It's common knowledge in geek circles that the third film in a trilogy is always the dangerous one. The film where the creators try to cram too much in, lose track of just what made the earlier films work, run out of things to say, or simply say the same things again (only bigger and louder). Only three other Marvel franchises have hit that fabled third film, and they each stumbled dramatically. The same thing happened with both of Warner Bros. biggest superhero franchises (for Batman, it happened twice!).
When it comes to guys and gals in costumes, the third time definitely ain't a charm.
Iron Man 3 is the first of Marvel Studio's series to reach its third installment and, as they've done since the beginning, they aim for the bleachers. Jon Favreau is no longer behind the camera (although he does appear as Happy Hogan, Stark Industries Chief of Security); instead, the mind behind Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and my personal favorite from the resume, The Monster Squad, Shane Black directs from a script he co-wrote with Drew Pearce, the man responsible for the hilarious UK superhero comedy series No Heroics.
As you could probably guess by this creative decision, Marvel didn't go into this looking to make something dark and pretentious – which they could easily have done with a story inspired by Warren Ellis' now-classic 2005 relaunch story, "Extremis" (which also provided the inspiration for the look of all three films so far). Instead, we get a movie that continues to have fun with the character of Tony Stark, while also taking a fairly serious look at the post-Avengers Marvel Universe.
Not surprisingly, Marvel has opted to section off different types of stories for their different types of characters. Thor's first Post-Avengers adventure, The Dark World, walks a more mythological path and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is apparently going full-blown 70s-style political thriller, while Guardians of the Galaxy is diving headfirst into space action. Which leaves Iron Man to investigate the politics and economics of war.
The Movie: Spoiler Shields up!
In what is probably the most controversial (from a fandom perspective) creative choice in any of the Marvel Studios films so far, Black and Pearce have taken a dramatically different approach to Iron Man's perennial nemesis, The Mandarin, than has ever been seen in the comics. It's a decision that divides fans even more than the choice to keep Tony out of the armor for most of the film.
Sir Ben Kingsley plays the Mandarin. Sort of. Well, not really. He plays a drug-addled actor named Trevor Slattery. The Marvel Studios Mandarin is the perfect conglomeration of media-friendly fears and anxieties, scripted and rehearsed, edited and soundbite-ready. Because Iron Man movies are all about war economies and the ideas of profiteering and manipulating markets, this was a brilliant decision. The Mandarin is an invented threat devised first to cover up catastrophic accidents by technology think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.), by claiming them as attacks, and then to actually promote real attacks by a fake terrorist network.
The founder of A.I.M., Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), has developed, thanks to the research of bio-technologist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a way to tap into DNA, reprogram it, and heal virtually any damage. They call the technology, Extremis. But there are problems that they can't quite figure out how to fix. The first being an addictive element to the procedure, and the second, and more important, being a tendency to explode if the bio-tech doesn't take hold or you simply can't regulate yourself and burn too hot.
In a world where gods have fallen from the sky and aliens just opened up a wormhole over New York, there's a little more emphasis on creating a new kind of super soldier in the Marvel Universe, and Killian thinks Extremis is that next generation of warrior. Extremis soldiers are super strong, heal almost-instantly (from practically anything less than massive physical damage), and generate enough heat to melt steel. Or iron, as the case may be.
Preying on the psychology of PTSD victims (a recurring theme of the movie, actually), A.I.M. recruits their Extremis test subjects from discharged soldiers who have lost arms and legs. Those who are able to withstand the Extremis procedure grow back their missing limbs, and get hooked on the violent rush of becoming superhuman.
It's almost as though Black and Pearce were consciously attempting to explore what becoming superhuman does to an already damaged psyche. Go figure. This is mirrored in Tony's own "Battle of New York State of Mind."
Tony's dealing with his own variation of PTSD after nearly dying while shoving a nuke through a wormhole into another galaxy above New York City. It's a wonderfully fresh place to start with the character, after using Iron Man and Iron Man 2 to build him up into a charming egomaniac. Having the man who claimed to single-handedly end war in Iron Man 2 suddenly confronted with his own immediate mortality as well as the mortality of the woman he loves (Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts – who has her own nicely heroic narrative, building on those of the previous two films), puts us in an awkward place that echoes that of the country reeling from the Mandarin's "attacks."
Tony's assertion from Iron Man 2 that "the suit is me, I am the suit" is put to the test by Black and Pearce, as Tony tries to deal with his anxieties by building armor after armor (the latest is Mark 42), only to have them all taken away from him. The fanboy outrage of an Iron Man film where Tony doesn't wear the armor for most of the film is ironic at best (and imbecilic at worst).
Marvel Studios is creating a shared universe that walks a tightrope between realism and absurdity that most superhero films have had trouble maintaining. But what makes Marvel different is that these films aren't just about the costumed identity. They aren't about damaged men only feeling alive when they're masked and violently beating on people. Marvel Studios films are about the human (or god), a
nd the costumes are more like uniforms than disguises. As such, Iron Man is Tony Stark. And this film is all about defining him as the brain and not just the brawn.
The suit isn't Tony after all. When he says "I am Iron Man" just before the best closing credit theme song of the year (and maybe the decade), it means something different than it did at the end of Iron Man and over the course of Iron Man 2. It's no longer a simple revelation of a disguise, or a managing of copyright and ownership. It's a declaration of identity.
And it's the most entertaining declaration of identity of any of the Iron Man films so far.
This is especially so because Iron Man 3 spends time defining Tony against and alongside his friends and rivals. Killian is a villain that Tony himself created just by being a smug ass and dismissing the man back in 1999. Maya became another time bomb due to a similar snub. This is the first Iron Man film where the bad guys are directly related to Tony's previous behavior and not the actions of his father or simple professional rivalry.
He created his villains, just by being himself.
But he's also grown into his friends. His relationship with Pepper has developed naturally over the course of three previous films and Iron Man 3 provides an extremely satisfying conclusion if they decide to not revisit the characters. By the end of the film, Tony has grown up.
His friendship with Rhodey (Don Cheadle) is the place where Black and Pearce's script truly shines. The chemistry between the two is seamless and they play off of each other even better than Downey and Paltrow, which is saying something. It doesn't veer entirely over into Lethal Weapon territory, but the banter between Tony and Rhodey, or Iron Patriot as he has been re-branded in the War on Terrorism, is a delight.
Hell, Black and Pearce are even able to throw in a cute kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins) without losing any of the patented Tony Stark snark. In the end, Harley even comes to represent something about Tony that we haven't really seen before. The innocent side of the man before he became the icon.
Everything about this film is operating on all cylinders. It's funny, it's dramatic, and it never loses sight of what the audience wants from a Marvel Studios movie. There's a space in the narrative landscape of superhero films that few have ever truly settled into where the absurdist camp elements are treated with an emotional honesty that keeps them from careening over into stupidity. At the same time, this space can deal with real-world issues seriously enough to make them a part of the world without allowing nihilism and obsessive negativity to overwhelm the entire production.
The first two Superman and Batman films did it. The first two X-Men films did it. The first two Spider-Man films almost did it. Even the first two Blade films did it. And so far, every single Marvel Studios film has done it. Avengers might have done it best, but Iron Man 3 is a very close second, and is an excellent way to kick of the second phase of Marvel's movie Universe.
Now all we have to do is maintain until Thor: The Dark World in November, and then hold out for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014.
When it comes to the actual disc specs, Iron Man 3 is practically ideal. The transfer is 1080p/AVC-encoded and looks superb. The colors are bold and crisp, shadows are sharp, blacks are solid, and there's an overall filmic quality that looks amazing in HD. Unfortunately, that high quality allows for a moment or two throughout the film where the CG work stands out and could have used another pass or two before the release.
The audio quality is also all one could ask for, in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround. Everything was clear and balanced, with the action sequences and dialogue equally prioritized, requiring very little of the usual "thumb-on-the-volume" sort of viewing these sorts of blockbuster action films usually demand. The music doesn't overwhelm and no matter what is happening on the screen, you know exactly where it's coming from. It's a master class in soundscaping.
Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter (15 min.): With news hitting the internet about Marvel already developing an Agent Carter TV series, it should come as no surprise that the Agent Carter One-Shot is about as perfect as it can be. With Hayley Atwell reprising her role as Agent Peggy Carter, Bradley Whitford as Agent Flynn (her chauvinist boss), and a brief appearance by Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (along with a secret guest in a post-credit spot), Agent Carter is the sort of thing I'd watch all day long.
It's simple but effective, as frustrated Agent Carter has been relegated to doing codebreaking work while chained to a desk (figuratively), watching male agents with a fraction of her talent and experience go out on missions tracking the mysterious Zodiac. Breaking with protocol, she takes an assignment on her own (while the boys are out carousing) and we get a short, but sweet, action extravaganza. And before everything is said and done, the newly-formed S.H.I.E.L.D. has a new Director.
It's so nicely done that it makes me wonder what Marvel may be grooming director Louis D'Esposito and writer Eric Pearson (he's written all four One-Shots so far) for further down the line. Seeing as how Marvel One-Shot: Item 47 really laid the groundwork (and kind of provided a narrative framework) for what would become Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I think there's a good chance the TV rumors might have some substance.
Audio Commentary: Director/co-writer Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce chat their way through the film and manage to keep it entertaining and informative. Surprisingly, there's barely any technical discussion of the mechanics of putting the film together. Instead, the two discuss some of the ideas and concepts they were trying to bring out with the sc
ript – especially when it came to the Mandarin reveal. This is worth a listen, if only to get an idea for how crafting a screenplay for a blockbuster film isn't just about the Big Beats.
Iron Man 3 Unmasked (11 min.): A look behind the scenes of the making of the film with snippets of interviews with Black, Feige, Downey, and others. We get a quick look at Downey training, the practical effects work involved with destroying Tony's house, and then a look at the premiere. All in all, it's over too quickly and doesn't include enough to make it worthwhile.
Deconstructing the Scene: Attack on Air Force One (9 min.): This, on the other hand, is an excellent look at the stuntwork involved in filming this centerpiece action sequence, made even more interesting by providing a look at the mix of practical stunts and CGI enhancements. Sometimes I forget that the CG isn't just in the suit and the fights, but in nearly every scene. Here, entire geographies are altered, stunt parachutists are cut and pasted, and whole trajectories are altered to emulate Iron Man's flight to the rescue.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (16 min.): As usual, this is a mixed bag of the interesting and the obvious. The extended look at Bill Maher's Iron Patriot routine is actually pretty entertaining. The same can't be said for Joan Rivers' riffing. Most intriguing to me was the extended alternate cut of Maya's sacrifice. It was a nice bit, that unfortunately was just too awkward to make the final cut, but adds quite a bit to the character.
Gag Reel (5 min.): Eh, it's okay, I guess. Not really funny, but at least the cast and crew seemed to be having fun.
Restore the Database Second Screen Experience: Download the Jarvis App for your smartphone and use it to scan images hidden around the disc and you get pictures of all the different Iron Man armors. It's a fairly tedious way of making the viewer sit through everything (sometimes twice if Audio Commentary is involved) in order to get virtually nothing for the experience. Yawn.
Exclusive Look at Thor: The Dark World (2 min.): This is essentially the trailer for Thor, with brief interview soundbites scattered throughout. I was really hoping for something meatier. Or even slightly meaty.
I wasn't all that impressed with the first Iron Man film until the final moments, where it catapulted into my favorites list. Iron Man 2 didn't do a lot to stretch the boundaries of what an Iron Man film could be, but thanks to great performances, a likeable script, and the Tartakovsky touch, I liked it even more than the first film. Iron Man 3 tops them all, in my book, making it the rare third film in a superhero trilogy that keeps the energy up and never loses sight of what made everything that came before work. Add to that the excellent Agent Carter short, and this is a disc that belongs on your shelf.
The DVD/Blu-ray of Iron Man 3 will be released on Tuesday, September 24, 2013.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.