We create our own demons, says Tony Stark right off the bat, quoting someone, he knew not who. It seems we create our own messiahs, too. But that’s for later.
Iron Man 3 is really Iron Man 4, because if you didn’t see The Avengers, you’re going to find the references to “New York,” “the aliens,” “a guy with a hammer” strangely alienating. But alienation is one of several themes for the day. But that’s for later.
We start in 1999, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was still a “wham bam thank you ma’am” kinda guy and Happy (Jon Favreau) was his mullet-wearing bodyguard. He’s at a science conference with a beautiful young researcher named Maya (Rebecca Hall) when he’s confronted by a shabby geek named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Killian is desperate for Tony to invest in AIM, a new project that builds on some original science stuff that Maya, in fact, has been cooking. It has something to do with reprogramming the brain such that it can revivify—reboot—the entire human system. Lose a limb? It’ll grow back. Need some fire in your belly—you’ll literally breath it. Left for dead? Not for long.
But the only thing Tony’s interested in is bedding young Maya, which he promptly does—only to leave her and Killian in a lurch.
It’s now 2012. Tony is in a “committed relationship” with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) but not without his issues. This technology that Stark Industries has birthed has evolved from weapons of mass destruction to that magnet in Tony’s chest that keeps him alive. From being a Destroyer of Worlds he now lives day to day, moment to moment, a prisoner of his own success—a success that may have brought him prosperity but certainly has provided no peace. He’s beginning to suffer—gasp!—anxiety attacks!
Iron Man with the willies?
It all has to do with “New York.” It seems The Avengers movie was so successful, he’s afraid he’ll be called on again to battle space aliens and Norse Gods and Midtown Manhattan traffic. In short, just when you think you’ve got everything under control, from your secure little techno-Utopia, angry Norwegians start busting up the place.
Moreover, Stark’s many alter-egos, his various Iron Man suits, are seriously getting in the way of his relationship with Pepper: it’s hard to build intimacy through diamond-hard steel. Latex is one thing, but come on…
The tech that was supposed to mediate his experience with the outside world, with his own heart, is alienating him from his one true love, and his own self.
(I will wait until you finish choking back a tear or two.)
Now who should walk into Pepper and Stark’s world again but, you guessed it, Aldrich Killian, all gussied up, lean and mean—the yellow-toothed hobo look gone for good. He’s an entrepreneur, a mogul, a winner, and it appears he’s come back to let Tony & Co. kick themselves for what they missed out on, a ground-floor investment in magic gone forever.
Happy, now Pepper’s bodyguard (playing security to a guy who’s already a walking freight train was getting to be embarrassing), is wary of Killian’s true motives from the get-go. Soon it becomes apparent that Killian is not just a genius but an evil one at that, with a killer army of AIM-armed supermen and women who run around terrorizing folks by melting their frames and, in some cases, exploding from within. They’re literally walking time bombs, as Killian’s DNA elixir is terribly unstable, and he and his wired weirdos are desperate for a fix. It seems only Tony Stark, whose nickname is now “The Mechanic,” can repair what’s broken.
As if this were not bad enough, some nut called The Mandarin appears on TV screens threatening doom and gloom and many innocents deaths, all in the name of avenging the massacre of Native Americans. Why The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) sounds more like Walter Conkrite reading the evening news than anyone from mainland China becomes obvious after a while.
You see, Killian and The Mandarin are in cahoots. I’ll say no more.
So Tony has to save America from some uber-terrorist armed by a corporation that for all intents and purposes creates iron men—only from the inside out, not the outside in, as in having to don one of those stupid suits.
The rest is played out as you would expect. Tony and Pepper and Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) take on Killian, The Mandarin, and an army of fiery nuclear-powered and barely human robots. (Daniel Dennett call your office.)
So, let’s review: we have our Fall story: man wishes to wrest immortality from God, and so eats from the Tree of Life and—life proves incredible unstable henceforth, with death raining from the sky. Hubris, thy name is modern Western techonology!
We have several false messiahs. At least three times in two hours men hang cruciform—icons, however, of failed attempts at salvation. In fact, the final showdown takes place on Christmas Day—when the real messiah was born. Get it?
As it turns out, The Mandarin’s rationale for mass slaughter—Native American grievance—is as phony as his, well, I’ll leave it to you to find out. And when Killian manages to hijack Air Force One and kidnap the president, only to hang him arms-akmbo over an oil rig (a Viking funeral, it’s called), the explanation given is that this is “punishment” for the prez’s letting some fat-cat oil barons go free after a massive oil spill.
But he admits that’s only for mass consumption—a message that the likes of MSNBC, CNN, and David Sirota will run with as unwitting accomplices.
What Killian really wants is to control the war on terror: arming, presumably both the killers and the terrified threatened.
So we have all our icons in place: massacred minorities, spoiled nature, and even the Son of God (both Tony and Killian will also appear cruciform at key moments in the plot, but these images, too, are meant only to distract).
Who will finally save the day? Tony’s been having a helluva time getting his act together, and the latest iteration of the Iron Suit is proving wonky. And what has science wrought in the hands of an Aldrich Killian? Technology has not only failed to save the day, it’s the villain, no?
And all of America’s might—it’s massive army and now Patriot super-suited soldiers—has proved mighty fragile, what with traitors within the very White House itself and a president dangling over the soon-to-be world’s largest bonfire.
Even Stark is proving tired and feckless. He has to rely on the aid of a 10-year-old kid from Tennessee to literally put all the pieces of this mess together.
Iron Man 3 is a noisome movie, with a lot on its mind, more than it can really process intelligently. It wants to be a fun and funny good guys vs. bad guys summer action flick, with just a hint of none-too-jingoistic patriotism running through it (if you can stomach the “war on terror is really a war within stuff”). What it really is, however, is a paeon to Western Man. Whatever terror the new, the loud, the naive let loose, never fear: the entrepreneur will always be near.
The Idea, the one thing no one can take from Tony Stark, is what Iron Man is about. Not the suit, not the bang-bang or boom-boom—the Idea—the fuel of Western progress. So Western Man is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for (even as he is sometimes the demon we must also conquer). And Christmas? That’s the day when we reward the people in our lives with the fruits of our success.
(And don’t let Stark’s crossing himself fool you: a clumsier and more half-hearted gesture there never was. When Tony says, “Let’s go to church,” he’s reveling in his own ingenuity.)
Robert Downey Jr. is admittedly a pleasure to watch, because all that swagger masks just a hint of Downey’s own I-am-so-in-over-my-headness. It’s easy to empathize with him, and he’s funny as all hell without having to rely on mugging or inflated gestures. The back-and-forth between him and Harley, the kid from Tennessee, is priceless. The boy stumbles on Stark in the midst of trying to repair his Iron Suit in the kid’s garage. Harley immediately recognizes him, then tries to get in on the game, playing on Stark’s sympathies with “my dad left us six years ago.” Stark basically tells him that life sucks then you die, go get me some tools and a tuna fish sandwich. (Watch out for Ty Simpkins: he is going to enjoy one heckuva career. Mark my words.)
I was about to turn off this clumsily plotted and at times barely intelligible fireworks display—in my mind, at least. Until Ben Kingsley showed up. And by that I don’t mean made his first appearance on the screen as The Mandarin. I will say no more, only to say (and you knew I was going to say something) that it’s one of those quirky Supporting Actor performances that the Academy loves and you will giggle yourself silly over. Plus the message The Mandarin is really meant to send is one Hollywood will eat up.
Pearce is suitably maniacal as Killian and Paltrow gets to kick some ass. All told the movie proves a reasonably entertaining exploding bag of gas for young American idolators everywhere, despite of, or because of, its mixed messages and narcissism.