There’s a scene in the new Iron Man 3 where a bombing kills a group of innocent spectators at an event. It has the unfortunate timing to be released only a few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing — the surface similarities are jarring — but it does drive home the feeling that this, indeed, is the world in which we live.
The movie was completed well before the explosions in Boston occurred, of course, but explosions that kill innocents are, sadly, nothing new.
It could be argued that Iron Man is the Marvel hero most in touch with the world we live in. Captain America was born of optimism, Thor has roots in history and mythology and Spider-Man has a certain familiar angst, but it feels like we’re living in Iron Man’s reality. Optimism has been replaced by resolve, with the hope that technology can save us from what other technology has created.
In the third outing for the character (or the fourth, if you count last summer’s The Avengers as Iron Man 2.5), and the seventh time we’ve visited this particular cinematic universe, the on-screen world feels more lived in this time. While the excitement of the first flight in the armor in Iron Man (for my money, the best scene of that movie) might not be there, it’s replaced by a comfort of knowing these characters and how things work. This movie comes close to bridging the gap between a blockbuster movie and a great television series, where we come to really get to know the characters. Iron Man 3 really takes advantage of this. It’s refreshing to be able to move beyond the origin story, where the creators can rightly expect us to be familiar with the characters and the concepts and just start telling a story.
The film, starring Robert Downey Jr. as industrialist/genius Tony Stark (the role he was made for) and directed by Shane Black (who directed Downey in the underrated Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang) picks up just a little while after The Avengers left off. Where the film differs from most superhero fare, however, is showing Tony’s reaction to the events of that film. If it’s not full-blown PTSD, it’s close. It’s not unrealistic to believe that panic attacks would be the result of almost being killed in an alien invasion over New York City.
Tony Stark, the man behind the iron mask, never set out to be a hero. He was, in fact, a weapons manufacturer, and a good one. When the character was introduced in the comics at the height of the Cold War, he was forced to create his armor in order to stay alive after being injured in a communist attack in a Vietnam-ish country. The character has been updated over the years to the point where he was now injured by a terrorist attack in an Afghanistan-ish country. Different enemy, different location, but the same “ripped from the headline” fears. Someone doesn’t like us, and someone wants to kill us.
In this film, that “someone” is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist whose characters seems to have been created from bits of different real-world terrorist (there’s more than a little Osama Bin Laden mixed in there). The Mandarin, however, isn’t alone; an organization called Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) is playing in the background, setting things in motion.
There’s certainly a lot for the comic fan to like in this film: the integration of the “Extremis” and “The Five Nightmares” story arcs, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Stan Lee cameo, Pepper Potts (briefly) in R.E.S.C.U.E. mode, the appearance of the specialized armors (HULKBUSTER!). Ten years ago, seeing a comic book character so fully realized would have been unthinkable; the film, however, is still enjoyable for those who haven’t had the benefit of 40 years of backstory, which is no simple trick.
But there’s a benefit in not having a slavish expectation of everything being as it is in print; after all, it’s a different medium, with different strengths and different constraints. The visuals can be amazing (and they frequently are in this film), but you can’t tell 40 years worth of story in two hours. The film has an … interesting take on the Mandarin (I wouldn’t dream of giving up the plot point here), and repurposes the “Iron Patriot” armor in a credible way (it’s explained that the armor’s previous name, War Machine, played as “too aggressive” in focus groups).
The future is unclear for this version of Tony Stark (Downey’s contract was for three Iron Man films, and the film ends on a note of finality). If this is the final time we see this world’s Armored Avenger, this is a fine trilogy and a fine way to leave it.
Of course, there’s always The Avengers 2 to look forward to….