Whaaaaa? Come on man, we just had AVENGERS. How much bigger and sillier can it get?
Yeah HOLD ON bro
AVENGERS was big and silly and great, but here’s the deal. It was essentially a superhero team origin movie. Which was novel, because we’d never seen a superhero team movie before*, and part of the fun was seeing all the heroes bicker and fight and eventually assemble as Avengers are wont to do.
IRON MAN 3 very much takes place in a post-AVENGERS world. The existence of alien life, the expansion of mankind’s playing field has not only had consequences for Tony Stark’s character, it changed the entire world. Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian intones, “Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, the days of “subtle” were over.”
Let me tell you, I was actually not really looking forward to this movie. Downey just slums it through most of his movies nowadays, pretty much counting on his slick charm to tide you over to the credits. While this was true for me personally in the case of IRON MAN 2, I also recognized that it was a pretty shitty fucking movie on its own terms. And after the rollicking Silver Age Hokum that was AVENGERS, why would I want to go back to Tony Stark sitting in his garage for 90 minutes cracking wise at a robot arm and then there’s a fight maybe? While the hiring of Shane Black as director and the reveal of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin outfit and voice made me somewhat interested, I was expecting to be moderately amused.
I came out of it absolutely in love. Now, a lot of Marvel movies have that effect – “omg I think this was my favorite Marvel movie?” – but I actively went in looking for stuff to nitpick and lol at Kingsley. Holy shit, Marvel gave me a real movie with a plot and character development and everything. We start the movie with Tony having anxiety attacks about the sudden hugeness of the universe. No wait, back up. We start the movie in 1999 with Tony and Happy at a party in Switzerland. The fucking Marvel logo was accompanied by Italian Eurodance outfit Eiffel 65’s BLUE. What a hilariously shitty fucking song! Tony is doing his Tony thing, trying to bed science lady Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), while blowing off science dork Aldrich Killian’s invitation to join a think tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics (or AIM). Tisk tisk, Tony! That’s how you make supervillains! But he couldn’t have known that, it was a pre-AVENGERS world. Besides also featuring Lou Bega’s Mambo #5, this flashback just keeps on giving: turns out that Happy was a big fan of PULP FICTION since 1999 him is hardcore cosplaying Vincent Vega.
Black and co-writer Drew Pearce constantly find little character moments to spruce up proceedings too. Almost every character is laugh-out-loud funny. Several nameless henchmen got big laughs. I don’t know exactly who wrote what, but the Pearce/Black combo works very well. The movie’s humor is sardonic without ever crossing over into misanthropic in a way I thought LETHAL WEAPON kinda was upon revisiting it recently. And man, Black really brings some 80s action sensibilities to the movie: real sleazebag villains and henchmen, cheesy pre-death oneliners, MIAMI MANSIONS**, buddy cop banter***, President William Sadler and VP Miguel Ferrer, …
One thing mercifully left in the 80s is the misogyny. Not only does Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper kick ass, there are several female characters who are not easily pigeonholed (they have at least two dimensions and stuff!). Maya isn’t a femme fatale out to seduce Tony away from Pepper, and the Mandarin has a henchwoman who isn’t defined by sexiness. She’s just a henchwoman who kicks Tony’s ass in a fight scene. Mandarin has some pretty good hiring practices, in fact, since there were a good deal of female mercs under his command in the final battle.
That’s another thing: action scenes – great. Tony is constantly under duress, he’s constantly having to think on his feet. We see him tinker with household appliances to build new shit that isn’t just a new kind of laser for Iron Man. RDJ not wanting to be in the armor all the time actually benefits this movie greatly, cuz there’s some absolutely terrific and inventive action stuff in there. We’re finally reminded in a very visceral way that Tony Stark is one of the smartest guys in the world, and if he doesn’t have his suit, he still has his brain. TONY STARK BUILT THIS IN A CAVVVVEE – Shane Black shows us what awesome shit Stark can build with a DIY store at his disposal.
Besides reminding us that Tony is really smart to back up his cocky douchebaggery, IM3 also reassures us that the highly capable Pepper Potts and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) are Tony’s friends and they care for him. Yeah, Rhodes is a military man who’s slightly more responsible than Tony, but he’s a fun/funny guy. Pepper is not a shrill harridan who lives to spoil Tony’s fun. Happy remains about the same Jar Jar guy he was, but he was fine in the other movies. Fucking JARVIS has more personality than he’s ever displayed. Harley, Tony’s kid sidekick for the second act, is never given cutesy Hollywood kid stuff to do – in fact, when at one point he does, it’s immediately revealed to be an act. Yeah, get this – Tony spends a chunk of the movie in a small tax-breaky Tennessee town (lol classic Marvel), and it’s still pretty amusing and thrilling cuz, you know, he’s investigating shit and discovering new elements of Mandarin’s plot.
To come back to the hit-baiting title of this piece: Why is IM3 the first big comic book movie? Cuz it’s the first movie that feels like it takes place in a Comic Book Universe rather than a world like ours that is invaded by one fantastical element. This is a world where people deal with the fact that Asgard and who knows how many other worlds are real, and where IRON MAN VS THE MANDARIN AND THE LAVA MEN OF AIM is just a thing that happens.
Marvel has learned its lesson. AVENGERS was so huge they don’t need to remind people that they do other movies too by inserting distracting subplots, rather they’ve turned their shared universe into this fascinating background tapestry that informs character actions and motivations throughout a self-contained story. Even the post-credits sequence doesn’t tease any other upcoming releases, it’s just a fun gag with Tony and another big Marvel character.
TONY STARK WILL RETURN, the end credits promise. With the same crew behind it, I’m psyched.
*that didn’t exclusively fight SWAT teams in Canadian forests or disgruntled plastic surgeons on New York sidewalks
**I swear that was Johnny Tapia’s mansion
***One of my favorite gags was the Mujahedeen giggling at Rhodes along with Tony when they learn his lame War Machine password.