So, it should be clear by now that I really like the MCU. Even the films that aren’t so good, I still retain a fondness for. I recognize they’re bad (e.g. Iron Man 2), but I don’t really dislike them, except in a ‘why couldn’t you have been better’ kind of way.
Iron Man 3 is different. I hate Iron Man 3.
Following the events in The Avengers, Tony Stark’s post-traumatic stress disorder has become even more severe. He hasn’t slept in weeks, has nightmares whenever he tries, and occupies himself by endlessly tinkering on his Iron Man suits (he has forty-five by now, stored in a massive hanger under his mansion). When he’s awake, he begins periodically having panic attacks.
The timing is bad, since a Bin Laden-esque terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin has surfaced and begun bombing targets in America and abroad while broadcasting anti-American propaganda videos in which he threatens to assassinate the President. In response, the government redesigns Rhodey’s War Machine suit and renames him the Iron Patriot, utilizing the services of AIM, a tech company run by Aldrich Killian, who is a former co-worker of Pepper’s an who once tried to interest Tony in his work, only for Tony to blow him off to spend the night with hot biologist. Said biologist had been working on a treatment utilizing the unused “bioelectric center” of the brain to regenerate lost limbs and develop super strength, among other things.
Then, after the Mandarin’s latest attack puts Tony’s friend Happy Hogan into the hospital, Tony issues a public challenge to the Mandarin, which results in his mansion being assaulted with gunships and him being stranded in Tennessee with a malfunctioning suit.
Okay, there are a few major issues already.
First and most obviously, how the heck is it that Tony’s mansion has no security whatsoever against this kind of attack? He is a publicly known Superhero who makes a point of challenging terrorists and dictators on a regular basis, who has survived three direct assassination attempts and only recently helped to fight off an alien invasion, yet he doesn’t even have any system in place to alert him of incoming missiles (his only warning is noticing it on a news broadcast that happens to be filming his house). The attempt to cover this is that JARVIS is overwhelmed because Tony “gave the world press his home address.” Are they seriously implying that up until now no one knew how to find Tony Stark’s cliff-side mansion? The film implies that giving out his address was a reckless move that allowed the Mandarin to strike him, but his house is probably marked off on tourist maps. Why would he have such terrible security, especially given his history, and given the fact that, in the opening voice over, he says he’s been obsessed with trying to protect himself and Pepper?
Then, after the assault, JARVIS automatically takes him to Tennessee, because he had earlier ‘mapped out a flight path’ in that direction to follow a potential lead. So, when JARVIS goes into emergency mode, he defaults to a potential flight plan he mapped out for a completely different scenario? Granted he says that he’s “malfunctioning,” but that’s pretty big malfunction for such an advanced computer; he’s able to improvise a creative way to save Tony when he’s trapped underwater by the rubble of his house, but then defaults to shooting him halfway across the country?
And going back a bit, assuming the government wanted to turn Rhodey into ‘Iron Patriot,’ why on Earth would they contract AIM instead of Stark Industries; the company that actually built the armor? That’s even buying that they’d do this (the excuse given in the film was the “War Machine” was deemed too aggressive, which…okay I’ll give them that one), or would even need to do more than just throw on a new coat of paint. The real reason this is here is so that, later in the film, Tony can use Rhodey’s account to access AIM’s top secret files. Because, since they worked on his suit, there’s a back door into documentation of their highly illegal human experiments in his account. They don’t have that highly incriminating evidence locked away on a separate, secure hard-drive or anything; apparently anyone they ever did any work for can get at it if only they know how to hack a major computer system from hundreds of miles away with about five keystrokes (contrast this with Rampage, where the evil biotech company kept all records of their criminal activity safely stored on a separate, undocumented hard-drive so that when the FBI came calling they could give over all their computer access without fear).
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the ‘Extremis’ project. It gives the person extreme strength and healing abilities, including the power to regain lost limbs, but at the cost of creating extreme heat and potentially overloading and causing the person to explode in a massive fireball. It also, apparently, allows you to shut down electronics, since that’s how Rhodey is captured…except not all the time, because they never do that same trick again. And it allows you to breathe fire at one point. As you can tell, it’s incredibly inconsistent, from what exactly it allows you to do to how much damage you can take before you explode (e.g. some guys go down with a repulsor blast or two, but Killian tanks several explosions).
Moreover, this doesn’t feel very fitting for Iron Man, who has previously dealt with other armored or mechanical-based adversaries. This weird biotech is thematically off point for him, though that’s admittedly a more minor issue.
What isn’t a minor issue is the big ‘twist’ that comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Tony tracks down ‘the Mandarin’ and discovers he’s nothing but a drug-addled actor that Killian set up as a false target to cover his own prosaic plot to manipulate the military-industrial complex.
There are so many reasons why this is a terrible, terrible choice. First of all, it doesn’t fit with what we saw earlier. There’s a scene prior to the reveal of the Mandarin striding confidently into the set and ordering the filming to begin in his commanding voice; what, was the actor told to stay in character the whole time, except for when it would be ‘funny’ for him not to? Also, the scientist working with Killian comments that she didn’t know “you and the Master” were going to blow Tony’s house up; so, she doesn’t know it’s all an act then? How would she not know that if she’s that deep into the scheme? Also, the Mandarin shoots a man on live television: was that faked? If so, weren’t they running a huge risk that the guy would give the game away by reacting to not really being shot? Or if he was an actor too, then wouldn’t somebody realize that the purported ‘victim’ wasn’t actually dead once SHIELD, the CIA, and everyone else got hold of the footage? Actually, on that subject, are we really expected to believe that during the (conservatively speaking) weeks that the Mandarin has been active and the whole government has been hunting him, no one involved was able to recognize a green screen effect?
Not to mention that after the reveal, the actor first claims he didn’t know anything that was going on and thought it was all fake, then a couple scenes later starts telling all he knows about the plan. This character has no consistency whatsoever; he simply is whatever the script needs him to be for the sake of either pushing the plot along or telling a crude joke.
On that subject, really think of this whole stupid plan: Killian said he set the Mandarin up as a target, since “subtlety’s had its day” ever since superheroes started showing up (showing what appears to be a level of contempt for the genre). Basically, his whole plan depends on everyone looking at the Mandarin and not at him or the Vice President. So, he picks a drunken, drug-addled idiot to play the role; a guy who seems incapable of focusing even with a gun in his face and who instantly tries to spill the beans when things start to go wrong. What would have happened if the guy had passed out or lost focus or suffered cravings in the middle of a broadcast? What if the authorities had happened to show up? What if the guy had a crisis of conscience (not that anyone has a conscience in a Shane Black film)? Why would he stake such a high-risk plan on such a patently unreliable foundation? If you’re going to get an actor in a situation like this, wouldn’t you want one who was wide-awake, on point, and thoroughly committed to the scheme, rather than one who might forget his own name at any moment?
Then there’s simply the fact that they’re setting up a striking, all-competent mastermind as the villain, only to suddenly whip the rug out from under us and reveal ‘ha ha! It’s actually yet another evil businessman looking to get rich selling weapons.’ The twist is that we have the exact same type of villain we’ve had in the other two films. Not that I thought the film’s depiction of the Mandarin, with his pseudo-southern voice Middle Eastern imagery was particularly impressive, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just Guy Pearce in a suit making bad jokes. Also, remember that the Ten Rings organization is a real terrorist organization in this universe; they’re the ones who captured Tony back in the first film, meaning that this film seems like it’s setting up for Tony to face the demons of his past, taking on the organization that changed his life and finally confronting its mastermind. That would have fit perfectly with his struggles with PTSD. Instead, the set up from the first film is simply dropped in favor of a cheap joke and a more generic villain.
(I’ve heard the argument that the Mandarin is a ‘racist’ character. I’m not really sure what ‘racist’ stereotype would be perpetuated by an Asian criminal mastermind at the head of a world-spanning terrorist organization and who can run strategic rings around the entire US military. Either way, there were better ways to deal with the issue than…this)
Adding to all that is just the sheer bad taste of the storyline. Its premise of faked terrorist attacks in the service of political and corporate interests, complete with a fake terrorist leader overtly made up to resemble Osama Bin Laden, is quite frankly a grotesque and insulting take on real-life tragedies. The first Iron Man played on real-life imagery as well, but for cathartic purposes; the terrorists might not be like any real-world terrorists, but they were ruthless and terrible people whom Iron Man fought to protect the innocent. Iron Man 3 brings up similar imagery – and much more on the nose – in order to suggest that there’s no such thing and the real villains are all homegrown politicians and businessmen (and veterans, judging by how the film depicts the Extremis patients as either helpless junkies or gleefully willing to kill innocent people). This is compounded by ‘humorous’ scenes of Rhodey being sent on wild-goose chases and bursting in on innocent Pakistani workhouses and the like.
This an extremely ignorant and childish take on real-world events (all the more so as the film came out mere weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing), and more to the point, none of it belongs in a Marvel movie.
A similar level of bad taste runs throughout the film, and it is this much more than the plot holes that make me hate it so much. As another example, there’s a bit where Tony ends up hold up in a garage overseen by a precocious young boy. The kid tells him that his father disappeared years ago, to which Tony gives the delightful line: “Dads leave; no need to be a pussy about it.”
Quite apart from being a truly horrible thing to say to a child, that line is completely at odds with Tony’s own complicated relationship with his father, who died so abruptly without ever telling him he loved him. Why not just have Tony look away uncomfortably? Or have him say something like, “sounds like he’s not worth bothering about.” But no; Shane Black has to go for the cheap, vulgar joke every single time.
Tony then gruffly puts up with the kid for the next few scenes before leaving him to guard his charging suit (why does his suit need to be charged? It’s powered by the arc reactor in his chest, plus one in its own chest piece. Tony’s later seen with jumper cables running from his suit to a car battery; did no one tell the writer the rules of their own series?), which the kid does despite the fact that Tony’s been pretty much nothing but a jerk to him. Oh, except that he gave him a ‘non-lethal’ weapon to use on the bully he intuits the kid is having trouble with, apparently knowing that every precocious child in a movie has bully problems. I know Tony has trouble understanding people, but does he really think giving the kid a weapon to bring to school is going to end well?
The kid also badgers him about the events in The Avengers, bringing on his panic attacks. This is almost played for laughs, as was the earlier scene where he undergoes an attack, then rushes out of the restaurant to where he…has his suit parked, just standing upright on the sidewalk? Then Rhodey ‘comically’ taps him on the head to get his attention. Tony’s PTSD, which has been with us one way or another since the original film, and which has up until now been handled with a degree of subtlety, is now front and center and mostly used for cheap jokes until it’s just…forgotten. I’m not kidding, the film never gives a conclusion to that storyline. From the moment the kid suggests he deal with it by ‘building something’ (which is what he’s been doing this whole time), his post-traumatic stress never becomes an issue again until the post-credit scene, where it’s revealed he’s roped Bruce Banner into being his therapist for some reason.
This film takes every serious, meaningful potential in its storyline and just turns them into jokes, or else forgets about them entirely. Then, to top it all off, it throws a whole new theme at us in the epilogue. Not joking; at the last second they tack on the idea that Tony needs to give up being Iron Man for…some reason. Being Iron Man was pretty much the only thing that saved the day throughout the film, to the point where the only way the writers could think to generate drama was to blow up his mansion and make his suits malfunction. But in the final five minutes of screen time, after the villain is defeated, Tony suddenly decides it’s the end of the Iron Man saga, trashes his suits (which all have a self-destruct feature: I guess Dr. Doofenshmirtz consulted on the design, and thank goodness that one never malfunctioned) and gets the shrapnel and electromagnet removed from his chest. Yes, that symbolically potent ‘change of heart’ that the whole first film was about, which has been used so effectively since then? This film effectively just says “…and I got rid of that” in its final two minutes.
This on top of Tony simply saying “and I fixed Pepper.” You see, Pepper’s injected with the Extremis over the course of the film (apparently just because Killian wanted to torture her, and I guess the guy with heat powers couldn’t think of a better way to do it than…giving her superpowers. The powers that sometimes backfire and create a massive explosion. While she is in his base of operations at the crucial moment for his evil scheme). This allows her to suddenly bust out some superpowered action moves at the last second to finally defeat the villain and take out a rogue Iron Man suit.
Now, one of the great strengths of this series has been Gwyneth Paltrow’s down-to-earth performance as Pepper Potts; the one great stabilizing influence on Tony’s life. Part of the struggle is that he’s drawn to the normal life that she represents, but feels compelled to use his genius to protect the world, even if it means risking his relationship with her. Now this great connection to ordinary life is turned into a super-strong heroine doing flips and three-point landings, tearing Iron Man suits apart with her bare hands and making them into improvised weaponry to save the day. What a cheap, stupid, thoughtless way to tear the heart out of the story!
And then, after that, we’re left with Pepper imbued with these highly-volatile superpowers that could easily kill her, and then we just get a voice over of Tony saying essentially “and I cured her.” Nothing so far in the film has suggested a cure was possible; they never even alluded to it. They suggested that Tony knew how to correct the formula, though he’d forgotten (and was drunk at the time), but never that it could be reversed, until in the epilogue he just says he did it. Just like he just declares he had the shrapnel removed. The film ends with two major developments in the characters’ lives, which we were never told were possibilities, simply stated to have happened. It would be as if The Avengers ended with Nick Fury saying “and we were also able to cure Banner of the Hulk.”
Speaking of the ending, the final battle brings in yet another plot hole; when Tony and Rhodey arrive to save the President, Tony simply summons all his previous suits from their hanger. Why the heck didn’t he do that at any point earlier in the film? He basically has a small army of JARVIS-controlled Iron Man suits that he can summon at will, but he doesn’t do so until the last possible moment? He’s fighting for his life, and with the lives of many, many other people on the line, but he just…what, forgot that he could do that? He didn’t even let Rhodey know this was an option until he simply does it.
Then also, he spends a lot of the fight trying and failing to get into a suit, and in the final showdown seems to be out of them at last…until he hits his self-destruct sequence and about ten of them go up in fireworks. So where the heck were they when he needed them? When he’s trying to reach Pepper to stop her from falling, why can’t he order JARVIS to catch her?
The one positive about this is that it sets up Ultron, though that’s a story for another time. I will also say that I appreciate that the President is played as being a thoroughly decent man, and Rhodey’s respectful attitude toward him is an isolated moment of sincerity. Rhodey is given a good amount to do this time around, and he and Tony play off each other as well as ever. A few of the jokes do land, like one AIM henchman who, seeing Tony is armed, quickly surrenders saying he never liked working for them anyway. Likewise, a stunt sequence of Tony having to rescue thirteen people falling from an airplane is staged and executed with some cleverness. There’s also some creativity in how Tony is able to fight without his suit or with only parts of it.
Though this brings up yet another issue; Tony’s new trick this time around is summoning parts of his armor to himself and equipping and re-equipping on the fly. Again, the writer apparently forgot the rules of the Iron Man suit; that it’s powered by his arc reactor. So, when the bits start flying toward him on their own mini jets, what, exactly, is powering them? Worse still, the film posits he’s able to summon them from effectively any distance, so that at one point they fly from Tennessee to Florida. I’m sorry; that’s just stupid. We can swallow a lot of unbelievable tech and crazy powers, but this is a step too far. Tony operates by technology; that’s his whole theme. But technology has to have a logic to it, even if it’s one that wouldn’t actually work. This breaks the established rules of his powers, while also being way, way overboard in terms of scope. It’s one thing to suggest that the Iron Man suit can fly from California to Afghanistan: it’s another to suggest a Wi-Fi signal can reach from Miami to Tennessee.
Another point: we learn that the Mandarin’s bombings were all caused by the side-effect of the Extremis; people blowing up. At one point we see there are dozens of explosions in the US alone, not to mention more abroad. AIM has been able to work on that many people without anything slipping? We see that they seem to mostly recruit soldiers who have lost limbs; how, exactly, did these soldiers explain to their families and friends how they came to grow back body parts? Didn’t anyone notice this in any of the many, many people involved? How has this possibly been kept under the radar for this long, especially with so many people looking into it? Again, we know that SHIELD, the FBI, the CIA, and basically everyone else is trying to hunt down the Mandarin; none of them have uncovered stories of soldiers who miraculously re-grew their limbs before apparently blowing themselves up? Tony talks to the people of the small town where one of the soldiers detonated, including the man’s mother, but none of them mention that he had lost a limb or been severely injured only to show up fine one day. Again, how is it possible they missed that?
Speaking of people investigating the Mandarin, there’s another glaring point you might have noticed. We have a terrorist mastermind who is threatening to murder the president and has been bombing targets for some considerable amount of time. We know SHIELD is involved in the investigation from the fact that JARVIS is able to access their database to create a digital copy of a crime-scene (because he can do that, I guess). So, where is Captain America? Where’s Black Widow or Hawkeye? Heck, we know from the final scene that Banner is hanging out with Stark, so where’s he during all of this? Why on earth would Rhodey be the only one hunting the Mandarin? And come to think of it, why bother re-branding him as ‘Iron Patriot’ when you already have Captain America on your payroll?
On top of all of that, there are a lot of sloppy little things: Tony Stark doesn’t know about different ammo types, despite being a weapons manufacturer (something he himself points out while ‘comically’ not getting it). At one point, Tony accidentally summons an Iron Man suit in his sleep, causing it grab Pepper in a ‘shock’ moment. Why, if he summoned it, did it grab her, and what does that have to do with anything? Before that, why did Tony try to avoid dealing with Pepper by remote-controlling one of the suits to cover for him, except to show that he can control them remotely now? In the opening flashback, Tony asks to meet Killian on the roof to discuss his plans for AIM, only to blow him off, setting up Killian’s resentment: why would he do that in the first place, given that Killian appears disheveled and completely lacking in credibility, and Tony could easily have just told him to make an appointment? Part of Killian’s plan involves infiltrating Air Force One in the Iron Patriot armor, meaning he can operate it simply by putting it on. Later, he uses it to carry the President around in, so…apparently it can’t be operated from the inside by just anyone? Also, why, when he tries to kill the President, does he put him inside the armor? It’s not deactivated, because Rhodey puts it on a few minutes later to fly the President to safety. So…what the heck is going on there?
As you can see, this film is a gigantic mess, and unlike Iron Man 2, the individual parts can’t even stand on their own as far as they go. It’s like the director simply walked in, took a solid premise, and decided to make it all into a giant practical joke for his personal amusement without caring a whit about the characters, the story, or the franchise. It effectively ignores its place in the larger context of the series, the humor mostly falls flat or is in bad taste, the plot holes swallow the entire film, and the whole thing is so mean-spirited and stupid that it’s hard to watch at times. This coupled with some startlingly bad writing choices – such as relegating some of the most important moments to the epilogue – makes for a really, really terrible experience. Easily the worst film of the MCU to date, and that’s not going to change for a while at least.