The Man in the Iron Mask

I found Iron Man 3 a fine kickoff to what Marvel Studios is calling Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Phase One having culminated in the assemblage of nearly every superhero thus far introduced to the MCU in 2012's The Avengers.

Close-up of a marred, scarred, and cracked Iron Man helmet in Tony Stark's hands
Photo © 2013 Marvel.

Given that it builds on what's come before, in terms of the audience's familiarity with the characters and their milieu, Iron Man 3 isn't the best entry point to the series. If you've seen and enjoyed the previous installments, however, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark in particular, you'll enjoy this one.

For sure it's better than 2010's Iron Man 2, although I found some of that movie's flaws revisited in fleeting moments; the way in which it gets to jump straight into its world without having to set up an origin story might even make it more fun than 2008's Iron Man 1. In that (and some aspects of the plot as well) it's not unlike a James Bond film, a parallel driven home by the closing title sequence and one made explicit too in interviews with co-writer/director Shane Black.

So there's a quickie assessment. I'll add some spoiler commentary after the next graphic. Join me below if/when you've seen Iron Man 3 or just don't care!

'The Fury and the Inferno!' / Firebrand, whose costume resembled Iron Man's red and gold armor with the colors reversed in placement, blasts Iron Man with flame. 'You're armor's melting, Iron Man!  And now you'll learn -- What Firebrand strikes, Firebrand kills!'
Early cover appearance of Firebrand in Iron Man #48 © 1972 Marvel. Pencils:
Gil Kane. Inks: Vince Colletta. Letters: John Costanza. Text, Colors: Unknown.

Among the very first Iron Man comics I read, nearly 40 years ago, was one featuring a villain called Firebrand. He possessed flame powers and wore an outfit that looked intriguingly like Iron Man's with the color scheme reversed. Since I haven't read the 2005-2006 "Extremis" storyline, on which much of Iron Man 3 was based, I wondered if the enhanced strength and incendiary abilities of the villains in the film weren't the MCU's take on that character.

My hope was that Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts would end up adopting the Firebrand identity after surviving the climax, in the kind of twist on the comics that the Marvel films have shown they're not at all afraid to offer. The Marvel Cinematic Universe could use more women of power — actual, physical power, not just (the nonetheless welcome) prowess in verbal sparring and business smarts. Having Pepper's Extremis infection neutralized if not removed outright in the epilogue suggests otherwise yet doesn't entirely close the door on it.

I was glad that Pepper came back from her apparent demise to join the fray. After the attack on Stark's home earlier in the film, which found her wearing the armor herself and saving Tony, she was all too obviously, all too tritely the damsel in distress during the climax. You can of course rationalize that as her being the plain ol' normal person and him being the superhero as opposed to her being the woman and him being the man — especially since the injections of nanites or whatever that allowed Tony to control the armor even when he wasn't wearing it afforded him an innate superpower as long as there was Iron Man tech around — but you also have to figure that, in the wake of everything that's happened in the 5 years since Iron Man 1, she'd have undergone some combat training as a measure of self-defense.

Iron Man in crouched action pose amidst other suits in the armory
Photo © 2013 Marvel.

That need for self-defense is something that nags at me.

When Tony Stark admitted he was Iron Man at the end of the first movie, I understood why the filmmakers wanted to go that route, yet it only replaced one set of storytelling problems with another. Iron Man 2 touched upon the obvious peril he'd be in without a dual identity, but it's not as if the issue has been dealt with by Iron Man 3.

Giving out his home address on television would be a monumentally stupid act of hubris on Tony's part — if it actually meant that people hadn't previously known where he lived, which the film seems to be implying and which I don't believe for a second. His place isn't so remote that it doesn't have a street number, never mind him being such a celebrity as a billionaire genius playboy and a world-saving superhero that surely the media has camped out on his doorstep before whether in New York or Malibu or any other place he's so much as rumored to have been spotted. We don't get even a hint that the house has some kind of force field on the perimeter or holographic stealth camouflage or automated defense weaponry, making the assault by the forces of the would-be Mandarin, actually sent by Guy Pearce's Aldritch Killian, a giant case of You mean this hasn't happened before?

The Mandarin in mask and flowing robes on his throne shooting a ray beam from one of the many rings on his fingers, which appears to close a castle gate behind a surprised Iron Man, surrounded by several armed guards  / 'See The Mandarin! The awesome power he possesses matches the evil in his heart!' / 'Iron Man fights for his life in the castle of a madman!'
Cover to The Mandarin's debut in Tales of Suspense #50 © 1963 Marvel. Text: Stan Lee.
Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: George Roussos. Letters: Artie Simek. Colors: Stan Goldberg.

I appreciated seeing Tony go into action mode without the suit, both in terms of reminding us that the real power behind the Iron Man armor is Tony Stark's ingenuity as well as (to echo some of the criticism above) in terms of showing us that Tony has cultivated some fighting skills. They seem to disappear the moment he teams up with Don Cheadle's Jim Rhodes, and I'm not sure why Stark wouldn't need a bodyguard now more than ever given his frequent recklessness, be it Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan or the artificial intelligence JARVIS in a hollow Iron Man suit; however, Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have still made a far less uneven film than Iron Man 2, so I should be thankful for that.

Many of the film's other aspects left me similarly, and perhaps appropriately, hot and cold at various times. Tony's anxiety over the events in last year's Avengers made perfect sense, particularly given how the Marvel films have adopted the Marvel comics' trademark of heroes with hang-ups, although I was concerned that it was handled a bit too simplistically. It also helped explain why no effort was made by Tony to contact another member of the brotherhood, as did his physical isolation, but scenes of someone in the government trying to get Captain America and/or Nick Fury and SHIELD involved were warranted.

While the finale was at times a little too frantic, it had a certain welcome rhythm overall. I might not quite buy Tony leaping through the air into an Iron Man suit from behind without getting pancaked; on the other hand, it's a testament to Downey and Black (and Favreau before him) that I totally buy Tony's literal leaps of faith in terms of character. Downey's completely unsentimental dialogue saves Tony's scenes with the kid who helps him in Tennessee, as well, a crucial plot strand that could easily have been too precious. I found the approach to Ben Kingsley's Mandarin brilliant as written and delivered too, however much I'd have loved to see the character's comics persona translated successfully to the screen in full supervillain mode. I remain at a loss to figure out why a movie released the first week in May was set so distractingly at Christmastime with no narrative payoff that couldn't have been easily reworked.

Tony Stark contemplating the Iron Man gauntlet
Photo © 2013 Marvel.

"Tony Stark will return," we're told, Bond-style, during the end credits following a choice title sequence whose valedictory flavor tasted more final than forward-looking. I'll keep my fingers crossed that Downey, his contractual obligations to Marvel now complete, will at least pop up in future Avengers installments and perhaps be a guiding force in further Iron Man films as mentor, tinker, and not-so-silent partner to Rhodey or anyone else who might succeed him in the armor. Without a wholesale reboot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, something that shouldn't even be a glint in producer Kevin Feige's eye, I can't see another actor stepping into Stark's boots.

Iron Man 3 was both entertaining and substantive enough that I find it hard to temper my enthusiasm for the rest of MCU Phase Two. Thor: The Dark World arrives in November, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a wild card called Guardians of the Galaxy (starring an entirely different team of that name than I'm familiar with, although I've read older tales of some of its members) coming next year. I can hardly wait.

How about you?

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