The movie after an Avengers always feels like a time to decompress. To sit back, take a breather and experience something a little less intense. Back in 2013, Marvel were still in the process of figuring this out. Instead of a fun little romp, we got an Iron Man movie that creeps into into a story having a darker tone and dealing with subject matter that the MCU doesn’t delve into all that often.
This might a statement that comes back to haunt me as this series goes on; but Iron Man 3 feels like the forgotten movie in the series to me. It’s a movie nobody ever really talks about, and while I certainly do have some issues with choices made within it, I feel the need to applaud it for what it did well. And the risks it took.
Firstly, it’s a Tony Stark movie
This might sound like a silly point to start on. Surly, all of the Iron Man movies are Tony Stark movies. That’s true, but Iron Man 3 really does take the time to focus on Tony and focus on his own mental separation between the “Iron Man” he could be, and how he sees himself. By the time the movie ends. Tony truly becomes the Iron Man he claimed to be during the ending of the very first movie.
The entire driving force behind this journey comes from Cap’s line in the previous movie. Where is cuts Tony down by asking him what he even is without his suits. While it’s never overly stated or brought up, closing that chink in Tony’s metaphorical armour allows him to finally feel like the hero he wanted to be from the beginning. This movie is that trial of fire.
During Iron Man 3, Tony is separated from all of his support. Losing his workshop, Jarvis, Pepper and all of his suits, bar a half functional prototype. On top of all of this, he has to get to the bottom of the Mandarin terrorist bombings using nothing but his own quick thinking and ingenuity.
Which he does. And much to my surprise, throughout the majority of this movie you don’t miss the suits at all. He’s capable without them in a way that’s both exciting and entertaining, while retaining his typical Stark snark. Despite the things he’s going through; panic attacks and PTSD after the events of the Avengers, he always feels like the same character.
A more serious tone
A lot of this is thanks to his proto-Spider-Man-like relationship with the kid in the movie, which is quite honestly some of the best banter in the entire film, Tony is able to be himself while also suffering through some personal demons. The MCU’s analogue to Tony’s alcoholism in the comics.
Thanks to a narrative voice over throughout the movie, the movie begins with a transformative, and redemptive tone. Right away, the looming threat of the Mandarin gives everything a darker edge, borne from its direct parallels to real world events. Something the movies have distanced themselves from increasingly as time went on. Telling a story based around terrorist bombings throughout America and being set just off the back of a horrible disaster in New York city… it’s all a little on the nose.
But it helps reinforce the tone the movie wants to carry throughout. Tony himself is dealing with some pretty intense PTSD after his near death experience during the last movie, coupled with the revelation that the Extremis powered henchmen themselves are injured war veterans, being taken advantage of for the sake of the villain’s goals.
It all builds to a move that feels more mature in its approach. Watching it, I found myself being reminded of the tone that the Netflix Marvel series carried, focusing more on humanity and reality rather than over the top hero moments and sweeping camera shots.
It’s almost like it was one big experiment
In many ways, it’s a shame that Marvel didn’t continue down this road. Instead, choosing to double down on the more fantastical, comic book inspired stories of their source material. But Iron Man 3 still felt like the jumping off point for the MCU, starting a trend for them to become more experimental with their approach to style and genre.
This movie evokes the feeling of a 90s action thriller more than a modern summer blockbuster. From the smug, egotistical villain, to the kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the president. Even Tony’s separation from everyone, turning him into one man against the whole world reminds me of so many action movies of the 90s and early 2000s.
It’s a move that would give Marvel the confidence to double down on the political thriller aspects of Winter Soldier and full on comedy of Guardians and Ant-Man. Which was also a heist movie. It’s something about the movie I never really see talked about, but then again that comes back to my point about this being a forgotten movie.
Had this been a more atypical example of the MCU, then maybe everyone would have remembered it more fondly. Personally, I found a lot to enjoy about this movie, but I think it ultimately limited its own potential thanks to its own ambition and choices.
Death by a half dozen cuts
There are two major points of interest for Iron Man 3 for me, one is “what it did” (which I’ve already spent this article talking about), the other is what it didn’t do. Which might be the thing that allowed it to fall form people’s memories in the way that it did.
Coming hot on the heels of Captain America and The Avengers, two movies that really leaned into the “comic booky” nature of the source material, Iron Man 3 did something a bit different, and it didn’t sit right with the whole audience.
The sorest point of contention being the Mandarin. Ben Kingsly was all over the trailers for the movie, like some prophet of death filling us with dread and excitement for one of Iron Man’s greatest villains to become a part of the MCU. The reality of the direction they ended up taking with the Mandarin left a lot of audiences feeling cold, and let down.
As events transpire, this Mandarin turns out to be completely false. And while the antics of him “out of character” are a lot of fun, the twist left a lot of audience members feeling lied to when watching the movie itself for the first time. In hindsight, it doesn’t bother me so much, but at the time, even I was a little let down by the choice they’d made.
Especially when his replacement, Aldrich Killain, feels like a token villain from a 90s John Woo film. His motives, his smug attitude and his weird obsession with Pepper (despite there being no stated reason for it) all culminate in a villain who feels a bit one dimensional. Especially considering the completely outlandish scale of his schemes.
Although bad MCU villains are the rule more than the exception anyway. He’s just evil for evil’s sake, with a grudge against Tony for drunkenly blowing him off a decade and a half previously.
“Cheap trick and a cheesy one liner”
The villains, coupled with a bunch of other little plot holes are what lets this movie down in its final act. Plot holes like: why didn’t Tony just summon his legion of suits at the start of the movie? Or why is Pepper suddenly able to do flips and superhero stuff with no explanation (not that I’m complaining) and; if Tony could get an operation to get the shrapnel removed from his heart, why did it take him this long to do it?
I don’t like criticising a movie on the basis of plot holes. Making a movie is hard. Even the great movies have some logical inconsistencies, but if they do everything else right and entertain us, then we forgive them in a heartbeat. Jumping on a movie like Iron Man 3 for the same thing is unfair.
That being said, the collective of these minor issues does build up and makes the final act of Iron Man 3 weaker for it. Despite being really strong in terms of tone, characterisation and comedy throughout the first two thirds of it.
And in hindsight, the continuation of the MCU further made the ending of this movie feel strange. Tony Stark ends the movie stating that he had closed that gap that existed between him and Iron Man, that he has truly become the best version of himself now, with or without the suits. But this “best version” still goes on to create Ultron, fight with Cap and lose hope against Thanos.
I guess that’s why Tony Stark is the best character in the MCU, he’s endlessly complex and never stops developing throughout. This is a nice little end to the Iron Man Trilogy, giving us some conclusion to Tony Stark fully realising himself as the hero he wants to be. But Iron Man’s story is far from over, and Tony’s prickly relationship with doing the right thing only expands as his story forges on.