My old friend Ed Morrissey of Hot Air liked “Iron Man 3” much better than I did. To recap, I enjoyed the film as popcorn entertainment but found it the weakest of the four films to feature Iron Man thus far. Ed’s more positive review is here.
Ed and I disagreed on a particular plot point that we started to discuss on Twitter, but it’s absolutely impossible to talk about it without dropping massive spoilers. I thought it best to move my thoughts on the matter to a post that could be clearly labeled as deadly, toxic spoiler material. So READ NO FURTHER if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the plot spoiled.
I will make five non-spoiler observations to ensure scroll-capable protection against ruining the film for incidental readers, and then the spoilers will commence.
1. Pepper’s treatment of Tony Stark sometimes makes her seem more mentally and emotionally damaged than he is. You can see why she’s angry about certain things, but her lack of perspective is sometimes troubling.
2. Those suits of armor Tony spends all his spare time building seem considerably less well-armed than the suits he wore in the first two Iron Man films and “Avengers.” This might have been meant as a subtle commentary on either the dangers of rushing your work, or Tony’s post-traumatic stress anxiety about super-human warfare following “Avengers.”
3. I’d like to see more of Rhodey flying solo as War Machine / Iron Patriot. Putting a man with Top Gun military piloting skills, but without Tony’s superhuman genius, into an Iron Man suit should lead to some different adventures.
4. Several characters end up wearing power suits in “Iron Man 3.” The comedic potential of the most sudden and unlikely suit user was woefully under-explored; it should have led to more hilarious mayhem. Especially when said suit user started screaming at Stark’s artificial intelligence, Jarvis, for help during battle.
5. While it’s clearly necessary for the audience to accept that the Avengers wouldn’t assemble to save Tony’s bacon, it does seem odd that Captain American and SHIELD don’t appear to be involved in the battle against the global terror of the Mandarin.
Okay, on to the spoilers. LAST WARNING.
I have to admit that I saw the big twist involving the nature of the Mandarin coming from his very first appearance. Actually, it occurred to me during the 1999 prologue of the film. There’s nothing new or surprising about it at all. This is the way Hollywood always deals with international terrorism now. Even “24” almost always portrayed terrorists as dupes or tools of sinister Western interests.
If the idea was for Killian to create a phony terrorist that could manipulate public expectations, while he launched a coup to take over the U.S. government, why make him a generic pastiche like the Mandarin? Why not use a Chinese or North Korean-looking actor, if you’re going to call him “The Mandarin,” and for that matter, why not make him explicitly Middle Eastern to play off public fears? It’s almost too obvious that he’s a prop, created with exactly the kind of focus grouping that Tony Stark mocks when needling Rhodey about the “Iron Patriot” rebranding.
Not only do the terrorists turn out to be an evil white businessman and a corrupt Vice President, but their army of Extremis superhuman soldiers are heavily implied to be renegade American troops, and they’ve got a lot of them. We are explicitly told that the first Extremis subjects are American soldiers who lost limbs in Afghanistan or Iraq; a couple of them are dupes who don’t realize what they’re getting into. But later Killian has a personal army of super-powered Extremis troops, and they all appear to be military veterans, who very clearly know what they’re doing during the final battle. The process by which they gain their super powers is agonizingly painful and often fatal, so it’s hard to imagine paid stooges volunteering for it – the idea is that amputees volunteer for the process, because they’ll get their lost limbs back. Are we to believe that such a large number of amputee veterans willingly sign up for a plan to overthrow the President of the United States, killing scads of innocent people in the process, and none of them runs to the authorities? Hollywood can imagine that, but not genuine Islamist terrorism?
There’s also an annoying little bit of dialogue where Pepper suggests that working on military contracts is inherently evil. Soldiers have to get their weapons from somewhere, don’t they? If the greatest weapons designer in the history of mankind isn’t working to outfit American troops with the best gear possible, his refusal to do so is putting their lives needlessly in danger, especially since the Marvel movies have demonstrated the world has other super-geniuses with far lower moral standards than Tony Stark, who’d be willing to make advanced weapons for the bad guys. What, exactly, is Stark Industries doing to generate the kind of income that lets Tony build 42 Iron Man suits in his basement, if it’s not accepting U.S. military contracts?
At the end of the film, Tony Stark breezily remarks that he was able to quickly figure out the problems with the Extremis technology and neutralize Pepper’s implants. Presumably he uses this tech to repair the damage to his heart, although we only see surgeons taking shrapnel out of his chest (it would be weird if he could have gotten the shrapnel out at any time, without Extremis regeneration tech.) So… the nature of the human race just changed, right? Anyone can be given a dose of Wolverine-style regeneration, to deal with anything from lost limbs to organ damage. The Extremis henchmen were able to shrug off anything short of the total vaporization of their chest or head.
And this conclusion explicitly means Aldrich Killian was right all along. His descent into terrorist madness is not well-explained by the movie, but as of 1999, he was absolutely correct. Tony Stark could have fixed the problems with Extremis – he tells Pepper he very nearly did it in a drunken stupor, on the proverbial cocktail napkin, back on New Years’ Eve of 1999. And if Tony had done so, humanity would have gained injury-conquering, life-saving regeneration technology 13 years ago. Think of all the human suffering that could have been alleviated! It really stretches credulity that Killian and Maya Hansen were never able to find any other investors, or get Tony Stark to take another look at their technology, short of kidnapping and threatening him over a decade later.
Tony’s final gesture to Pepper, the “Clean Slate” protocol, is almost as insanely stupid as walking away from Extremis tech. Not only did it cost what must have been a billion dollars, but it left the human race vulnerable to exactly the kind of attack Tony has been having PTSD nightmares about, following the events of “Avengers.” Of course, he’s probably going to find himself wandering back into the shop and building another suit, but we’re in big trouble until he gets it finished, aren’t we? Is he going to recreate his entire armada of AI-controlled suits? Because that sure as hell would come in handy if Earth gets attacked by aliens again. Or if a certain friend of Tony’s loses his battle with anger-management issues (which is, incidentally, the specific reason Tony built the suit he calls “Igor,” according to the comics.)
So the Iron Patriot suit makes absolutely no attempt to identify the person wearing it as an authorized user? Even though Tony tells Rhodey that all of his suits will only work for him, with the obvious exception of the prototype Mark 42? If Killian is enough of a genius to hack Tony Stark’s crowning achievement and disable all of its security in a matter of hours, how come he can’t fix the problems with Extremis, but Tony can do it effortlessly?
There are several references to “recharging” the Iron Man suits during the course of the movie. But don’t they run on ARC reactors, which generate incredible amounts of energy? Specifically, aren’t Tony’s suits supposed to be running off the ARC reactor in his chest, which he upgraded to a fantastic new level of power in “Iron Man 2?” The whole point behind Iron Man tech is that it takes a huge amount of energy to give a heavy armored suit supersonic flight, incredible strength, and repulsor weapons. But Tony recharges one of his damaged suits off a boat battery.
There’s lots of clever dialogue in this script, but other parts don’t seem very well-thought-out at all.
Addendum: Not only is the hoary old “terrorists working for evil Western businessmen” storyline unoriginal, it’s not even original for this series of films. Was the first “Iron Man” movie so long ago that everyone has forgotten the Ten Rings terrorists were working for Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane? He was angry that they kept Tony Stark alive, instead of killing him so that Stane could complete his takeover of Stark Industries. Tony’s been very busy, so it’s believable that detail might have slipped his mind, but you’d think the intelligence community would remember that the Ten Rings have already worked as thugs for hire to Westerners once before.