Iron Man 3: How It Could Have Been Better

I had a great time at Iron Man 3. Which is no surprise, as it was a movie constructed to entertain. Its pacing and plot were better crafted than the very uneven second film, and for that I was grateful. I also appreciated the increased screentime for Don Cheadle’s Rhodes / War Machine character – good acting, good contrast between two men with similar tech but different personalities and loyalties, and more diversification of the Marvel movie-verse,

And truth be told, I didn’t go in expecting a film like the first Iron Man film, or Captain America, where you’re learning who the person is as well as seeing what they do – resulting in a richer story. However, in post-game analysis with C-Man, I had to admit that there were big places where the Iron Man 3 filmmakers could have chosen to make their film deeper and more compelling… and they just didn’t. So it’s just “very good” where it could have been great.

From my perspective, here are the areas where it fell short.

Lack of chilling, deep emotional core moments. The first Iron Man movie was so striking because of the pure shock of seeing Robert Downey Jr. transform from a shallow drunk playboy… into a somewhat shallow, sometimes drunk playboy who has seen evil and decided he’s going to put himself in its path so it can’t hurt anyone else. RDJ can f-ing act, y’all. The first Iron Man movie is the ultimate refutation of “it’s an origin story and everyone already knows what happens, so it’s boring.” Yes, because amazing actors doing Shakespeare is boring if you already know the story? (Not claiming the first Iron Man movie is Shakespeare, just making an analogy here.)

This Iron Man movie fills most of the available space for character development and “oh my GOD” moments with banter. The first movie had character / emotional moments in spades. Even the second film had its moments. But in the third film, there is no Tony Stark standing on the track at Monte Carlo staring down Whiplash, giving the audience chills while the suit assembles, because HERE is the man who built himself weaponized armor in a cave with a car battery hooked up to a gadget in his chest, and he is NOT going to let you hurt these people. There is no dying Tony Stark drinking and partying and falling apart to manipulate Pepper into taking over the company and Rhodes into taking a suit so that someone will be there to take care of people when he’s gone. There are just jokes. (Which are funny, don’t get me wrong!) And a bit of acknowledgement of the toll that being a superhero can take. Which brings us to…

The depiction of Tony Stark’s mental health issues. Anxiety attacks do not last for 45 seconds and resolve by putting snow on your face. Even if you don’t know a lot about mental health issues, something was a little flat in these scenes. There wasn’t a lot of distress, emotional pain kind of distress, that Stark would have been feeling as these attacks debilitated him during a time when he was feeling continuous increasing pressure to protect everyone from harm. We know RDJ can portray that distress. His confession to Pepper set the stage. I think we got one more flash of it when he was sitting next to his car, sans working armor, and asked “What am I going to do?” But it was over so fast. Just five more seconds, people, five more seconds.

Do we have time in this film to watch Stark completely fall apart under pressure? No, and that would be a totally different movie. But bringing up the aftereffects of Stark’s experience in New York so early in the film and then not allowing it to really impact the character much at all just seems like a distraction.

And let’s think about Pepper’s reaction to all this. When your boyfriend tells you that he’s experiencing symptoms of PTSD, the correct response is not “Let’s go take a shower together.” When your boyfriend is having such nightmares that he summons a suit of armor in his sleep for self-defense, the correct response is not “I’m sleeping on the couch” and deciding that his obsession with building additional suits of armor to protect you is the actual problem – rather than the underlying fear and anxiety coming from trauma and a near-death experience.

Which brings us to…

Pepper’s continued uselessness. I give up! I give up on Pepper being a strong female character in the Iron Man films. Maybe she’ll be better in the Avengers films directed by other people, if she ever gets more screen time.

In this film, did Pepper save Tony Stark? Yes. Once after he threw armor onto her body to protect her, and once at the end with her Extremis enhanced physiology – which also seems to have magically gifted her with sufficient combat training to use those assets in a crisis. And which she then immediately demanded to have removed. While crying. Again. Because in general, in these films, Pepper Potts is not the Pepper I know from modern Marvel comics – spine of steel, and perfectly capable of looking a bad guy in the face calmly and saying “Screw you.” The film Pepper Potts is much more likely to cry, scream, emotionally fall apart, cling to someone, or get captured and used as bait than any other outcome.

This Pepper Potts is NOT a strong female character, and I’m kind of terrified of all the people who are writing about Gwyneth Paltrow’s superb portrayal of this character. Even if you don’t have any comics referent for her personality, surely I’m not the only one who sees that in these films, she is the typical damsel? Every once in a while they’ll give her a moment to fake us out as if she’s awesome, but her only plot functions are to be Tony Stark’s love interest and to motivate him. It’s like we’re looking so hard for her to be cool that we’ll seize on any little scrap we’re thrown and ignore the larger pattern of her behavior.

And let’s not forget the slut-shaming she engaged in of the reporter who slept with Stark in the first film. Because the true mark of a strong female character is to harshly judge other women for having enjoyable sex? No, thanks, I’ll pass. Her jealousy of any other woman who shows up on Stark’s radar also doesn’t reflect well on any attempts to argue that she’s some kick-ass Marvel lady here.

Using the Extremis storyline in a shallow way.

It’s kind of a shame that the Extremis process and storyline was not used in a more deep, substantial way. I’m not a stickler for the movies to use storylines from the comics as-is. They remix. That’s fine. But if a filmmaker is drawing from a comic and chooses to “lighten up” the storyline, it’s okay to critique that. The two most salient points for me are:

In Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s Extremis, Stark’s demon isn’t just some guy he blew off at a conference. It’s his history of arms dealing. It’s his crushing feeling of responsibility to now make up for that, to make the world a better place – to be able to look himself in the mirror every morning. Instead, in Iron Man 3, we get Stark’s primary demon as a bad guy who is hurting people, and to fix it, Tony needs to punch stuff.

When the funding for Extremis development was in jeopardy in the comic, the “field test” was to deploy it live and demonstrate that Extremis “enhanciles” could take down Iron Man. That’s why Stark was drawn into the web by Maya Hansen. (And no one kidnapped Pepper to do it!) They didn’t need his big brain to fix Extremis. They targeted him to destroy him.

Nothing in the film’s treatment of Extremis has as much emotional depth or chilling factor for the audience as these two elements of the comic storyline.

The Mandarin confusion.

I don’t know how I feel about The Mandarin, given the mash-up of Chinese and Middle Eastern elements they painted him with in the film.

IF the message was “See, we gave you U.S. folks a mashup of Chinese and Middle Eastern stuff, and you assumed Middle Eastern because you have this knee-jerk reaction, and you wasted your own time because it was a white guy all along.”

THEN I wish there had been one line of explicit dialogue supporting that. Because without it, it’s possibly too easy to read this as “You assumed Middle Eastern because we gave you a few scraps, and that’s where most terrorists come from, so it made sense.” Then the Mandarin is just a cover to preserve Killian’s cherished anonymity and not a critique of anything.

For more discussion on this point, see Race + Film: Who is the Mandarin? by Kendra James and Arturo Garcia at Racialicious.

Final thoughts.

I had a great time! And I understand that you can’t make a great movie every time. “Very good” most of the time is still pretty good, right?

And what is up for not giving Matt Fraction’s Stark Disassembled any kind of nod for inspiration here? Investigating bomb sites that turn out to be humans exploding? Dealing with heat overload from an enhanced power set? Are we the only ones who noticed this?

Edited July 14th, 2013 to add: read Well, Which Iron Man Was I Watching? at Breaking The Fifth Wall, too.

2 thoughts on “Iron Man 3: How It Could Have Been Better

  1. SunlessNick


    My biggest issue with the Extremis storyline was the way it nerfed Maya Hansen’s expertise in favour of further elevating Tony as a polymath genius. In that one night while drunk he figured out a solution to her problem that she hasn’t been able to make sense of for twenty years, despite being the one who’s supposedly the expert in that field.

    On the other hand, Maya also surprised me by being mostly villainous, fancying Tony, and betraying Pepper, but somehow without being the “fatale rival” – instead, she seemed to suffer genuine guilt over having done the latter. (I do wish she’d survived).

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