Iron Man 3 (2013)

"Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. America, ready for another lesson?" - The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley)

Part of the reason why I have decided to go back and watch and review each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies is because I haven’t seen some of them. Well, the first of these is Iron Man 3. I wrote in my review of The Avengers that I was fairly underwhelmed when I saw that in theaters, and it was around this time that I was experiencing superhero film burnout. I passed on Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger when those were in theaters but the hype for The Avengers managed to convince me that movie was going to somehow be different. It was more of the same, of course, so when Iron Man 3 hit theaters a year after The Avengers did, I was decidedly not in any sort of mood to continue a journey I was convinced at the time had reached a dead end.

When Iron Man 2 was nearing its debut in 2010, this whole Iron Man/MCU thing was still in a bit of a honeymoon phase. Iron Man had been a roaring success, and watching Robert Downey, Jr. be Iron Man a second time was going to be a blast. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 turned out to be a bit of a mess — the worst movie in the MCU’s Phase One if you ask me. It lacked the freshness of the original and the sloppy script tried to do too many things at once, not unlike the deeply unpopular Spider-Man 3. By the time Iron Man 3 saw the light of day three long years later, issues with staleness were so severe I didn’t bother to watch it until literally just now. After all, why go back to see Iron Man play in a regular season game when we had just watched him play in the all-star game? It was like NBC going back to The Apprentice after audiences had already gotten used to The Celebrity Apprentice — no one cared about watching regular people anymore.

pepper potts looks at tony's new iron man suit

It turns out I was not on the same page as the rest of the world. Iron Man 3 grossed $174 million in its opening weekend — at the time, second only to The Avengers‘ $207 million — en route to grossing $1.2 billion worldwide by the end of its theatrical run. More shockingly, this total gross doubled — I repeat, doubled — Iron Man 2‘s $623 million worldwide haul. It was quite clear the MCU was here to stay and that the appetite for individual (i.e., non-Avengers) additions to the canon was still huge. Curiously though, Iron Man 4 was never made and, perhaps even more curiously, no one seems to really have a problem with that. At least, I have never gotten the sense that Iron Man 3 — and Iron Man 2, for that matter — have all that many fans. Of course, there isn’t a pressing need for any of these MCU movies, but Iron Man 3 in particular comes across as pretty extraneous — which is probably why I didn’t watch it until now.

But give Marvel Studios some credit where credit is due: Iron Man 4 almost certainly would have made a ton of money, but Marvel instead decided to deepen its MCU by featuring Iron Man as more of an ensemble character in the subsequent Avengers films and in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. However, this unfortunately does mean that Iron Man 3 is a movie without much of a purpose (even by MCU standards), since there was never another individual Iron Man film. In the run-up to watching the film today, I found myself asking questions like, “Is there anything else about Tony Stark I really need to know?” and “Is there anything else I’m dying to see Iron Man do?” and “Do I really care about Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy (Jon Favreau) and what they’re up to?” The answer to all three was a definite no.

helicopters with missiles approach tony stark's house

In the wake of The Avengers raising the stakes, watching Iron Man 3 feels like something of a retreat. The villain (Guy Pearce) is actually pretty solid, but everything about the movie feels pretty routine. Even when stuff blows up in spectacular fashion, it’s hard to get too excited about it. Coming on the heels of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 comes across as something of an unhealthy rebound relationship — in fact, the plot basically encourages this analogy. One of my complaints about Iron Man 2 was the plot device of Tony being near death for most of the film. (In case you have forgotten, the arc reactor powering his heart was slowly failing until Tony synthesized a new element to replace the palladium core.) Well, in Iron Man 3, Tony faces something similar: post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of almost dying at the end of The Avengers. He faces some crippling anxiety in several scenes, and while this could have been effective if executed correctly, none of it really has any weight.

The central problem is that none of the rest of the Avengers who shared in the experience that causes him to suffer from PTSD are present in this film. Neither is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) or anyone from S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead, Tony is basically on his own, and while I suppose a satisfying conclusion could be reached on this more emotional/personal front without any of the Avengers present, it certainly doesn’t happen here. As far as defeating the bad guys, it’s never really explained to my satisfaction why none of the other Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D show up. Wouldn’t a threat to Tony’s life (i.e., blowing up his house) trigger some kind of emergency response from the rest of the Avengers? Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing the Avengers assemble for? Instead, everything that occurs in Iron Man 3 is entirely — and artificially, it seems to me — siloed off from the rest of the MCU.

iron man gazes upon a helicopter

In fact, since Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, returns only as an actor this time around, Iron Man 3 is siloed off from those two films in that respect as well. And while at least Iron Man 2 introduced new characters into the mix like Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (who had previously only appeared after the credits of Iron Man) who would figure prominently into the rest of the MCU, Iron Man 3 introduces only characters that are never heard from again. On paper, Iron Man 3 is a film deliberately designed to be forgotten in just about every sense. It’s pretty safe to say that without the existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Iron Man 3‘s snug placement within it, almost no one would still go back and watch this movie. It seems a crime to spend $200 million on a film destined to be forgotten, but the movie business is what it is.

Martin Scorsese, arguably the greatest living American filmmaker, recently condemned Marvel movies as “not cinema” in an interview with Empire. Scorsese’s comments made considerable noise, so he further clarified his position in a New York Times op-ed. I would encourage everyone to read it. Personally, I am conflicted; I agree with him but also don’t agree with him. To some extent, his opinion also seems like sour grapes. His conclusion: “The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.” On the first point, I certainly agree with him. But as for that last sentence, I’m not so sure. I think it can reasonably be argued that without the presence of blockbusters, movie theaters would go out of business and Scorsese’s own movies wouldn’t be shown in theaters at all.

tony stark interrogates trevor slattery at gunpoint

He also neglects to address what I would consider to be the larger threat to cinema, which is quality television series. While he does mention Netflix and Hulu as distributors of movies, he doesn’t broaden the scope to include what these streaming services and cable television channels have really done to damage the livelihood of theatrical exhibition. By any measure, the quality of TV series has utterly skyrocketed over the past twenty years, and this has led to what Scorsese calls the “elimination of risk” in Hollywood feature filmmaking. The demand for really quality storytelling is being met, but on TV in series form instead of in theaters in feature film form. And since the audience for really quality narrative storytelling on TV and in its more cinematic feature film form is generally the same, the demand for seeing it in a theater has dropped. And because the demand for it has dropped, the supply has likewise dropped.

Scorsese is noticeably silent in his op-ed on this point about TV series vs. cinema, particularly since Scorsese himself directed the pilot episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and served as an executive producer throughout its five-season run. That’s why I can’t help but think that Scorsese is misplacing the blame in this statement: “And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” Actually, this flies in the face of common sense. In the entire history of entertainment, audiences have always eventually responded negatively when given only one kind of thing for an extended period. Disco music didn’t last forever. And there have been many, many, many times when Hollywood has been dead wrong about what audiences want.

iron man saves people who fell out of air force one

Scorsese is also noticeably silent about Christopher Nolan‘s Batman movies, which are A) good and B) DC Comics and not Marvel Comics, though I doubt Scorsese cares about the difference between Marvel and DC. However, I suspect we can glean his opinion on Nolan’s trilogy from what he says here: “Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.” The essential difference between Nolan’s Batman films and the Marvel films is that Nolan’s films, of course, are a result of his own individual vision. On this, Scorsese is certainly correct: the Marvel films are decidedly not made by auteurs, and by their own design are supposed to blend together since they are part of the same franchise. They are primarily a result of producer Kevin Feige‘s vision, not of their directors’.

Which is why it doesn’t feel like a loss that Jon Favreau was replaced as director for Iron Man 3. In the end, it doesn’t really matter who directs these MCU movies. It’s the movie equivalent of directing an episode of a TV show: your job, when directing a TV episode, is to come in and fulfill the showrunners’ vision of the episode. On the MCU, Feige is the equivalent of the showrunner. While Scorsese never broaches this particular subject, I’m sure this is really at the core of his argument; I can’t imagine he likes the idea of directors getting used to being subservient when it comes to feature filmmaking. Taking over for Jon Favreau in the director’s chair for Iron Man 3 is Shane Black, best known as the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon. (He also sold a bunch of action scripts during a spec script boom during the late ’80s and early ’90s, including the script to the 1996 film The Long Kiss Goodnight for a staggering $4 million.)

aldrich killian heats up iron patriot

Prior to directing Iron Man 3, Black had only directed one film, 2005‘s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Modestly budgeted at $15 million, it is best known for starring Robert Downey, Jr. for the first time after he had vanished from public view for several years due to drug addiction. It’s not hard to figure out that Black getting the Iron Man 3 gig is a result of Downey returning the favor. Still, it does seem strange to give Black a $200 million movie to direct when he had only directed one film before with a small fraction of that budget. So how does Black do? Actually, just fine. Directing-wise, I don’t think he necessarily does anything wrong here. The larger issues with the film are much more systemic that should have been fixed — assuming they even could have been fixed — in the film’s development phase. Frankly, after The Avengers, the story in Iron Man 3 seems like a sideshow rather than the main act, and as a result the whole thing can’t help but feel irrelevant, particularly since it was never directly continued in an Iron Man 4.

And it’s a shame, because on the whole I do think Iron Man 3 is a little better than Iron Man 2, even if it is significantly more stale. The villain is better, it’s not overstuffed with lots underdeveloped characters and plot elements, and the climax is a lot more spectacular. However, like many other sequels, it does suffer from the disease of more — having all of those Iron Man suits flying around everywhere is a little much. And while the whole T-1000 Terminator thing is pretty cool with the bad guys being able to regrow body parts and heal themselves, it’s not exactly original. So my reaction to this movie is decidedly mixed, but it’s still above average at the end of the day, as all of these MCU movies are. To read a review of how Iron Man 3 looks and sounds in 4K, check out Blu-ray.com’s review of the 4K UHD Blu-ray disc. I agree with this review that Iron Man 3 is the best looking of the trilogy in 4K. Be advised, though, that like the first two films, it was finished on a 2K digital intermediate, so all that’s available — and will ever be available — is an upscaled version of that 2K image and not a true 4K image. (In fact, Iron Man 3 was shot digitally at 2.8K resolution, so even if a 4K DI had been used the finished movie itself still would have been an upscale.)

Summary
Iron Man 3 is certainly decent enough with terrific action, but it's a forgettable entry into the MCU canon without much of a reason to exist. Although it's the first movie in the MCU's Phase Two, the truth is it represents more of a dead end than the beginning of something new.
Good
  • Suitably spectacular; the film has high production values and clearly cost a lot of money
  • The ensemble cast is predictably good
  • Downey provides plenty of laughs as always
Bad
  • Nothing about the movie feels urgent; it frequently feels like it's going through the motions
  • The tone can be a little odd, particularly the terrorism scenes with the Mandarin
  • The gadget stuff is nifty but the movie relies on it too heavily
6.5
Fair

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