Sound and (no Nick) Fury– Why Iron Man 3 is a Disappointment
by Henry Gorman
Okay, first things first.
There’s a pretty good chance that you liked Iron Man 3. And you probably liked it for some good reasons. Robert Downey Jr. is still funny and charming. Gwyneth Paltrow is an assertive, capable, fully-characterized Pepper Potts. The twist revealing that Ben Kingsley’s Baptist-preacher-speaking Mandarin is just a hoax and his subsequent performance as a coked-out former stage actor are hilarious. The mandatory big superhero spectacle moments– especially Iron Man’s rescue of 13 people tumbling from Air Force 1 and the final battle at the end featuring all the suits– came off beautifully. The film’s soundtrack team hilariously and effectively called us back to 1999 at the very start. And the film offered us an excellent movie child being adorable and calling on the protagonist’s inherent morality and doing all the other stuff that movie children are supposed to do. (Yes, I know it’s fashionable to hate on movie children. But you know who else loves tossing kids into movies? Stephen. Fucking. Spielberg.)
BOOM, LINCOLN (Spielberg and Kushner were robbed here. Fucking robbed)
But I suspect that you might have walked away from the theatre thinking that something was missing. Iron Man 3 clearly failed to fall among the best of superhero films. It never achieves The Dark Knight‘s epic, portentous thematic sweep, or the flawed but wonderful X-Men First Class‘s touching human drama or the criminally underrated The Amazing Spider-Man‘s resonance. It fails to provide even the meaty satisfaction of simple-but-solid summer blockbusters like The Avengers, Thor, or even the first Iron Man. And this is true even though many of its individual elements (acting, scene-to-scene direction, humor, spectacle) are as good as or better than those of many of those films.
So, what went wrong? Well, the film had a big chance to be about something that mattered. And it blew it. What’s up? Politics.
So, the Iron Man franchise has pretty much always been about a dude who runs a weapons-making company and then gets all upset about the consequences when he finds out that the weapons are falling into the hands of bad dudes and being used to kill innocent people. So instead, he takes the most powerful weapon of all, uses it to lay the smackdown on the people who misuse his weapons, and refuses to share it with anybody but the US government and a nebulous scary-powerful secret security organization. Which still leaves him a dude who uses his enormous wealth to put himself beyond the reach of international law and uses technology beyond the reach of everyone else to kill and injure people with impunity. He might be a morally superior dude, and the people he hunts down might usually be bad, but there’s still something kind of uncomfortable and problematic about this. In some ways, Tony Stark is a metaphor for some of the grayer aspects of US power. He’s threatened by people his firm helped to arm (just as the US was attacked by the henchmen of Osama bin Laden, who it had trained to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan), and in order to secure himself and the people he cares about, he sets himself above any authority and uses novel technology to hunt down and destroy threats (drone strikes).
The first two movies were pretty popcorny, and of course, failed to use this to do anything meaningful. But come on, guys. This was the fourth movie featuring a hugely popular character who your audiences are invested in. But at the same time, they’re probably getting tired of same old, same old Iron Man. So if you wanted the movie to be a super-success, you would need to offer them something new while still pulling on their prior investment. If this movie actually explored a real contemporary issue in a meaningful way, everyone would go apeshit. Most superhero movies generally only talk about politics in the most ham-handed and goofy way possible, even when their writers and directors should know better (*cough*Christopher Nolan*cough*)
1% OF THE BATMANS HAVE 99% OF THE WEALTH. OCCUPY GOTHAM
The only films that have done it successfully have been the X-Men movies, which tend to work because they can talk about issues without explicitly talking about them– being a mutant can be a metaphor for being Jewish, being black, being gay…
So, if you pulled this off, it would have meant a lot. And you had something big that would have let you do that. And you blew it. What did you waste? BEN FUCKING KINGSLEY.
Yes, the revelation that Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is no more than a coked-out actor was fucking hilarious. But consider what the film loses when it makes that revelation. In his videos, Kingsley’s Mandarin is compelling and menacing. His voice is like “a Baptist preacher’s.” He speaks with a chilling moral certainty. And he totally raises a whole bunch of issues about capitalism and American power, some things that Tony Stark totally represents– albeit in a vague and incoherent way.
If they had stuck with him as the main villain, and actually developed it well, it would have been amazing. Because Kingsley is a compelling motherfucker. And he’s Gandhi! Dude, just think about Gandhi calling out and challenging Tony Stark (and implicitly us, America) about the problems surrounding capital accumulation and arbitrary exercise of power. And then being terrifying and horrifyingly killing a whole bunch of people in unpredictable ways, Heath Ledger Joker-style. It would have shocked us hard and made us really think about shit. Postcolonial-type shit.
Frantz Fanon Approves (I can’t figure out who painted this.
Anyone who helps with attribution gets a cookie!
UPDATE: It’s by Mustapha Boutadjine. Ike Jose figures it out within an hour of posting! )
But instead, Kingsley is a fraud and his backer, a much less compelling man who has a much more boring plot to inflict perpetual war on the world in order to make a profit from arms-dealing, is the real villain. Yawn. We had evil arms-dealing profiteers in the first Iron Man movie, guys, and it didn’t really mean anything then either. This shit’s played out. You had a chance to get some major thematic depth out of your villain, and blew it. Don’t be proud of yourselves.
PS: The film also totally screwed up its handling Stark’s PTSD, but I’ll talk about that later, with my own personal Greatest Disappointment of Oscar Season 2012. I’m talking about YOU, Silver Linings Playbook