“Pulling the Mandarin Over Our Eyes”- Iron Man 3 Spoiler Review
This review is positively littered with spoilers so don’t read it unless you want to know that Thor dies at the end.
I loved this film. Out and out, it’s one of the most fun times I’ve ever had at the cinema. Start to finish, there was hardly anything about this film that I didn’t like and there was certainly no moment that dragged on. There were no “potty break scenes.” I personally made the mistake of going to the bathroom during one of the scenes where Rebecca Hall was hanging out with Pepper and returned to find out I’d missed the whole revelation that Hall’s Maya Hansen was a traitor, so I done fucked up in that regard.
SIDE NOTE: Upon hearing that Rebecca Hall was in the film, I started speculating that perhaps she was Wasp, in preparation for 2015’s Ant-Man, only do find out that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Iron Man 3 wasn’t perfect, certainly. Hall herself never amounts to much more than Exposition Bot. But Iron Man 3 does offer the perfect case for the audience being able to forgive a few things if the movie is as goddamn fun as this one was.
I attribute most of that to director Shane Black. Black, who most may know as the writer of the original Lethal Weapon, but who they should know as the writer/director of the fantastic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, one of my favorite movies. Black loves ridiculous action sequences and defying expectations during those sequences, epitomized about perfectly in the moment when a henchman gives up during the Miami firefight, or when Mach 42 missed Tony Stark and broke right next to him. His dialogue moves fast, and his characters are often silly and imperfect. Needless to say, he’s kind of the perfect person to helm an Iron Man film. The movie bleeds with his influence, from the buddy cop ending to the big Mandarin twist that I’ll get to later.
I was actually phenomenally impressed with how much of Shane Black made it into this film, considering Marvel and Disney’s reputation for homogenizing these films and making them all feel a little same-y. Beyond notable Shakespeare director Kenneth Branagh helmed Thor a few years back, and vowed to never return because Disney simply wouldn’t let him direct how he wanted to. But if Iron Man 3 is any indication, after the phenomenal success of The Avengers and its proper set-up, it seems Marvel and Disney may be more willing to have these films feel more diverse and interesting, closer to their directors’ visions (and with significantly more child-berating).
I still maintain that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in real danger of over-exposure, what with two movies a year, and will eventually collapse in on itself. Whether it’s after one of the Avengers films sucks, or after Robert Downey, Jr. calls it quits as Iron Man, eventually this franchise will reach its end. And looking at RDJ’s IMDB page for this article, I totally understand why he’d want to call this whole thing off, despite getting paid $50 million to do The Avengers. Downey is such a wonderful and talented actor, as anyone who has seen Tropic Thunder can testify, and he has hardly done anything that isn’t Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes since 2008. He wants to stretch his wings and do other things, and that’s perfectly understandable. Plus it’s about time that one of those other characters stepped up and became interesting, since The Hulk obviously won’t be carrying his own movie anytime soon.
Right now, the suitable replacement for Tony Stark would be Henry Pym, the Ant-Man. As silly as that sounds, Pym is also an alcoholic, down-putting scientist with a superhero schtick that doesn’t necessary lend itself to well in-concept to being particularly interesting. It’d be like if Iron Man had blended with Spider-Man 3 and Tony had just smacked Pepper right across the face for not being a robot. Plus, it’s being directed by Edgar Wright, my favorite filmmaker and so it should ideally be awesome, if the test footage is any indication.
In any case, it’s about time that I actually talked about this movie, eh? And about that Mandarin-related twist that you’re all probably so keen to hear my thoughts about?
It’s Christmas Time, because Shane Black has a thing about setting movies at Christmas, and Tony Stark is suffering from Post Avengers Stress Disorder, which I think is Shane Black’s way of telling us “Don’t think about the Avengers, because it will make Tony Stark sad.” This was an interesting choice, one I certainly would have never thought of. In a world with Gods and super-soldiers and Bat Men, I’ve never even thought that some of these events could leave a character mentally shaken.
It’s a touch that could have destroyed the movie, stopping the narrative dead. As it stands, it’s just another thing that happens in the movie. It wasn’t superb or life affirming, nor was it irritating. It actually does a good job of bringing Tony Stark down to our level and making this man a sympathetic character. They also pair him up with an adorable child, which I’ll get to later.
Tony and Pepper are growing apart. Their formerly close relationship now has a giant rabbit-sized roadblock between them. Tony stays awake all night building suits, most of which can now operate without Tony being in them at all.
Elsewhere, Rhodey (Don Cheadle, finally getting rid of my memories that his role was once played by Terrence Howard) is being reconditioned as the “Iron Patriot,” with his former War Machine suit decked out like a truck in Alabama. And Guy Pearce has appeared on the scene as a villain who finally isn’t in a goddamn iron suit. And that’s enough of explaining the plot to you.
Pearce’s first scene as Sexy Now Killian was actually very interesting, what with his comparing of the human brain to the universe, and his giving the people their 3D money’s worth of trickery. Everything you needed to know about the movie’s plot was laid out right there, with Pepper less-than-subtly hinting at what was totally going to happen. Despite all that, it’s this scene that brings us into the first of the four movie that compromise Iron Man 3 (JFK Detective Film, A Precocious Kid?!, Rambo, Buddy Cop). And you can bet those four parts will be taken a piece at a time.
JFK Detective Film
This first section actually really complicates the Batman vs. Iron Man debate by having Iron Man out-detective The World’s Greatest Detective. There is more quality investigating in that one scene of crime scene deconstruction than there was in all of Nolan’s Batman films.
Mysteries are great, and there aren’t enough good ones in film these days. What this one gets right, where so many other possibly great ones fall short is that I actually care about the person solving the mystery. Tony has the benefit of there being lots of character development on him before he started solving crimes, but the point still stands.
Now, yes, bringing in SHIELD could have been a really easy way to solve this crime quickly, but I’m going to answer this “Why didn’t he just call Captain America?” thing right now, once and for all, for this whole movie.
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WAY LESS INTERESTING!
It’s the thing I hate about shared universes. It takes away so much of the drama when you have to be concerned with whether or not you could just make Hawkeye shoot Killian through the face ten minutes in. Think about how much less fun it would have been with SHIELD called in, how many less cool robots there would have been at the end. People too concerned with in-universe logic forget how much fun these damn things are supposed to be. Yes, Rhodey probably could have called in a suit to save the president, but it was way more interesting and wonderful to watch him swing over explosions and kill fire people and leap and land in a suit and do all that neat stuff instead of having Nick Fury do it for him. And that’s my stance on that whole idea, as a rule, forever and always so there.
The investigation takes a strange turn when Tony calls out the Mandarin in television and the Mandarin bombs the shit out of his house. I really enjoyed the fight, and watching Tony try to get his suit working, but our boy Stark may have taken it a step too far there. Maybe I would have felt differently if Happy Hogan were a character that I really cared about, like Rhodey or Pepper, but I still felt Tony’s pain at the bombing so I suppose. I knew he cared and that’s what mattered.
But, yes, that bombing scene was awesome, a really great chance to see the kind of flawed actions sequences Shane Black would be giving us. It’s great to see a hero not nail his heroing every time.
Now, his suit flying him to Tennessee unannounced was, I suppose ONE WAY to get him to Act 2. It was a bit of a clunky way, but it was fine, and funny, bringing us straight into…
A Precocious Kid?!
When I heard that Tony Stark would be teaming up with a kid, I was terrified. I’m on record for saying that kids and babies ruin things. But what Shane Black gave us was not a “Look at Tony’s redemption arc in the form of this kid,” which is great. Any notion of that happening was immediately dispelled by the fact that that kid is a dick. He’s manipulative, and tiny, and very helpful, with a surprisingly sparing amount of “Awwww” moments.
I’m not entirely sure what the point of the child was, besides giving us another flawed action sequence later in the Rambo section and giving Tony a few more panic attacks, but I do know that I laughed heartily at almost every interaction between Tony and the Kid (especially the scene where Tony’s leaving) and that I did find myself caring about him there at the end when he’s becoming helpful, like Justin Long’s character at the end of Galaxy Quest. Damn thing may have changed my mind about kids in movies.
This is the part of the film I’m sure everyone takes an issue with. Not all of it, mind you. This is the period of the film that takes place between the time Tony leaves Tennessee and the third act shoot-out at the ship yard.
Most of the act is awesome and totally uncontroversial. I don’t know anyone who could possibly deny the greatness of Tony fashioning himself a hero suit out of things he found at Home Depot, wantonly killing people and reminding us that “Oh yeah, this guy isn’t Batman.” That’s awesome. The shoot-out is wonderful and exciting, with that one great unexpected moment where the henchman quits mid-fight.
No, the ultimate controversy of this film comes in the form of The Mandarin. The trailers didn’t show much of this guy. They didn’t give him nearly the same amount of screen time they gave to random explosions. For someone who, in film, is set up to Osama Bin Laden with a baritone version of the Joker’s voice, he remained largely a mystery until the film opened. This could be attributed to quality and mysterious marketing, or to the fact that Kingsley’s Mandarin only has three minutes of screen time before we find out he’s basically Russell Brand with a ponytail. This twist has firmly divided this movie’s audience in two, namely those who like good and interesting movie twists, and those who like boring things.
That twist, that defying of expectations, is page one out of the Shane Black Makes Awesome Movies Playbook. I rank this twist as one of my favorites ever, mostly because at no point did I even theoretically see it coming. It was daring and totally pulled the rug out from under the audience, like any good twist should. That twist, that subversion of expectations, is way more of a daring and interesting choice than anything Nolan did in the Batman films, and certainly bigger than anything Whedon did in The Avengers.
I loved it, namely because it did one thing that no comic book movie has done in a while: Surprise Me. My jaw dropped, and I let out a yelp of glee that lasted probably two minutes. Comic books movies, particularly the Marvel ones, have a habit of becoming same-y and dull and predictable. Spider-Man set the basic plot structure back in 2002 and it hasn’t changed a lick since. I missed being legitimately surprised by these movies, especially after Iron Man 2 laid itself out from Moment 1.
I understand the perspective that the Mandarin is basically Iron Man’s Joker and that this is comic book blasphemy on par with Lex Luther working at a Steak and Shake. To that I offer three rebuttals…
1.) Appreciate that your beloved villain was a part of something cool and interesting, and one of the best superhero films even made (and possibly my personal favorite, at least until Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man shows up).
2.) The film makes a pretty good argument that Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is actually The Mandarin. I mean, he does say it. Out loud. To Tony Stark. And he has numerous oriental tattoos, which suggest that, yes, that’s The Mandarin.
3.) This isn’t the goddamn comic books. This is an adaptation, an adaptation closely overseen by the company that makes the goddamn comic books. This is a very different story, brought to you by a very interesting and unique filmmaker, and is not the comic books. It is a loose adaptation of the comic books, mostly in name only. It is not an adaptation of the “Extremis” storyline, but merely borrows ideas from it to tell its own story. And in this version, The Mandarin is a British actor. That in no way invalidates the comic book character, nor does it suggest that that character is a fraud. Just this version, by this writer, from this actor. Not everything can be done in service of “the fans,” and sometimes “the fans” need to get over themselves.
It was the moment Tony and Rhodey burst onto the scene into Act 3 that I realized, under very different circumstances, that Tony Stark and Iron Man could have made a great James Bond-esque franchise on its own. Without all these ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Stark could have been played by any number of other actors going on all sorts of different adventures. The world of Tony Stark is fun enough and malleable enough that it could have worked.
I could potentially take an issue with something like this turning into a buddy cop film at the end, but then I remembered that Shane Black basically invented them back in Lethal Weapon, and also that this one was ridiculously entertaining.
The rapport between Tony and Rhodey was priceless, providing many of the film’s funniest moments. It also turned out that this was one of my favorite third act throwndowns I’ve seen in a long time, and can only imagine how great it would have been if I hadn’t seen the basic set-up in every trailer. The sight of dozens of spectacular robot suits fighting fire-breathing superpeople was wonderful and interesting and finally not an Iron Man film that ends with him fighting someone in a bigger, ironer suit. It was exciting, and I’ve certainly never seen a fight like this before.
It was during this final fight that I realized one of the film’s true strengths: I really liked watching Tony Stark mess up. To an insane degree. When his suits didn’t work or he would fumble, it didn’t take away from his heroism. I would argue that it added to it. He felt more human, and less like a Standard Hollywood-Issue Badass. I felt more attached to him because he messes up. I miss up, too. I can relate to this guy. “HIS iron suit doesn’t work? MY iron suit doesn’t work!” It adds to a hero’s legend to see him fail, to see him fall, to see him not do everything perfectly and to not be the best around. It’s the cutting different between Obi-Wan in the original trilogy and Obi-Wan in the now. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan is a wise old sage, but he isn’t nimble in his fights, failing at the one he attempts. In the new trilogy, he wins every fight he’s in and never has a limit on his power. That’s why he’s less interesting.
When Mach 42 falls apart right next to Tony, or when he runs into a truck after saving everyone on the plane, it not only made me laugh, but it made me value Tony’s victory’s more. And the end fight was just awesome, ending with a funny but oddly beautiful sight of Tony’s suits going off like unique fireworks.
Now, I will admit, Pepper’s “death” doesn’t quite play because we saw her get pumped full of Extremis not too long before that, but that doesn’t make her killing the hell out of Killian any less cool.
And I’m so glad the Avengers weren’t called in to save the day. That would have been boring and would have just been The Avengers again. Accept, as a moviegoer, that sometimes things have to happen in a narrative so that they can be more interesting.
You may have noticed, as I did, that I referred to the character as “Tony” far more than I did as “Iron Man,” but that’s because Iron Man wasn’t a big player in this film. Tony Stark couldn’t be Tony Stark without Iron Man, but the focus on Tony, his personal journey outside the suit, was what this movie needed to be. Shane Black realized, and rightly so, that Tony Stark is far more interesting than Iron Man. Iron Man is that rare superhero that suffers from having his face totally obscured by his costume, stripping away his humanity and personality, not even having that chin-and-eyes combo that Captain American and Batman always get away with.
In the end, after all is said and done, Shane Black delivered a film that I liked far more than I liked The Avengers. I tried watching The Avengers right after this one and found myself getting bored at just how little plot there was. This film delivered a great plot, along with wonderful jokes and character moments. I can’t wait until we see what comes next from Shane Black, because this movie really belonged to him. Bravo, sir.
Chekhov’s Gunman is a film and television blog moderated by Kevin Lanigan, a future writer of awesome movies and TV and current writer of racial slurs on children’s casts. Check in weekly for reviews of Community and Game of Thrones, our weekly Mexican Standoff, and the Good Stuff.
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