Iron Man 3: Not The Movie You Think It Is (Spoilers Ahoy!)

So I saw Iron Man 3 today and without giving much away it’s really good. I have some issues with it but by and large they avoid the third movie curse by making a story that’s a lot more personal, a lot more character-focused, and quite frankly dark in a way that Chris Nolan only tried to be. It’s a nice comedown from The Avengers, in a lot of ways, and even though it doesn’t directly set up any additional movies it’s a nice way to kick off Phase 2 of Marvel’s can’t-believe-that-actually-worked experiment.

But there’s a lot more to this movie, and as I was watching I was struck by how subversive it was, and how its racial politics are strangely refreshing. By no means is this a really organized or particularly well-researched commentary, just some things I thought about.

It should be noted that everything past the jump comes with a huge, metaphorically-blinking SPOILER tag.

So can we talk about the Mandarin?

Ever since the character was announced to be part of this movie, I’ve been…well, concerned is probably too mild a word. As you no doubt know if you’re reading this, the Mandarin is an incredibly problematic character, a leftover from a less enlightened time wherein Asian cultures were viewed as a monolithic threat. His first appearance, with his slanted eyes, Fu Manchu mustache, and long fingernails, purposely evokes the yellow peril stereotypes of the era. Later writers, most recently Matt Fraction, have tried to bring the character kicking and screaming into modern times but despite their best efforts the character remained mired in comics continuity and as such never quite washed off the stink of racism. So, you know. That’s a hard character to work with, and  the folks at Marvel Studios wisely put off dealing with the character as long as they could – no small feat considering that he’s arguably Iron Man’s most significant foe (which should tell you something about how lousy his rogues’ gallery is, but that’s another post for another time).

So when they announced that Ben Kingsley would be playing the character in the studio’s first post-Avengers effort, I was cautious. Not for Ben Kingsley, of course. He’s a great actor, and is at least of Indian descent. But there’s something about the Mandarin that just doesn’t work today, and the character as written just isn’t something any studio could pull off.

So, naturally, writers Shane Black and Drew Pearce didn’t use the character as written.

Instead, the Mandarin – this terrifying, ethnically ambiguous terrorist force (who, as Laura Hudson points out in her fantastic illustrated review uses the powers of the Internet and viral video to a thematically powerful degree) turns out not to be any of those things. Instead, he’s a drugged-out actor named Trevor, hired to play a character. There is no Mandarin, and no nefarious Ten Rings terrorist group – it’s all a front to cover up the malfunctioning Extremis technology that A.I.M. head honcho Aldrich Killian (played  ably by Guy Pearce) is trying to sell to the government. See, it’s a virus meant to repair damage to the human body, but it has the nasty side effect of increasing its internal temperature and turning anyone who uses it into a super-strong, super-fast sociopath (well, almost everyone but we’ll get to that). Those who can’t “regulate” explode, vaporizing anyone nearby as well as themselves. Bad for business, right?

So, in his attempt to cover up what’s actually happening, Killian creates the Mandarin, a carefully-constructed racial Other speaking to American cultural and economic fears. He takes the name of a Chinese bureaucrat and dresses in ornate robes, yet also uses iconography and footage in his broadcasts that wouldn’t be out of place in an Al Qaeda video (Osama bin Laden is even mentioned by name in the movie, surprising for a series that has largely left real-world current events out of the equation). This vague, terrifying specter is used to threaten and terrify the American public (and parts of the government) in the interests of big business and government contracts. In fact, it could be argued that the real enemy in the movie is the corporate motive and the state interests that promote it.

When we meet the man behind the Mandarin, he sees it all as an act. A big stage with fringe benefits perfect for a struggling actor. The movie very clearly casts the Mandarin as a synthetic rhetorical construct, a figurehead. The notion of an enemy, the movie argues, is more important and terrifying than the specifics. Nobody questions why the Mandarin is doing what he’s doing, or where he comes from, or what his motivation might be. He’s simply a scary man from somewhere else. That his messages are unwillingly broadcast across every television channel in the country is actually a significant break from reality, in which the mass media willfully participates in the construction and facilitation of such images.

Which brings me to the Iron Patriot. Rhodey’s new suit, adorned in a red, white, and blue paintjob that would make Captain America jealous, carries perhaps one of the most significant symbolic payloads of the movie along with its high-caliber weaponry. There’s something inherently disturbing and unapologetically symbolic about the Patriot kicking down a Middle Eastern family’s door in pursuit of the Mandarin. Here’s the embodiment of Western technological might, placed up against an innocent family of civilians. Such staging cannot be accidental on the part of the writers, who are smart guys and very clearly know what they’re doing. The fact that Rhodey is being led on a wild goose chase in the Middle East by faulty intelligence benefiting corporate interests? I’ll let you work that one out yourself.

And that’s what makes Iron Man 3 not at all the movie I was expecting. Despite the technocratic surface of the Iron Man series and its fetishization of hardware and military weaponry, there is a kernel, and a powerful one, of an anti-state, anti-corporate philosophy and a rejection of the media and culture that support such interests. It’s surprising (and this reading doesn’t fully accommodate the fact that Tony Stark is in every way a living embodiment of The Man, charm and character depth aside) and an unusual track for a big-budget studio movie to take. It’s refreshing in a lot of ways, and speaks to the counter-culture spirit that informed a lot of the early Marvel comics.

Some other thoughts:

– Tony Stark kills an awful lot of people in this movie. His improvised weaponry spoke to his ability as an engineer, but given the cultural climate of the last 20 or so years you will forgive me for being a little unnerved by a lone man in sunglasses and a black hoodie brandishing homemade guns and bombs. Moreover, not only does he actively threaten other characters with death, he seems to take joy in meting out the ultimate form of punishment. Iron Man, and specifically movie Iron Man, has never quite had the inflexible moral code of a Batman but it was nonetheless jarring to see as much carnage on the screen as this movie carried (particularly due tot he large amount of children at our screening). That said, Downey Jr. has never been better in this role, and imbues Stark with some legitimate and earned pathos and exhaustion (did he ever actually sleep?).

– In many ways, this was Pepper Potts’ movie. Which, as a Pepper Potts fan, was just fine with me. Even though I rolled my eyes when she suddenly turned from super competent CEO to damsel in distress, the fact that she ends up quite literally saving Stark’s life in the end in a comically over-the-top and awesome fashion made up for that. We even almost got Rescue, and the scene in which the armor forms around her was one of many incredibly clever and well-crafted action sequences in the movie.

– This was basically a 1980s action movie, wasn’t it? It’s set at Christmas, there’s a significant buddy cop dynamic with Stark and Rhodes, the President gets kidnapped, and the last action sequence takes place in a nondescript, burning shipping yard. You could slap Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis in the Tony Stark role and it’d basically be Lethal Weapon  or Die Hard. Which is absolutely fine, of course, and undoubtedly an intentional callback to Shane Black’s earlier work. There’s even a precocious kid for the hero to play off of (which could have been cloying, but thanks to the sharp script and note-perfect performances from both actors it’s one of the best parts of the movie).

– Great post-credits tag, even though it doesn’t set anything up for the next movies it’s still nice to see Bruce Banner and revisit that relationship (which was one of the many best parts of The Avengers).

I  might add some more thoughts to this as I process the movie, but overall I liked it pretty well. Your thoughts?


1 Response to “Iron Man 3: Not The Movie You Think It Is (Spoilers Ahoy!)”

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