Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.
Boomer: In 2014, director Jon Favreau released the indie critical darling Chef, in which he appeared as a man who tired of the world of elite haute cuisine that values style over substance, a man who forsakes that world to fix up an old food truck and take a more “back to basics” approach to food. As has been pointed out by other critics, this can be seen as a metaphor for Favreau’s fatigue with the Iron Man franchise, as he bowed out of directing the third film, although he reprised his role as Hogan (if spending 80% of the film comatose can be considered a reprisal). Instead, the reins were handed over to Shane Black, whose resume as a writer includes Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and as such was already well-regarded before he began directing with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
In 2007, British TV producer Drew Pearce created the cult hit No Heroics, a sitcom focusing on the downtime of troubled British superheroes, and the series aired in late 2008. The surprise cult following of the show led to some interest in an American adaptation during the shaky post-Heroes years in which many stations were looking to ride the superhero wave to the top. An American No Heroics pilot was shot, but ABC ultimately passed on the project (although they greenlit No Ordinary Family, a show that should have gotten a hard pass, just a few years later). Still, this had been enough to bring him to the attention of stateside production companies, and Pearce was initially hired to write the film adaptation of Marvel series Runaways. Although that film’s production stalled out, he was invited to co-write IM3 with Black. The resulting story took large chunks from Warren Ellis’s work on the popular “Extremis” arc from the Iron Man comics (homage is paid in the film by naming the president, played by William Sadler, after Ellis).
Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Paul Bettany(‘s voice) reprise their roles from previous films, and the post-credits gag features a cameo from Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner. New faces include Ben Kingsley as Mandarin, Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, and Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen. As the lead-in to what Marvel Studios called “Phase Two,” IM3 follows up on the events of The Avengers, showing a Tony Stark who is traumatized and living with the aftereffects of the Battle of New York. And, since Shane Black is involved, the film is set at Christmastime for no real reason.
Brandon, what did you think?
Brandon: Because I had heard that director Shane Black had taken over Jon Favreau’s directoral duties for the third Iron Man installment, I had gotten my hopes up that it might be the turning point where I started liking the Iron Man franchise at large. Black’s darkly comic work on properties like Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero, and The Monster Squad seemed to position him as a perfect fit for taking the Iron Man films into a new, more purposeful direction. I can recognize flashes of that newfound sense of purpose straining to break through this feature’s bogged down mess of a narrative, but ultimately Iron Man 3 felt like just as much of a mixed bag as Iron Man 2.
The film opens with America’s Favorite D-Bag Tony Stark tooting his own horn to Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue” & referring to the absolute worst era in popular culture (the late 90s, *shudder*) as “the [good] old days” (which, appropriately enough, is when his bad boy schtick & awful facial hair might’ve actually felt fresh). Things get worse from there. The film’s completely-besides-the-point Christmastime setting allows Stark to move on from his previous soundtrack of AC/DC dad jams to dance club remixes of Yuletide carols, which is, musically speaking, my worst nightmare. Tony’s snarkiness has also gotten worse, since the success of the character had apparently lead Feige & company to believe that what the world wanted more of was exchanges like [from a pretty lady] “Where are we going?” “To town on each other,” [to a lady on fire] “I’ve dated hotter chicks than you,” and [to a boy who’s been abandoned by his father] “Guys leave. No need to be a pussy about it.” There are other ways in which the Iron Man franchise has improved in a general sense, but its billionaire playboy protagonist might be a bigger piece of shit than ever here and the worst part is it still feels like the movies are asking its audience to celebrate him for it.
The frustrating thing is that there’s so much of Iron Man 3 that does work, especially elsewhere in the cast. I was a little dubious at first about the series’s return to its War on Terror roots, but Don Cheadle’s transition from toeing the water as The War Machine to full-blown superhero status as The Iron Patriot was encouraging to see. Ben Kingsely’s villain, who I’m pretty sure he was told was supposed to be named Osama Bin Nixon instead of The Mandarin, also has some entertaining moments in the film. I particularly enjoyed the following monologue that accompanied one of his terrorist-funded propaganda films: “True story about fortune cookies – They look Chinese. They sound Chinese. But they’re actually an American invention, which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” The MVP for me, though, believe it or not, was Gwyneth Paltrow as the surprisingly endearing Pepper Potts. I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about Paltrow as an actress, but get the sense that her performances in these films aren’t especially popular among diehard MCU fans, which is a shame. Iron Man 3 allows Potts the opportunity to try on one of Stark’s mech suits, which made for a kinda awesome (and on a personal note, oddly sexy) moment when she gets to save the day for a change. Better yet is her climactic freakout moment, which releases a feral side to Paltrow’s screen presence I didn’t know she had in her (although it was teased in her line-reading of “Are you out of your mind?!” in Iron Man 2).
Speaking of the suit-sharing, Iron Man 3 features more Iron Man suits than ever, which, when combined with remote-controlled automation, makes for some absolutely killer action sequences involving an Iron Man army, some ludicrously complicated suit-hopping/exploding choreography, and a sublimely corny, parachuteless freefall rescue that played nicely into the film’s comic book origins. It’s a shame that none of these charming moments or character beats ever amount to a satisfying whole, though. Repeating the exact same mistakes of Iron Man 2, the film splits its time between two villains, a formula that bogs down its plot, only to make a third act decision to follow the least interesting of the pair to the conclusion. Iron Man 3 even takes this mistake a step further and retroactively ruins its most interesting threat, reducing Kingley’s monstrous terrorist from an Osama bin Nixon to a buffoonish Russell Brand archetype. What a waste. And to think, they casually kick him aside in favor of a fire-breathing version of Val Kilmer’s generic Dieter Von Cunth villain from MacGruber. It’s not a good sign when your film’s lead antagonist most closely resembles a character meant to spoof the genre you’re working in.
Once that shift occurs, Iron Man 3 devolves into generic superhero action cinema. The last 40 minutes of the film feel like a total waste, despite the suit-hopping heroics & Pepper Potts silliness mentioned above. Every now & then Iron Man 3 would throw out a fistpump-worthy moment or two (Stark taking out a helicopter by hurling a grand piano comes to mind), but for the most part the film felt like a mess of compromises & disappointments with half-cooked references to A Christmas Carol that went more or less nowhere & an entirely unnecessary performance by series-vet Jon Favreau as The World’s Shittiest Comic Relief. At best, it’s a generic mixed bag of an action film that almost gets its shit together before completely losing track of what makes it special. At worst, it’s a disappointingly low entry to Shane Black’s catalog, whether or not it helped him gain some notoriety for the strange body of work he had quietly put together prior.
Boomer: A lot of people really disliked this movie when it came out, citing the appearance of a kid sidekick character and the purported ruination of The Mandarin. Personally, however, I have to say that this is probably my favorite of the Iron Man flicks. I’ll admit that the kid sidekick character doesn’t really bother me in the slightest (and he appears onscreen for such a short period of time that his presence is virtually negligible). As for the way that the film used The Mandarin… I actually think that it was a bit of an ingenious move. I understand that this is a character into whom a lot of people have invested time and emotional energy, and I can understand the outrage because I felt much the same way when Star Trek Into Darkness sprang a whitewashed terrible Khan on the audience. The difference, however, is that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is Khan contributes nothing to the film other than a familiar name, whereas the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 actually serves to further the plot in an interesting way, and the film does well to play that reveal close to the chest up to the point where we finally meet Trevor Slattery. This was a neat twist that played on expectations of comic book fans and mainstream filmgoers alike, and I think a lot of people were simply caught off guard by the revelation and overreacted to it.
As for other issues viewers took with the film, I don’t really lend a lot of credence to what could be called the Avengers Problem, or, more loosely, the Shared Universe Problem. For some, once a shared universe is established or canonized, there is a need to ask why such-and-such character doesn’t appear in so-and-so’s film. I don’t really understand this impulse on the part of the audience to criticize this element of a work; it’s not as if every character spends all of their downtime together, nor is it a far-fetched idea that a person like Tony Stark who is accustomed to self-reliance would, in a period of self-doubt, try to fix all of his problems without calling on his superfriends. It’s not a problem for me that Banner shows up after the fact and only for a chat, and I feel that a lot of people were looking for elements of the film to complain about, as the honeymoon patina of the MCU was starting to wear thin. All of this is to say: this is a movie about a man who is pried loose from his moorings and forced to confront both his mortality and his potential for failure, and ends up being the least cliche of the Iron Man movies as a result.
There are problems, of course. The film is smart to focus on Tony and his one-man journey, but Paltrow and Cheadle end up underutilized this time around as a matter of consequence. Although Kingsley’s performance as both Slattery and The Mandarin is fantastic, Hall’s botanist character ends up feeling underdeveloped, and we never get a real feeling for her motivations. Pearce’s motivations are also less than perfectly defined, but he stands out as still being a better villain than either Hammer or Whiplash from Tony’s last solo outing. The deus ex machina elements of Pepper’s superheroics at the end of the film are a little on-the-nose, but it was nice to see her get to have more agency this time around, especially since her appearance early in the film painted her in a less than stellar light.
Still, I liked this one. The film largely restrains its elaborate set-pieces to the film’s back half, instead focusing the first half on character building and establishing the new relationships between all the characters, new and old, and the film benefits greatly from this structure. The humor here isn’t derived solely from trying to elicit envy of the Tony Stark way of life, which is a refreshing change of pace. Furthermore, making Stark more vulnerable provides Downey with additional ways to approach the character, which makes both actor and character come off as more likable than in previous installments. It’s a different approach, and the non-standard format of the film’s narrative sets a good example for the way that this film and the five that followed it would change the tone of the MCU at large.
Boomer: It’s super weird to me that the MCU has a white president. It’s something that felt strange the first time I saw it; normally, I wouldn’t bring it up, but with recent news that Marvel bigwig Ike Perlmutter donated a hefty chunk of money to the Trump campaign, it does raise some questions. Also, it’s a bummer that we don’t hear about Extremis or see any of the fallout in the films that follow. Pepper’s newfound superherodom doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in Age of Ultron, even though she is mentioned. It’s strange, given the fact that the movie seems to set her up as a new power player–not that we needed another character in Ultron gumming up the works.
Brandon: Here’s where I praise Iron Man 3 for what it gets exactly right. Part of what’s been bugging me about the MCU as a cohesive unit of films is that outside of the Avengers crossovers the individual properties haven’t interacted with each other in any significant way. Iron Man 2 was better than most MCU properties on that front, mostly in the way that it gave outside characters Black Widow & Nick Fury something more significant to do besides popping up for a post-credits cameo. Iron Man 3 finally works the Marvel Universe at large into its core narrative, though, which posits it as the most well-integrated MCU property yet (well, outside The Avengers, which is integration by nature).
In the film, Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD after the “gods, aliens, other dimensions,” and robots caused so much mayhem at the climax of The Avengers. He confesses to Potts, “Nothing’s been the same since New York” and in a nice change of pace his ego is put into check by nightmares & panic attacks that can occasionally become life-threatening, especially once he begins operating mech suits in his sleep. I love this sense of progression. It finally feels like a standalone MCU property is actually, significantly affected by the preceding films outside its realm. I look forward to seeing more of the franchise function this way.
Curiously, although Iron Man 3 is the most well-integrated, non-Avengers MCU film so far, it feels like it brings its narrative to a close by the end credits. Everything feels thoroughly wrapped up, finite, as if Tony STark’s time with the franchise were over. If I didn’t know any better, I’d believe that “I am Iron Man” would be Starks’s final word to tie a neat little ribbon on his entire d-bag story arc. What’s even weirder is that after all this finality & integration, the film reverts back to a meaningless post-credits cameo for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Again, the film is the definition of a mixed bag.
Side note: Did anybody else find it strange that this film found time for references to Joan Rivers, Downton Abbey, and the Home Shopping Network? I don’t know what to make of those nods other than to say they felt bizarre in this context.
Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 3 (2013)
-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.