Iron Man 3 was a different kind of superhero movie than we’ve seen before, more akin to Dark Knight Rises than The Avengers, but it was still officially the first sign that summer is upon us. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns with his Iron Man suit to battle the terrorist Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), with his love Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) by his side, prepared to risk it all. But is risking it all the same when your battling Chitauri aliens as it is when you’re battling someone who is “in your head”?
The fact that Stark battles a terrorist in this one isn’t the only comparison to DKR. Shane Black’s direction still allows for the ironic humor Jon Favreau established in the series, but we’re peeling back the iron surrounding the man, and ultimately, we’re not sure what we see. Several times, we’re shown or told the phrase, “you know I am in,” but in every case, we don’t actually know the person and the person doesn’t actually have their own self-identity established. Wait, you say, I thought this was the first popcorn movie of the summer?
Especially in light of the Boston Marathon bombings, and curiously in comparison to Kingsley’s A Common Man, this one reaches deeper into the pulse of our world as it also messes with Stark’s mind. When we first see the plot developing, we recognize that what later becomes evil isn’t really evil in its originations. (From a theological perspective, it’s recognizing that often “sin” isn’t sin initially, but it becomes sin when something good is taken to extremes or becomes more important than love, God, etc.) What could’ve been used for good, and which was dismissed glibly, becomes a tool of terror for its own (or money’s) sake. Which actually ties IM3 back to the second installment if you deconstruct IM2’s Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), but revenge was more of an issue there.
But revenge must be taken into account here, because the terrorism we’re faced with in IM3 directly or indirectly stems from bullying that Stark is responsible for. Which begs bigger questions about our world: how much of the evil we see could be prevented by “good” acting preemptively? I’m a strong believer in free will, and some people seem to find evil earlier rather than later (I’ll leave nature vs. nurture for another time), but is the evil of AIM preventable? If Stark listens, if Stark engages, if Stark encourages rather than “creating our own demons,” as he’ll say later, is this brand of terrorism DOA? [Of course, to recognize the evil Stark indirectly creates is to recognize that Stark himself tells the story as a changed man thanks to a little time in an insurgent’s cave.]
This is a summertime, popcorn movie, but it’s also a study in the world we live in, the terrorism of today’s times, and a recognition that bullies create something even as they destroy. Unless of course someone breaks the cycle but acting differently and disengaging the bully pre-creation of the altered persona, or stands up to the bully from a “stronger” position and stops them. What Iron Man does in 2012, could Tony Stark have prevented in 1999?
But Stark has been undergoing more of a transformation than just playboy-to-superhero. He’s struggling with “anxiety” here, which might as well have been labeled PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after battling the Chitauri (The Avengers). His identity is so shaken because he’s discovered that science doesn’t cover everything, that he can’t fix and control everything with enough money and manipulation of technology. He’s having a mid-life, PTSD, anxiety fit, having just put his own life on the line (with no apparent hope of success) to force the wormhole shut, and then the only people who could possibly understand (the Avengers) have disbanded. He’s on his own with his thoughts, his struggles, and his responsibilities.
Yet, Pepper is always there, and the transition of Stark to Iron Man (via identity and not just the suit) must at least be partially credited to his leading lady. (Some of you are saying, “yes, behind every great man…” and it’s true here, for sure.) But Stark can’t fully be Iron Man until he sees it as more than a costume, in the same way that Spiderman has to figure that out (the kid in IM3 made me think of the backyard scene in Spiderman 2, the Tobey Maguire version). Love is in fact what pushes Stark to fight back, to get over himself, to kick his insecurities to the curb, and to step up as only he can. Loving someone else more than himself, captured briefly with the wormhole, comes busting out at the seams here, and I doubt that they’ll attempt to put it back in the future.
So kudos to Downey, to Black, to the development of a movie that has a heart (not an electromagnetic repulser), a brain (in addressing world issues), and a body of work that is even more spectacular than anything we’ve seen this year, developed in a world all it’s own.
P.S. In a somewhat ironic postscript, my next film outing will mostly likely be to see Star Trek Into Darkness which finds the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise up against a… terrorist. Which begs the question, does life imitate art or art imitate life? Stay tuned…