The first Iron Man movie landed like a bomb blast in my personal pop culture universe, making me believe that superhero films could find their own voice while forming a dialogue with comics. Strict adaptations hadn’t been that great in the past and there needed to be another approach, one that had a deeper understanding of heroes in films in terms of visual film language including pacing and dialogue. I was a big fan and it made me start taking superheroes in other forms of pop culture aside from comics seriously.
Iron Man 2 did not disappoint me, though I heard mixed reactions from friends and fans. I liked seeing Tony Stark’s troubled personality popping up again- becoming a hero doesn’t solve everything, and it was believable that he’d go off the rails and find himself ill equipped to handle the stress of becoming a good guy rather than just an ego maniac. I was also very happy with the idea that Stark had developed a new element as an energy source because this suggested he could really change the world as a form of self-serving and society-serving hero.
So that brings me to Iron Man 3. In the meantime, we had seen Thor and The Avengers films, the latter with its change of pace teamwork, driving humor, and the introduction of aliens more fully. Iron Man 3 wasn’t quite what I expected in terms of the other Iron Man films. It didn’t build along the same narrative routes, but in many ways it went back to do the things that hadn’t had enough focus in the first two movies because there’s only so much you can fit into a film while serving the story. By that I mean that Iron Man 3 is the first fully character-driven film in the line of Marvel superhero films so far. Thor tried it, but didn’t do it terribly well. There wasn’t enough depth of characterization in Thor even though it was a visually stunning film.
I’m a big fan of the INVINCIBLE IRON MAN comics by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca as well as the Warren Ellis/Adi Granov EXTREMIS series that preceded it. I didn’t expect any film to try to make a direct adaptation of these comics but what most appealed to me in these comics Iron Man 3 managed to capture: the psychological focus on a human being at the center of chaotic, world-changing developments. Though it sounds sadistic, I wanted to see a very human hero fail to manage in that chaos and still find a way of moving forward. To me, that’s the real-life feel superhero films need beyond the riveting spectacles they are now able to produce on the big screen. I would be a little disappointed if I didn’t get those spectacles, too, but spectacle alone makes for a kids movie, and I don’t think Iron Man 3 could be classified as a kids movie despite its all-ages appeal.
So, what, particularly, stays with me from Iron Man 3? Images and moments that slowed down enough despite a building, gripping pace, to show me a character wondering what to do, and coming up with nothing from time to time, but still able to see the humor and the tragedy in that. I love the fact that the mind-blowing experiences of The Avengers film were brought into continuity, and that Tony had mental struggles to cope that slowed him down. At the risk of making traumatic stress seem funny, I think the film still managed to show the seriousness of it. When an overly confident person becomes weak and confused, that means something to viewers. It means superheroes operate in a truly chaotic universe like us.
I also really responded to the stripped-down idea that Tony, at heart, is a mechanic, and there’s always something that a craftsman can do, no matter how basic, to reaffirm that role. That reminded me about the foundation of Tony Stark’s personality beneath his playboy struggles and relationship issues and explained his successes in life. My favorite moment was one revealed early-on in trailers, when Stark drags his powered down suit through the snow step by step. It would have been a great moment in a comic, but it also spoke film language almost exclusively with very little dialogue needed. It meant something very deep and iconic about how heroes keep going, and that there has to be something there beneath the powers they might wield to make them heroes at heart. Even if that “something” is just the knowledge that they have a responsibility to keep going with whatever they’ve got left in their pockets.
But spectacles are good too, beyond a doubt. The underwater struggle with the caving in of Stark’s Malibu mansion was excellent, and of course there was myth there too- Stark’s previous life, everything ordered and achieved literally crushing him into a reborn persona. The depiction of the Extremis-fuelled foes in Iron Man 3 was really well done in the sense that it was very close to Granov’s haunting artwork on the EXTREMIS comic while creating its own version of the Extremis debacle. Yes, I would have liked to see the Mandarin as a giant, world-crushing villain with a rotten heart and power we can only barely imagine, but the film didn’t have to do that to make the Mandarin great- he exists elsewhere, in comics, and dominates our view of the Marvel Universe in that medium. I also would have liked to see Pepper Potts take on a Rescue suit like in Fraction/Larocca’s storyline, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me. What I was left writhing about was that I wanted to see Stark become an Extremis Iron Man, but that wasn’t in the cards either.
I think Shane Black made the right decisions. Those side-note epic elements would have distracted from the tale he was telling, the story of a man and his equally decrepit robotic alter ego deciding how the hell to keep going when the going gets tough in crappy, human, WTF ways. I was very impressed by meeting this stand-up guy, Tony Stark: The Mechanic, in Iron Man 3.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.