Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) as played by Robert Downey, Jr. has never been one for playing by the rules. So perhaps, its fitting that his film breaks the expectations set for it, both by its pre-release publicity and film trailers and the history of superhero films.
Historically, third films have been notoriously problematic: Superman III, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Spider-man 3 were all notorious for endings that provided a letdown for fans and the overall series. The Dark Knight Rises managed to (somehow) take Batman to a much darker place than he’d been in The Dark Knight with a glimmer of hope sneaking in before the end. Many of the pre-film trailers set such expectations.
Yet Iron Man 3 surprises in that its neither a cheesefest nor is it filled with the bleakness of The Dark Knight Rises. Instead, viewers are treated to an action-packed ride that still manages to deal with perhaps the biggest existential question Iron Man faces: Is Tony Stark a hero or just a guy in the suit?
The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been taking to the air to take responsibility for a series of deadly terrorist attacks. When Stark Head of Security Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) becomes suspicious of a visitor to Stark International and follows him, he lands in the hospital in critical condition. In a moment of pure bravado, Stark declares war on the Mandarin on International television and provides his home address. Stark refuses to leave and his house is hit by a terrorist attack that destroys his Malibu home and nearly kill his live-in girlfriend Pepper Potts.
Due to a malfunction in his armor, Stark is flung to Tennessee in the wintertime and his armor’s power dies. Like many of the best Iron Man stories from the comic books, Iron Man 3 reduces Tony Stark to the bare essentials: no robotic house, no unlimited bankroll. For most of the film, even though he’s in constant peril, Stark is out of armor, and so has to rely on his substantial wits.
Robert Downey, Jr. turns in a solid performance with a fully fleshed out three dimensional character who can go from cracking wise to having a panic attack in short order. The story is cleverly written with a surprise twist as to who the bad guys are and what their ultimate endgame is what really defines the tone of the movie.
The film offers several thoughtful points. First, unlike the other two Iron Man films, Iron Man 3 puts the spotlight on average people who do heroic things. A boy helps Tony out and tries to save his life, a TV newsman helps Tony get a needed internet connection, the non-powered Happy Hogan goes after a bad guy, a sheriff refuses to let one of the bad guys take Stark prisoner when he’s not sure of their credentials. With Stark armor-free most of the movie, the film illustrates how people can show heroism by just doing their regular due diligence.
Iron Man 3 also focuses on the danger of scientists compromising a desire to help people and follow scientific procedure to the desire for money and ego. Iron Man 3 deals with several pieces of scientific equipment that can be used for good or for evil. Iron Man 3 brings home the point of the need for ethics in world of the 21st century science.
The violence in the film is, at times, intense, but as in all the recent Marvel live action films, it is also sanitized.
Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the film centers around the relationship between the main characters, Tony and Pepper are officially living together and the film portrays that as essentially just as good as being married. Tony’s protective instincts for Pepper as well as his view of her as the one person he couldn’t leave without are pretty consistent with marriage. Yet, the film promotes this security in a cohabitating relationship suggesting that really one is just as good as the other. The subtext to the film is that marriage is really not at all important: a horrible message to younger viewers.
The writers could appeal to the comic books where Stark is not married, but the one takeaway from the film is how little superhero films are impacted by the comic books upon which the hero was based. For example, injections of the gene-altering Extremis is a key part of the plot in Iron Man 3.
Yet, other than how Extremis works within the bodies of recipients and the creator of Extremis from the comics in the movie appearing in Iron Man 3, none of the rest of the Extremis story line appear. In the 2006 story line, Extremis was sold to a right wing Christian domestic terrorist and the only way Iron Man could defeat him was by taking Extremis himself.
None of that took place in the film. On the same note, the organization AIM as well as the Mandarin character were vastly different from their comic book versions.
This suggests several things. First, major changes to comic book universes probably are less culturally relevant than what many entertainment news editors believe. Certainly, comic books tend to be more like Las Vegas in that what happens in the comic books will end up staying in the comic books.
Second, it suggests that comic book stories really are only good for providing bits that can be used in a story, not a story itself. Older stories like those written by Stan Lee in the 1960s may work as the basis for a cartoon episode but certainly aren’t complex enough to turn into a film. More modern stories tend to be just too dark and too political to actually make a good basis for a film that expects to appeal to mass audiences. The difference between the approach of film makers and that of comic book writers is why Iron Man 3 will be viewed by tens of million of Americans, while the latest Iron Man comic book is read by only 44,000.
Iron Man 3 illustrates the wisdom of the approach. Rather than sticking slavishly to a depressing comic story, Irom Man 3 chose to mix and match elements from a variety of stories and then change them)leading to an overall pleasing result despite a few rough spots.