare apples and oranges.  Yet, an essential plot thread of The Avengers was whether Tony Stark had the character to sacrifice himself for a greater cause.  The same thread runs through Iron Man 3. 

But before delving into this Iron Man outing, let’s take a brief side trip to PJ Media where John Boot tells us “Iron Man 3 Treats Islamist Terror Like a Joke.”   Full disclosure: I also publish at PJ Media.  Boot writes:

There’s nothing that makes Hollywood more nervous than portraying Islamist terror. As far back as 1994, James Cameron’s True Lies was denounced as racially insensitive for imagining a chillingly plausible Islamist terror threat involving nuclear weapons. Cameron, anticipating accusations of unfairly linking terrorism with Islam and Arabs, took care to try for “balance” by placing an Arab-American character on the good guys’ side (the actor who played him, Grant Heslov, this year won an Oscar as one of the producers of Argo). Yet the advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) slammed the film anyway. The hysterical 1998 movie The Siege imagined that, in an overreaction to a terrorist attack, Brooklyn would be placed under martial law and all young Muslim men would be interned in Yankee Stadium. Ridiculous.

Boot is quite right thus far, but he misses the ultimate point, and the necessity and nature of life in the Marvel Universe.

Yet Iron Man 3 is a huge step backward that openly mocks the War on Terror via the villain the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). With Islamic imagery introducing his regular hijacking of TV airwaves, he denounces America and warns of more terrorist attacks such as the one at a Chinese theater in L.A. in which a human bomb detonates, Palestinian jihadist-style, in a crowd, nearly killing Tony’s bodyguard (Jon Favreau).

The Mandarin (despite being based on a Chinese character in the Iron Man comics) is meant to remind us of Osama Bin Laden and the Islamist brutes who beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on camera for the crime of being Jewish. The Mandarin does something very much like this in Iron Man 3.

The Mandarin really isn’t an evil bad guy. He’s a drug-addicted actor hired to play one on TV.  And the plot really isn’t about Islamist terror, rather the façade of Islamist terror is used by a super villain to hide his true world-dominating intentions and throw the good guys off his track.  And that’s the point, you see.

In the real world, Islamist terror is indeed a deadly danger, one we ignore–as Mr. Obama mostly does–at our peril.  But when the time comes that America is forced to call Islamists Islamists, when the time comes that political correctness can no longer be afforded, and when America has to, as she has done in the past, rise and save the world, the efforts of very good, highly trained men and women will save the day.  There is no Iron Man, no Mighty Thor, no Captain America, just our best–the people we’ve always relied upon–to destroy evil.  Thankfully, that’s all that’s required, and I have little doubt that when they’re needed, they’ll rise to the challenge once again.

But in the Marvel Universe, there are larger forces, forces even the Navy SEALS can’t defeat, and for them, we need Iron Man and super heroes like him.  While it has been gratifying to see Iron Man flatten Islamist murderers in the past, they’re really no challenge, and surely not enough challenge to sustain a summer blockbuster.  Oh no!  An evil Islamist dictator has started the timer on an atomic bomb in New York City!  Millions will die!  Iron Man finds and disarms/throws into space/ etc., etc. the bomb just in the nick of time!  Hooray Iron Man!  Yawn.

In all good art, there is conflict, conflict that must be confronted and defeated.  Where is the conflict if the hero can crush his enemies like bugs with little or no effort?  Ah, but infuse the hero with hubris, handicap him due to his own foolishness, and force him to rely on his wits rather than technology, and the elements of risk and danger return.

Robert Downey Jr. plays a Tony Stark wracked with PTSD after the New York City battle.  His relationship with the lean, leggy, winsome Pepper Potts–one of the essential elements of her character in The Avengers and this movie, is becoming barefoot whenever possible (not that this is a bad thing)–is on the brink of disaster, as is just about everything else about his self-destructive life.  Downey plays the role brilliantly and with his usual wry sense of humor.  There is no shortage of good one-liners in this movie, and a good number of unexpected plot twists.

Dialogue in action films is usually noticeable only when it’s particularly bad.  Audiences don’t see such films hoping to discover a new Shakespeare, and they won’t.  The dialogue in Iron Man 3 is fast paced, often wryly funny, and equally ironic.

In a very real way, the movie is an allegory about overreliance on technology.  Stark is forced to rely not only on Don Cheadle in an updated suit of armor left over from Iron Man 2, but learns a few lessons about real world heroism from him.  As a matter of fact, he loses the girl, but is miraculously rescued by the girl, who after kicking the real bad guy’s evil hindquarters, delivers a great one liner about violence.  Fortunately, it is the bad guy’s torturing of Potts that provides the means of his downfall.  That’s one of the plot twists I mentioned.  What, you don’t like seeing scantily clad, lean and long legged, barefoot lovelies being tortured by leering baddies?  Worry not.  It’s Marvel, so there is no overt showing of skin and no steamy sexuality, and she’s as blondely lovely at the end of the movie as at the end.  Gwyneth Paltrow really is a good actress, and plays this particular role with energy and style.

In fact, Guy Pierce as Aldrich Killian provides a moral lesson on the nature of evil.  To wit: it often has a pretty face.  Unsurprisingly, Tony Stark created that pretty face, and the threat that nearly kills him and the woman he loves.

Rebecca Hall plays a beautiful young scientist with whom Stark has a one night stand in the distant past, but through hubris, sets into motion a chain of events that nearly ends in fiery disaster for Stark, Potts, the President of the United States, and the world in general.  And that’s after she shows up on Stark’s doorstep.

Let’s see, what else…oh yes!  There’s the plucky, sympathetic and smart young boy that helps Stark when he most needs it, and gets mostly attitude–at first–from Stark.  The Vice President of the United States is a traitor–but he did it for love.  Air Force One blows up in mid-air, but that’s just a background shot.  We’re so busy with a related heroic action sequence we don’t really care, and much, much more.

The movie is a visual feast.  The special effects are of the seamless quality we’ve come to expect in Marvel movies, yet the movie focuses more on character development than spectacle, and it brings it off.  We really do care about Stark and Potts and Cheadle and look forward to seeing them again.  They’re good guys in the best tradition of American movie good guys.

Let’s consider Boot’s conclusion:

Am I asking too much of a comic book movie? Actually, I’m asking very little. The Dark Knight films proved that a superhero series can reflect serious real-world issues in an adult way, to a large and appreciative audience. Most blockbuster movies are, of course, lightweight and meaningless. But though the first two Iron Man films, especially the second one, engaged with the real world in an interesting way, the third entry is worse than silly: It’s frivolous. With respect to the War on Terror, it’s a travesty.

Actually, Boot is asking too much, and it’s not his to ask.  This is not a movie about the existential military/political threat of our time.  It’s a movie about evil, even that within us.  Remember Iron Man 2: an evil genius wielding electrified whips that slice a formula one car in half, who tries to wreak vengeance on Tony Stark for imagined grievances against his father Howard Stark.  That’s the real world and significant issues?

The real conflict in Iron Man 3 is internal.  It is on that level that hubris, nemesis, a fall, growth, and finally, redemption take place.  It’s a story as old as the oral tradition, but told with all of the sparkling tools of contemporary film making.  It was never about Islamic terrorism, nor does it treat that topic frivolously.  Not every serious movie in 2013 is obligated to say something about that battle for civilization.  Sometimes, it’s enough that really bad guys are defeated by really good guys, particularly when really good guys are actually the underdogs.  In the best movies, we can see something of ourselves in the hero, or at least something of what we want to believe we could be, given the right circumstances and the love of a good woman.

Who is Tony Stark going to be when the movie ends?  As it turns out, a better–man.  You’ll see.