The first Iron Man movie uses Tony Stark as a metaphor for American power, with Tony's near-lethal chest wound signifying his remorse at spreading weapons around Afghanistan. The brilliant Iron Man 3 makes this connection even more explicit, giving us an elaborate fable of post-9/11 America and a paranoid-but-cocky Tony.
And as usual, by "spoilers," we don't mean anything major. If you've watched the trailers and stuff, you ought to be fine.
The first two Iron Man movies gave Tony Stark physical damage as his hubris came back to bite him: a gruesome chest wound in the first film, and dark veiny lines of radiation poisoning in the second. In Iron Man 3, though, Tony does get his face torn up, but his malaise is mostly psychological: he's freaked out after he helped fight off an alien invasion and flew into a wormhole with a nuclear bomb in The Avengers.
And then Tony's house, and apparently all his Iron Man suits, are destroyed by the Mandarin, a psychotic terrorist who's already committed tons of attacks around the world. Tony is first nearly drowned in the ocean, and then winds up flung in the middle of nowhere, in snowy Tennessee, with no friends and no help.
One of the great miracles of Iron Man 3 is that despite going pretty dark — both with Tony's damage and with his downfall — it's one of the most feel-good movies in ages. Part of this is because of the spot-on humor in the film, with director Shane Black and star Robert Downey Jr. showing amazing comic timing. But also, this film takes the trope of a hero (apparently) losing everything and rediscovering his mojo as a result — and manages to make it feel new and shiny. Plus, for reasons that remain unclear, it's a Christmas movie.
If the first Iron Man was about the guilt that Tony Stark (and America) feel for blowing up large parts of the world, then this new movie is more about feeling powerless. America can't track down the Mandarin, that intractable super-terrorist. And meanwhile, ever since Iron Man helped save the world, he's become something more than a celebrity: he's become a symbol and someone that everybody counts on. (Even though the United States government tries to create a more patriotic version by painting War Machine's armor red, white and blue, Iron Man is still clearly the most American armored hero because he's a rich, individualistic genius.)
Iron Man's trauma is clearly related to feeling out of his depth in a world of thunder-gods and aliens — and a massive alien army would be way easier to locate than the elusive, taunting Mandarin. How do you defeat an enemy you can't even find?
Iron Man 3 should be a model for all superhero sequels
Where do you go after you've already saved the world/attained your heroic destiny/whitened your teeth? This is the perennial question that movie sequels grapple with — especially superhero sequels, where the first movie is an origin story. Iron Man 3 offers a pretty brilliant template, although it's by no means a perfect movie.
And since most superheroes are, to some extent, avatars of American power — ever since they were punching Hitler — the real question any superhero sequel grapples with is, what do you do after you win the Cold War?
Iron Man 3 avoids sequel-itis by doing a few things simultaneously: 1) It goes back to basics, showing us Tony having to cope on his own for a long stretch. 2) It's kind of an origin story redux, because Tony has to re-create himself or at least rediscover himself. 3) It's also an ending, giving this chapter of Tony's saga a definite conclusion that feels final and not cheap.
In some ways, Iron Man 3 does some things similar to The Dark Knight Rises, except that Tony's spine doesn't get shattered and he doesn't hitchhike from Eurasia to Gotham in fifteen minutes.
Plus one clever way that Iron Man 3 succeeds as a sequel is by addressing the insane success of The Avengers head-on — as famous as that film is in the real world, the fact that aliens showed up and trashed New York is an even bigger deal in the Marvel Movie Universe. People keep bringing it up, in ways that feel organic rather than like some sort of "hey, remember that other movie you liked?" way.
But also, Iron Man 3 works as a sequel — way better than Iron Man 2 did — because it stays grounded. It's easy to keep an origin story grounded, because the hero usually starts out in the "real" world and then progresses into wonderland. Once you've told the origin, though, it gets harder and harder to keep anchoring the hero in the real world — and paradoxically, you don't get any escapism without that connection to reality.
Most of all, Iron Man 3 feels deft — perhaps because Downey Jr. is reunited with Black, his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, the film has a less lumbering gait than Iron Man 2. The movie feels pretty fast-paced and the laughs and action keep coming.
Action movies and terrorism
And that's the other thing — Iron Man 3 is a pretty neat action movie, in which the stakes are raised in a way that doesn't entirely feel like plot levers being moved around and the action sequences further both the plot and the characters. A good action sequence should feel unpredictable, but make sense in terms of the physicality and the geography of the action, so that you know where the players are in the scene.
Probably the most bravura action sequence is the "Air Force One rescue" scene, part of which has been released as a clip — like the "bridge rescue" with the car and the family in last year's Amazing Spider-Man, it's a scene where the emphasis is on creativity and saving innocents, rather than the sheer number of casualties or amount of destruction.
There's a huge emphasis on Tony Stark's famous ability to improvise, rather than on ready-made gadgets, and when the movie does bust out the power suits, it's ludicrously fun. Without giving too much away, a large chunk of this movie almost treats Iron Man's power suits the way Empire Strikes Back treats the Millennium Falcon's hyperspace drive, and the results make both Tony and the armor seem cooler.
And then, the ending of the film is somewhat over-the-top, as if Black suddenly realized that he needed to pull out all the stops for a big bang-up sequence — but you've waited long enough for it, and the sequence is well choreographed and dazzling.
Since 9/11, we've had tons of stories about terrorism. Just this month, we have Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, which even sport similar trailers in which Ben Kingsley or Benedict Cumberbatch gives a menacing speech about our delusion of safety while things blow up.
And Iron Man 3 winds up taking a somewhat postmodern approach to the idea of terrorism, in which the "war against terror" is won more by the sly, self-destructive Tony Stark than by the red-white-and-blue-painted enforcer, War Machine aka Iron Patriot.
In all the best action movies, the battle is as much for personal redemption (or self-improvement) as to knock some hench-person down. In this movie, though, Tony Stark's character flaws turn out to be part and parcel of how he grapples with the Mandarin. The fact that Tony has been an insomniac wreck lately turns out to be key to his victory, but so does the fact that he's overreached and needs to be taken down a peg or twelve.
But also, in keeping with the theme of the first two Iron Man films, we learn at the start of Iron Man 3 that everything we're about to see is all Tony Stark's fault — but this time, it's just because he was partying too hard and wasn't paying enough attention back in 1999.
And that's really what makes this film such a satisfying action movie, as well as such a great superhero sequel — it finds a new way to talk about the age old themes of superheroes and the burden of fame and responsibility — and it finds a brand new off-kilter take on terrorism, at the same time.
Most of all, the story of Tony Stark's fall, and his climb back up again, is an interesting take on how America's malaise, and how we might regain our footing. Just like the first Iron Man movie, it's hyper-political and yet shrewd enough that it can be read multiple ways, by multiple different audiences. And for those reasons, it's also a great superhero sequel, that's worth using as inspiration, rather than imitation.