'Iron Man 3' Illustrates How Subtlety Has Had Its Day in the MCU

Iron Man Tony And Mark

Shane Black and the Marvel think-tank ready another lesson, blah, blah, blah. Movie magic, luv.

In The Avengers, we experienced things, and then they were over. Gods, aliens, other dimensions. A purple-chinned cosmic couch potato who could be more Archie Bunker than galactic dominating titan for all we know. Do we still need a man in a can? Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. may have launched this cinematic shared universe, but we’ve got heavy metal demigods and super soldier beefcakes to worship now.

Marvel’s Phase One concluded with an astonishing/incredible/spectacular/uncanny (pick you Stan Lee adverb) box office success. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers grossed $207.4 million on its opening weekend and climaxed with a worldwide total of $1.5 billion, marking it as the fifth all-time grossing movie. No wonder every Tom, Dick, and DC mogul has been chasing that shared universe formula ever since. Good luck, chaps. But maybe give it a rest. We practically booed the Dark Universe offstage, and those Call of Duty shenanigans you’re attempting – just stop. There’s only one dog in this hunt.

For the MCU to succeed not every movie can be an Avengers event. Marvel had to show that solo missions were still the backbone of the franchise and that these adventures could keep fandom fed while they anticipated the frenzy of the next global catastrophe worthy of assembling Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Of course, Iron Man would have to set the pace for the rest of the team.

Iron Man Couch Rest

While Jon Favreau licked his wounds after the critical drubbing he received from Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens (Not by Me! As we previously established, Iron Man 2 is Great!), Shane Black was brought on board to inject a few of his isms into the series. While not feeling too left of center, Iron Man 3 is an attempt to skirt up against another cinematic flavor. Here we’ve got some buddy-cop banter with Don Cheadle’s War Machine – excuse me, Iron Patriot – as well as a cute precocious kid for Tony to bounce insults off of. So, there’s plenty of rat-a-tat-tat repartee, and we’re gonna battle the bad guys while we wait for jolly ol’ Saint Nick to bless our Christmas tree. Marvel would push the genre-blending even further with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (espionage thriller), Guardians of the Galaxy (sci-fi swashbuckler), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (high school rom-com).

Doing only what the MCU could do, Stark returns to Malibu from the Battle of New York with a traumatic case of PTSD. Every entry is a tile in a mural. You can appreciate a single piece, or stand back in awe of the grand design. Stark was altered by the events of The Avengers. As he pleads to Gwyneth Paltrow’s impossibly understanding Pepper Potts, “I’m a piping hot mess…you experience things and then they’re over and you still can’t explain them.” Gods…aliens…other dimensions. The original Iron Man was just a billionaire playboy adventurer a la Batman. Now, Stark is impotent to an impending alien invasion. He’s got to get his groove back.

Iron Man Tony

Iron Man’s greatest threat has always been the demons of his own making. That’s his ultimate appeal. He is a perpetual egomaniac determined to solve his problems, but that big brain of his often instigates the horrors that plague him. Whether it’s the sudden realization that the munitions that keep his hot tub swimming in supermodels are also the cause of a global massacre, or how ghosting a drunken Guy Pearce at a New Year’s party births an American terrorist, Tony Stark would solve a lot of pain if he just put others before himself. Even when he deludes himself into believing he’s doing just that, the results still manage to be disastrous (see Iron Man 2, Age of Ultron, Civil War). The scamp can’t help it, and we love him for it.

The cataclysmic climax of The Avengers left the world vulnerable, but as we’re all too eager to fabricate in the face of such unimaginable panic, we make celebrities of the participants. The final moments of Whedon’s film saw television talking-heads arguing over these so-called do-gooders, chastising their quick to smash theatrics. With the city in crumbles, where are these spandex weirdos to clean up the mess (see Spider-Man: Homecoming)? Meanwhile, those that had their necks saved from Chitauri laser-axes praised The Avengers and probably even offered a few prayers to the mighty Thor. Good luck ever enjoying a shawarma wrap in public again, guys.

Iron Man The Mandarin

While overseer Kevin Feige was nowhere near ready to unleash Thanos upon Stark, he did need to find an appropriate nemesis to steal his attention. We’ve battled gods now, subtlety has had its day in the MCU.  We couldn’t just bicker with another Stark wannabe like Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and Ivan Vanko. We needed a threat the Iron Man audience wouldn’t see coming. We needed Ben Kingsley.

Amidst panic attacks, autograph mandates, and homeland assaults, Stark vows a mission of revenge against the terrorist known as The Mandarin. His pal Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau embracing the schlubby bodyguard minus the director’s seat) was critically wounded during an unplanned bombing of the TLC Chinese Theater. No need to call in the super friends, this a grudge match. Mano-a-Mandarin.

The broadcast hijacker is targeting sites that coopt international culture. Fortune cookies and the Roxxon Energy Corporation be damned. Our POTUS (William Saddler) will answer for our nation’s sins. The Mandarin appears to be a righteous villain, who is obviously murderous but might have a point as well. After a year of marketing anticipation, fandom thought Marvel had cracked an outdated, Fu Manchu embarrassment.

Iron Man Iron Patriot

And they had! But maybe not to the satisfaction of some fanboys.

Like Tony Stark, America’s greatest enemy has always been itself. The almighty green. Shane Black is not going to get ra-ra, let’s win one for the home team. He’s much too cynical to play that simplistically. Right from Rhodey’s rebranding of War Machine into The Iron Patriot, Black is jabbing the body of our nationalistic consciousness. The Mandarin is bullshit. Movie magic, luv. A pretend villain we’re desperate to point our aggression towards.

Ben Kingsley’s revelation as a junkie actor willing to do anything to keep himself neck deep in barbiturates is a massive F.U. to the Fox News crowd. We need a Ten Rings extremist to boo, but the reality is that those “Make America Great Again” fat cats are the true bastards we need to fear. Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is a scorned schoolboy out to prove his might against the inebriated jerk who dumped him on a rooftop in Bern, Switzerland in 1999. He’s a big crybaby with bottomless pockets giving him the means to make the world feel his pain.

Iron Man Killian

Iron Man bad guys must be a dark reflection of Tony Stark. They are the mirror that reveals the damnation Stark is constantly teetering upon. Stark could be Killian. That’s why Black puts the original film’s moral compass, Yinsen (Shaun Toub) at the center of Iron Man 3’s opening scene. Stark ghosted two geniuses that night. Both scientists are horrendous reminders of where Tony was heading, and where he still might go. He has as much red on his ledger as the dodgiest of Avengers. A genuine fear of condemnation drives Stark in Age of Ultron to the breaking point, and he’ll totally snap in Captain America: Civil War.

With the conclusion of Phase One of the MCU, the promise of The Avengers Initiative had been fulfilled. The mid-credits introduction of The Mad Titan, Thanos, made another pledge that we’re still waiting to see resolved six years later. As Iron Man 2 could not jump right into the big show we all wanted, Iron Man 3 needed to re-establish the appeal of personal crisis. They’d still need to go big or go home. There’s nothing subtle about a fire-breathing Guy Pearce, or Stark’s ridiculously excessive House Party protocol that deus ex machinas the climax with a nice big bow. It’s a monster blockbuster that scored monster blockbuster dollars ($1.2 billion).

Iron Man 3 recaptures the appeal of a Marvel movie. Scary supervillains like The Mandarin are little more than excuses to expose character. Tony Stark is why we plop our butts down movie after movie. We’re here for the flawed human failing upwards. Killian’s green screen and theatricality is just the movie magic we love, luv.

Iron Man House Party

What Iron Man 3 contributes to the MCU:

  • Tony’s endless armory – By the end of The Avengers, Stark unveiled his Mark VII armor design (due to the fact that Joss Whedon preferred the circular arc reactor to Iron Man 2’s triangular edition), but within the first fifteen minutes of Iron Man 3 we discover that Stark’s insomnia has inspired dozens upon dozens of new suits. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Jarvis may burn down the House Party protocol, but Stark’s obsessive tampering will continue into everyone’s favorite Hulk Buster.

Iron Man Extremis Potts

What Iron Man 3 withholds from the MCU:

  • Tony’s Miniaturized Arc Reactor – What defines Iron Man? The suit? That glowing magnet in his chest? He’s a tinkerer, a mechanic. Shane Black goes a long way in stripping Tony Stark of his accessories. Iron Man 3 goes to show how Stark’s brain is his greatest weapon, and that he doesn’t need any of those comic book accouterments to prove he’s a badass. Avengers: Infinity War trailers seem to be hinting that the Chinese removal of the reactor (sponsored by real Chinese dollars) may have only been temporary, but I appreciated Black’s attempt to underscore Stark’s true strength.
  • The Iron Patriot – So, yeah, it’s the butt of a joke in Iron Man 3, but I kinda love its ridiculous design. It was originally concocted in the comics by Norman Osborn as a villainous replacement for the deceased Captain America. Don’t see that happening anytime soon in the MCU, but I wouldn’t be opposed to someone picking up this armor again.
  • Extremis Pepper Potts – In the final moments, Shane Black gives Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts a dose of Killian’s Extremis juicing. This allows her to kick a little ass alongside her high-maintenance boyfriend. It’s just a mini-gag, but it exposes how desperately the MCU needs more formidable ladies. Black Widow is simply not enough.

Iron Man Extremis

Further Reading:

Iron Man: Extremis” by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov – A lot of the MCU’s original look comes straight from this comic book series. Granov did a bunch of the design work for the original film, and the suit seen here is pretty much the Mark VI. We’re still waiting on the liquid metal release system of the comic, but again, there are hints of it seen in the Infinity War trailer. With “Extremis,” Warren Ellis was trying to show-off the crazy sci-fi of the Iron Man concept. He wanted to get away from the crazy supervillain stuff and cheer the mad science of it all. It’s the perfect one-and-done comic to give to a friend who is curious about the character after seeing the movies.

Iron Man

Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

PHASE ONE

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.