A Clash of Ideologies, or Lack Thereof 

There’s much debate as to the movie version of The Mandarin, originally an orientalist caricature best left in the ‘60s. While the character being cast part-Indian rather than Chinese brings up a complicated aspect of the debate on Hollywood’s Asian erasure, the presumable avoidance of an offensive Chinese villain for the purposes of China’s box office was inadvertently sound, from an artistic standpoint. There’s too much racial baggage for The Mandarin to be carried forward as mystic figure or anything resembling his original iteration, and so the form he initially takes here – a bastardization of ideas and iconographies – finds itself at an interesting nexus. On one hand, much like ISIS, he lays claim to terrorist attacks that probably aren’t his own, likening the explosion at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre to the American-in-origin fortune cookie, a manipulation of Eastern imagery and ideology mass-marketed to the west. On the other, this is exactly who The Mandarin is as well.

As revealed in a twist late into the film, The Mandarin is a hodgepodge of ideas, strung together by a clueless actor (Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery, a comedic revelation). He borrows the symbol of The Ten Rings, the organization that kidnapped Tony Stark in the first film, and he fashions himself – or rather, is fashioned by Aldrich Killian – as a moralistic zealot, hell-bent on attacking America and its interests, as if unintentionally tapping in to Marvel’s own political hesitance thus far. The distinctly vague appearance of “the war on terror” is exactly the point, allowing Killian to sell biological weapons to both sides, even though these “both sides” aren’t quite articulated either. Whether Disney, or Killian’s Advanced Idea Mechanics, political specifics don’t matter so long as the product sells.

Iron Man 3 features a marginally more hard-hitting critique of American military industrial complex than Iron Man, owing to its exposure of the sheer lack of defining ideology behind it. Militarism is sold and packaged through media narratives on multiple fronts; one on hand, it portrays ruthless foreign threats whose outlook is irrelevant so long as it sounds scary to Americans. On the other, the film shows America’s limp, lip-service-only ideological response, painting over James Rhodes’ (Don Cheadle) heavily armed “War Machine” in red, white & blue and calling it “The Iron Patriot,” as if its unsanctioned foreign interventions become acceptable as soon as they’re given a nationalistic paintjob.

And while the film does little to portray the actual effects of this warmongering (granted, the interventions themselves are painted with a brush of dark comedy), it does portray the American response as predictable and ill-considered, with Killian conning the American president into invading Pakistan on two different occasions as he sets his traps elsewhere. Compared to its predecessors, which put the blame of military industrialism solely on industry, Iron Man 3 draws a line straight to the U.S. Commander-In-Chief.

The downside to this lack of ideology, however, is how Tony Stark’s journey fails to be a proper foil to it; to combat a villain fighting for nothing, you have to fight for everything. Killian, whose motivations are disconnected from Tony’s “self-created demons” despite showing up in the opening prologue, has a ruthless, unfeeling dedication to military capitalism. This dedication is on full display after the Mandarin reveal; he treats his soldiers as disposable, and he readily shoots and kills Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), the one person whose goals and methods could be aligned with his own. He doesn’t care about the people closest to him, which is what separates him from Tony Stark, whose arc involves learning that Happy, Pepper and the likes ought to be more important to him than his numerous suits. This part of his journey is externalized deftly when Pepper seemingly dies, followed by Tony’s far-too-late realization of just how good he actually had it. But it’s a moment that remains entirely disconnected from both the forgotten PTSD narrative as well as the actual form taken by the climax.

Fireworks in Lieu of Character 

Having Tony and (to an extent) Rhodey shed their armour for the final battle makes sense. The Iron Man has become a crutch, and both War Machine/Iron Patriot and The Mandarin have proven the emptiness of political theatricality for the manipulation of sentiment; The Mandarin eventually co-opts the Patriot armour as well. Who are these people when their facades are stripped away? The Mandarin is the fire-breathing monster Aldrich Killian, a man with no care for humanity despite the life-improving potential of his experiments. Rhodey is, well, Rhodey. This narrative was never about him, but it stands to reason that Tony should be put to the ultimate test here. And yet, despite not wearing his suits at first, he ends up relying on them entirely.

Tony summoning dozens of Iron Man suits is cool. Each one having a different design and purpose is cool, despite primarily existing to sell toys. The remote centralization of these unmanned drones is, err, dangerous, but it looks cool and is expanded upon in future installments. The image of Tony jumping from suit to suit is cool, and the empty suits fighting anonymous henchmen, while the definition of empty spectacle, is still pretty cool. It’s all genuinely cool to look at, as any superhero climax ought to be, but it’s also entirely at odds with Tony’s journey throughout the film.

His reliance on his technology is never put to the test. If anything, the finale supports his obsessions. Even his eventual “Clean Slate Protocol,” wherein he destroys all his suits for Pepper’s sake, isn’t arrived at through narrative steps that feel logically or emotionally sound. The realization of Pepper’s importance to Tony works in and of itself. This is the first film in which their relationship feels substantial, but the disconnect arrives when it comes to what the suits represent for Tony and his state of mind independent of Pepper. How Tony Stark defines himself in relation to other people comes at the cost of defining Tony Stark himself.

Pepper is certainly affected negatively by Tony’s actions and by his PTSD, and overcoming his selfishness precedes the “Clean Slate” protocol, but his suffering from PTSD and/or anxiety is not in itself an act of selfishness – or an intentional act at all. Which isn’t to say the film is conflating the two, but Tony’s reliance on this new addiction is just as much a psychological phenomenon as it is a dramatic want or desire. The destruction of his outlet (or symptom) doesn’t help him confront its root cause. This root cause forms so much of the backbone of the film’s first half that forgetting about it midway feels disingenuous to story being told.

The Road Ahead

In the film’s closing narration (another Shane Black flourish), Tony says both “I’m a changed man” and “I am Iron Man,”a callback to the end of the first film. But these sentiments feel distinctly at odds with one another. Tony hasn’t given up being Iron Man – the removal of his arc reactor merely indicates no longer relying on his armour – but the change in question doesn’t come from a place of no longer needing his suits. It comes from wanting to no longer need them. Which is far from the same thing – the recognition that change can or should happen is different from actual change – and it’s an unsatisfying narrative conclusion in a story about the personal and interpersonal effects of trauma. But, like its predecessors, the film also sets into motion specific narrative faults that are eventually taken advantage of, in ways that change the series’ approach to Tony Stark.

By this point in the franchise, Robert Downey Jr. was Marvel’s not-so-secret weapon, and Iron Man 3 features some of the best dramatic work of his career. He’s allowed to dig deep into what makes this character tick (and what prevents him from ticking), working in tandem with Black’s signature combination of sarcasm-as-shield contrasted with unshielded moments of vulnerability. Even when the spinning plates prove to be too many to make sense of, Downey Jr. balances them with finesse, which is part of why this film looks and feels as coherent as it does, despite its major thematic disconnects.

It’s like the reset button was pushed on Iron Man once again, taking him a step back (or at best sideways) with mistakes unconfronted and only the appearance of headway. But it’s this inadvertent characterization of Tony Stark as an intertextual embodiment of repetition, with a penchant for combating mistakes with more mistakes, that would form the backbone of the Iron Man narrative going forward. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, in Captain America: Civil War, even in Spider-Man: Homecoming, cementing him as one of the most interesting characters in all of popular culture.

Even when Marvel messes up, they make up for it – assuming you even noticed they messed up in the first place.

Pages: Previous page 1 2

Cool Posts From Around the Web: