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Published on April 23rd, 2015 | by Brad

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MCU Retrospective Review – Iron Man 3 (2013)

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Year of Release: 2013

Film Number: 7

Budget: $200 million

Box Office Takings: $1.2 billion

Director: Shane Black

Written By: Shane Black and Drew Pearce

Coming off the back of the colossal box office success of Avengers Assemble, there was a degree of pressure on Iron Man 3. Would the public be content with a return to the individual universes of these characters, having seen them teamed up to such enjoyable effect? Smartly, Marvel went with the franchise’s biggest star to ease people back in. The career resurgence of Robert Downey Jr has been one of the great stories of this Marvel adventure, and for better or worse, he is the face most associated with these films. Which is weird given that the first two are, in my opinion, a bit rubbish.

The blame for this falls nowhere near Downey, of course. The first two Iron Man films are directed by Jon Favreau. With the exception of Elf, which I really like, the phrase “directed by Jon Favreau” chills me to the very bone. His work is the very picture of Hollywood “tab-A, slot-B” mediocre action directing. So I was excited, and more than a little intrigued, when not only was it announced that Favreau would not be directing Iron Man 3, but his place in the director’s chair was to be taken by Shane Black, who would also be writing the screenplay.

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If you’re anything like me, and you’re a fan late-80s/early-90s buddy cop movies, then you’ll understand why I was so thrilled to have Shane Black on board. I’ve been a fan of his since I caught The Long Kiss Goodnight on TV when I was about eight or nine, though I wasn’t really cognisant of that until I was a teenager looking to see what other stuff the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon had made. Black’s other writing credits include cult favourite The Monster Squad, Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero, Bruce Willis vehicle The Last Boy Scout, and most importantly, his one prior directorial offering, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

If you haven’t seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I need you to stop reading this review, watch that movie, then come back. I’ll wait. You’ll be really glad I recommended it. You back? Wasn’t that awesome? Released in 2005, KKBB is the beginning of the resurgence of Robert Downey Jr’s career, leading to his now, ten years later, being the biggest movie star in the world. It’s also the prototypical Shane Black movie; fast-talking funny men, Christmas-time setting, the female lead being kidnapped as part of a needlessly convoluted scheme and a damn good time. RDJ and Val Kilmer are great together, and it’s honestly one of my favourite movies of the last decade.

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The reason I particularly dig into KKBB here is that, more so than the earlier Iron Man films or Avengers Assemble, Iron Man 3 feels like a spiritual successor to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Yep, Marvel followed up their $1.5billion superhero mega-hit with a Shane Black buddy comedy. You kind of have to admire the balls on them. People have written at length about (the overrated) Guardians of the Galaxy being Marvel’s first comedy, and the mind boggles; did none of these people watch Iron Man 3? Some of them must have, at the time of writing it’s the sixth-highest grossing movie of all time. Not that box office is a sure-fire indicator of quality; the top two are Avatar and Titanic, and there are two from Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise in the top ten. So how is Iron Man 3?

Spoilers follow from here. Obviously. After some noirish-but-funny voiceover about how we create our own demons, the movie opens on New Year’s Eve 1999 with Tony Stark, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Happy’s spectacular mullet attending a party in Geneva. After a cute cameo from Shaun Toub reprising his role as Ho Yinsen from the first movie, Tony is introduced to Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), founder of a privately funded think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics, or A.I.M. for short. Anyone au fait with Marvel will of course be aware that A.I.M. are serial villains in the Marvel universe, dating back to their first appearance in 1966. Killian, in addition to seeming very disabled, is a fairly obnoxious individual in these opening scenes, and there’s a certain enjoyment to watching Tony humiliate him (think Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2, only less charming). After a one-night stand during which Maya shows him her research into something she’s developing called Extremis, Stark leaves Maya behind with just a note. His noirish-but-funny voiceover intones that he had just created demons.

Some years later, we catch up with Tony a few months after the events of Avengers Assemble. His experiences in the portal over New York have left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and he’s prone to quite severe panic attacks. As a coping device, he’s constantly tinkering with and creating new Iron Man suits, creating some friction between himself and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow, as just-charming-enough-to-get-by as usual). Killian re-emerges cured of his earlier afflictions to offer Pepper and Stark Industries a stake in A.I.M. and the Extremis programme, which she declines. Happy, now head of security at Stark Industries, decides to follow Killian’s bodyguard, Eric Savin (James Badge Dale), leading him to what appears to be a drug hand-off at the Chinese Theatre. After getting his fix, however, the junkie spontaneously combusts, killing a number of people and seriously wounding Happy, who remains conscious just long enough to see Savin heal his own injuries instantly and walk away.

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Now, it’s pretty obvious at this point that the drug our exploding junkie was taking was Extremis. Iron Man 3 draws a lot from Warren Ellis’ classic Extremis story arc from 2005-06. Intended as a soft-reboot for the Iron Man character following the events of Avengers Disassembled, Extremis is one of the touchstone storylines for both the Iron Man movie franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. The entire first quarter of the original Iron Man film is lifted almost verbatim from this comic’s revised origin for Tony Stark, and it’s a good place to return for this story, with relatively minor characters like Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen given new prominence.

The explosion at the Chinese Theatre is the latest in a number claimed as terrorist attacks by a shadowy figure who identifies himself as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). In the comics, The Mandarin is Iron Man’s arch-nemesis. Created by Stan Lee in 1964, he was born the son of a wealthy Chinese man and an English aristocrat in pre-Communist China. Exiled in his adulthood, he discovered an alien spaceship, and gained mastery of ten rings of immense power, one for each digit of his hands. He’s also a Fu-Manchu stereotype of the evil Chinese, and really has no place in modern storytelling. In the cinematic universe, the terrorist group who took Stark hostage in the first film are known as the Ten Rings, and it’s implied that this Mandarin is their leader. He’s a charismatic figure, cloaked in the symbols of various different cultures, and speaking with the tone and implied rhetoric of an American tent revival preacher.

Angered by Happy’s fate, Stark challenges The Mandarin, giving him his home address. This, on reflection, was a really stupid thing to do. Despite Pepper’s protestations and warnings from a returning Maya, all three of them are in the house when three attack helicopters, led by Savin, destroy Tony’s house. This is one of the best action sequences in the series, and marks out one of the key reasons why Iron Man 3 is a cut above the other two. Tony has to use one experimental prototype suit to save Pepper and Maya, survive the attack and take out the helicopters. As such, he spends most of his time out of the suit, having to rely on his own ingenuity. Where the earlier films (and Avengers Assemble) had Iron Man in a pattern of “get in the CGI suit, blow things up, move on”, Iron Man 3 tends to have Robert Downey Jr in the thick of the action as much as possible, and it works a lot better for that. On the page, we absolutely care for the suit and the man equally, as we understand that they are one and the same; on the screen, there’s a natural disconnect between the ultra-charming Robert Downey Jr performance and the set of weightless red and gold pixels whizzing around the screen. One of the chief criticisms levelled at Iron Man 3 is that it’s less of an Iron Man movie and more of a Tony Stark movie, but I think that’s one of its great strengths; you’ve got the biggest movie star in the world on top of his game, utilise that. It creates a deeper connection watching the person we care about in peril than his CGI comfort blanket.

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After the attack, Stark winds up in rural Tennessee, missing, presumed dead. The suit has no power, so he has to rely on his own ingenuity. A little detective work and a plucky kid sidekick lead him to discover that The Mandarin’s base of operations is in Miami, Florida. Armed with some makeshift weapons, Stark infiltrates the compound to discover the man himself. A shambling drunken Brit in flagrante with a couple of hookers. Not what you were expecting? Certainly threw me. I vividly remember the nervous laughter in the cinema I saw it in, which largely turned into genuine belly laughs as we realised that he wasn’t some body double, he was the actual guy. It’s the single most audacious twist they could possibly have come up with, and it pretty much split fandom down the middle. Forget how you feel about the humour, the action, the characters, all of that – when it comes right down to it, how you feel about Iron Man 3 is inextricably linked to how you feel about Trevor Slattery.

To my mind, I can’t think of a more divisive figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than Trevor. Fans of the Mandarin and hardcore comic purists hate Trevor. And why not? We were teased with this really cool take on Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, and he’s revealed to be a false face for the real villain, and a joke character at that. Many took it as a personal affront, as certain over-enthusiastic fringes of the geek community are wont to do. Others – myself included – saw a bold, daring, hilarious twist, totally in keeping with the tone of the film, whilst allowing the villain to be something other than “man in his sixties in bigger Iron Man suit” as with the previous two films. Marvel were in fact able to have their cake and eat it too as regards Trevor; a short film in their Marvel One-Shots series entitled All Hail the King followed on home media releases of Thor: The Dark World, in which an agent of the Ten Rings (Scoot McNairy – who will soon become the first man to cross the Marvel/DC Cinematic Universe streams by appearing in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) kidnaps Trevor from prison to take him to meet the *real* Mandarin, who intends to kill him.

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Trevor breaks immediately under pressure from Stark and Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and reveals that Killian is the real mastermind, and has a plan which involves the Vice President and Air Force One. Iron Man heads up to Air Force One to save President Ellis (named for Warren Ellis), but Savin has already beaten him there and sent the President off to Killian in the Iron Patriot armour stolen from Rhodes. Savin blows a hole in the fuselage, causing a dozen people to be sucked out of the plane. After killing Savin, Iron Man flies out to try and save them. That much weight is too much for him to carry, though, so he has to improvise. He catches the first two, and has them catch others, creating a barrel of monkeys-like formation that he lowers safely into the river below. It’s a spectacular sequence, probably the best action scene in all of the Iron Man movies to date. It also ends on a very funny stinger, as Iron Man is smashed by a truck as soon as he tries to fly away, and it’s revealed that Stark has been remotely controlling the suit the entire time while he and Rhodes go after Killian.

Meanwhile, Maya is revealed to be working with Killian on Extremis, and they kidnap Pepper and infect her with it in order to force Stark to work with them to correct the problem which causes people to explode if the process doesn’t work. After Maya has a change of heart, Killian kills her, before preparing to kill the President. He has the Vice President in his pocket, as well as owning the Mandarin, so his plan seems to be to privatise the war on terror for the purpose of profit. Which is flimsy, but whatever. Killian’s base of operations is a run-aground oil tanker, with the pretext of “The Mandarin” being to kill the President for the damage caused to the planet by oil spills of this type. Stark and Rhodes arrive, and Stark has Jarvis initiate the “House Party Protocol”, bringing all 42 Iron Man suits to the fray. As Killian’s Extremis-enhanced soldiers move in, Stark jumps from suit to suit, fighting them off and buying Rhodes time to save the President. Eventually a combination of Tony and an Extremis-enhanced Pepper are able to kill Killian. To wrap things up, Stark has Jarvis destroy all his suits, gets the Extremis out of Pepper’s system, and undergoes surgery to remove the shrapnel from his chest. As he tosses his now-obsolete chest reactor into the sea, he muses that he will always be Iron Man. Which is helpful, as there’s an Avengers film coming soon!

As you may have noticed, I really like Iron Man 3 a lot. Shane Black’s a much better writer and director than Jon Favreau, the action sequences are superb, and there’s an easy confidence to this opening film for Phase 2 which boded very well for their future efforts. It’s not without its faults, particularly in the villain department – an area of weakness for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, truth be told. I love Guy Pearce, but Aldrich Killian is not a particularly interesting villain. The twist with Trevor Slattery is hilarious, but I can totally see why many people would have been disappointed not to get the Mandarin we were teased. Overall, though, Iron Man 3 is the strongest of the Iron Man series, and a highlight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

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Oh, and who doesn’t love that Mark Ruffalo cameo as Bruce Banner?

Brad

Brad

Consumer. Scribbler. Occasional drunkard. Nice beard, though...
Brad

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