One of the most fascinating examples of modern day mythology is the superhero narrative where god-like beings, or humans with the ability to be god-like, engage in larger-than-life conflicts that test their moral and spiritual strength as well as any physical powers. Their adventures and trials can be seen as reflections of the collective anxieties and values of the culture that produced them. The films contained within the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise are no exception, sometimes overtly and sometimes unconsciously delivering commentary on contemporary US identity in between the banter and action sequences. The original Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) examined the culpability of weapon manufacturing, Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2010) condemned the actions of warmongers and Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) challenged the use of jingoist symbols. All are distinctively post-Iraq invasion and post-Bush Administration films, even though the sophistication of their analysis is limited. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) is the most topical film to-date, exploring the nature of terrorism and the destruction of the self.
In many ways Iron Man 3 is a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), albeit a far simpler take on the themes. Both films contain a wealthy, human, self-made superhero protagonist who begins the film scarred from previous encounters. Both protagonists face villains that are products of the system they come from, and both protagonists question if they are losing their identity to their alter egos. After a flashback prologue, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is introduced as obsessive and paranoid, burying himself in work and starting to suffer from anxiety attacks due to the traumatic events he experienced during The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012).
Stark compulsively works on new Iron Man suits, alienating his loved ones and neglecting work. He has become addicted to his suits, refers to them as separate entities yet seems determined to bond even further with his suit, fitting his body with mechanical parts like the deranged salary man in Shinya Tsukamoto’s appropriately titled Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). In one of the truly dark moments in Iron Man 3, Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) attempts to comfort him during a nightmare, but is momentarily attacked by one of the Iron Man suits. The sinister moment briefly suggests the potential for Stark’s fractured identity to manifest as a violent and abusive id.
Previously the symbol of innovation and power in the previous films, the Iron Man suits take on a more ambivalent meaning in Iron Man 3. In fact, the miss-use of technology and science in general is challenged, especially in the way research designed for medical purposes can be misappropriated, as seen in a subplot that evokes the moral quandaries raised in Michael Apted’s Extreme Measures (1996). In Iron Man 3 technology is predominantly represented by the Iron Man suits, which in this film are rarely shown as complete objects, often appearing fragmented, fallible and disposable. They are even used to deceive and restrict, sometimes functioning as a sort of giant metal coffin-like prison. Therefore, most of the film features Tony Stark the ‘real’ person, rather than Iron Man the alter ego that threatens to symbolically consume Stark. On a basic level this allows actor Downey Jr and director/co-writer Black – working together again after 2005’s outstanding Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – far more room to deliver punchy one-liners and verbal interplay, which is very much welcome.
While Stark is grappling with his sense of self, so is the country that he and most of the other Avengers hail from. Just like the threat to Gotham city in The Dark Knight Returns, the threat in Iron Man 3 is a terrorist manifestation of the sins of the past coming back to deliver judgement. In his broadcasts to the terrified people of America, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) compares his acts of violence to violence done against other countries by American militarism and intervention. As Iron Man 3 further explores the nature of the Mandarin’s agenda, the film delivers an overt examination of the nature of terrorism and how a culture of fear is so easily constructed and exploited for political gain. In terms of the way foreign otherness is frequently portrayed so regressively in mainstream pop culture, Iron Man 3 is surprisingly subversive for how well it plays on audience assumptions. The film also ridicules the use of symbolism with jokes about James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) wearing the War Machine body armor, but giving it the more palatable name of the Iron Patriot, which does not fool anybody.
Iron Man 3 also surprises in the degree to which it critiques a large segment of its target audience – fans. One scene where Stark gets help from a fan is played completely for laughs towards the over enthusiastic man who unreservedly adores Stark despite the indifference he receives in return. Is this perhaps a sly dig at the types of fans who uncritically love the products of their favourite franchise regardless of the end product? A far more interesting moment, and the film’s other genuinely sinister scene, is when a previously fanboy character declares he will make a trophy out of a kidnap victim who spurned his romantic advances. It is a brief moment, but an expression of the type of misogyny that can be found within ‘nice guy’ males with a sense of entitlement and bitterness from sexual disappointment.
Unfortunately, the gender politics in Iron Man 3 is overall a little confused. There seems to be a deliberate effort to make Pepper a more substantial character rather than a damsel in distress and object of desire. However, every time Pepper does get some agency, it is then taken away from her and she is reduced to being passive again. Perhaps this can simply be read as another way the film is articulating contemporary attitudes in its well-meaning attempt to elevate female characters to the same status as the male characters, but always ending up being tokenistic and stopping short from achieving anything truly meaningful.
In the long term Iron Man 3 will most likely hold up reasonably well as a lighter variation on the deconstructed superhero mythology found in The Dark Knight Rises. In the short-term, the nature of domestic terrorism and identity will likely not be at the forefront of most audiences’ minds as they flock to see Downey Jr’s charismatic performance and the film’s action set pieces. The conclusion is disappointing in terms of the overused setting it chooses for the action to take place, and due to a key manoeuvre by Stark that he really could have used closer to the start of the film and saved everybody a whole lot of trouble. Nevertheless, the scenes of spectacle are mostly fun with a sequence involving people free-falling being particularly engaging. The Marvel films are now established as reliable sources of entertainment, and after Whedon’s work on The Avengers and now Black’s work on Iron Man 3, the series continues to build momentum.