Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply underappreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
With a few notable cinematic exceptions, sequels are generally not considered to be as good as the originals. As for the third film in a franchise? Forget it. Quality and originality have already been tossed away and burned. Incredibly, Marvel Studios seems to have bucked that trend with its threequels: the Captain America trilogy has churned out quality film after quality film, with the second installment, Captain America: Winter Soldier, considered to be the best of the MCU films. And though the Thor sequel The Dark World is almost universally maligned, Thor: Ragnarok earned equally as universal critical acclaim. The one outlier of the three completed character trilogies? The Iron Man series.
The very first MCU film, 2008’s Iron Man, set the stage for 17 subsequent films with a stellar and (at the time, shockingly) successful debut, and even a decade later, it is still held up as one of Marvel’s very best. But when it comes to the other films headlined only by Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), critics and fans have not been as kind. Sure, Iron Man 2 was pretty terrible. Iron Man 3 (2013), however, is far more profound and emotional than many give it credit for.
You wanna talk superhero fatigue? Tony Stark had it before any of us – that, and a deep-seated case of PTSD. In a way, Iron Man 3 was ahead of its time: nowadays, we want to see our otherwise imperturbable heroes be more vulnerable. And we certainly want another version of masculinity that doesn’t necessitate iron-hard emotional toughness. Iron Man 3 offered an early version of what that kind of hero could look like.
Chronologically, Iron Man 3 (directed and co-written by action specialist Shane Black) takes place soon after the events of The Avengers, during which the people of Earth were exposed to a terrifying invasion of extra-terrestrial forces led by Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The Avengers managed to subdue Loki and stop the invasion, but not before extensive structural, physical, and emotional damage was done. As Iron Man, Tony Stark played a key role in closing the wormhole that Loki had opened, but his brush with death in the aftermath affected him more than he let on.
That’s where Iron Man 3 picks up. Tony is reeling from the event in New York; he stays up for days at a time, tinkering with his tech toys as a literal defense mechanism against his perceived weakness. Even his AI butler, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) calls him out for not sleeping, but Tony, impish as ever, merely places a “DUNCE” cap on the robot and orders him to turn on some rockin’ tunes to accompany the grand demonstration of the newest addition to his suit. Each piece of the Iron Man suit whizzes through the air to attach to Tony’s body, and Tony finds himself staring the last piece – the face mask – right in the empty eye sockets. “I’m not afraid of you,” he scoffs. (Narrator: He is.)
This early scene brilliantly encapsulates the compelling dichotomy of Tony Stark’s character. Though it has now become something of a cliché even within the Marvel Universe itself (Doctor Strange is different, how?), the “snarky genius hides true pain” trope works because it gives audiences humor and angst all wrapped up in one. We get to laugh at clever jokes and empathize with deeply felt sadness.
Certainly, Robert Downey Jr. is as roguishly charming as ever – there’s his staunch dedication to a certain Hello Kitty watch throughout the second half of the movie, and somehow (!) his playboy past comes across as funny rather than icky. Other characters take center stage in the humor department as well: when Tony dramatically escapes from the bad guy’s lair and takes down some guards in the process, one henchmen cuts through the hackneyed nature of the situation by throwing up his hands, declaring, “Honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird,” and then scurrying out a nearby exit. There’s also Tony’s overzealous head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who, though sidelined for much of the movie, shines in the time that is allotted to him. Favreau directed both Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and he has found new life as the proverbial straight man to Downey Jr.’s hyperactive zest.
But Downey Jr. is also a master at playing the wounded hero, with puppy-dog eyes that pull you right into his character’s fears and inner turmoil. Tony has his first anxiety attack while eating out with his buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), formerly known as War Machine and now rebranded as the more PC-friendly Iron Patriot. When some enthusiastic kids wander over to talk about Iron Man’s heroic actions, Tony panics, stumbling outside and into his Iron Man suit – ostensibly to check for a physical ailment through the suit’s medical sensors, but also, psychologically, to sequester himself inside his protective armor. The suit serves as a poignant symbol of Tony’s inner fragility throughout the film: The movie’s second act kicks off with an image of a broken and battered Tony dragging an equally broken and battered Iron Man suit through the wilderness after an assault on his Malibu mansion destroys nearly everything. In other words, he is, quite literally, dragging behind him the trauma of his recent past.
Tony is humanized even further through his relationship with a mop-haired whiz kid named Harley (played by Ty Simpkins, who will also be in the second Infinity War movie, according to his IMDB page), and their “daddy issues” connection is played for both laughs and tears. (In the end, though, a magnanimous gift from Tony truly does warm the heart). Harley also helps Tony through another anxiety attack, which is spurred on by the realization that his suit is not charging fast enough. I’m reminded of an exchange between Tony and Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) in the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming movie, but with Tony on the opposite side of the exchange: “I’m nothing without this suit!” Peter protests in Homecoming, and Tony responds: “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” Indeed, in Iron Man 3, this is the tension that Tony himself struggles with most of all.
This being a Marvel superhero movie, there is also a Big Bad, played by a dweeby-turned-diabolical Guy Pearce, and a decoy Big Bad, played by Ben Kingsley. I happen to enjoy the bait-and-switch associated with their “evil plot” – like the rest of Iron Man 3, it plays on the theme of the mask you present to the world versus the vulnerability of revealing your true self. The final action sequence, a CGI explosionfest more suited to a DC film, certainly leaves much to be desired. But the rest of the movie resonates with a tender pathos as it explores the damaged psyche of the MCU’s original billionaire playboy. In doing so, Iron Man 3 provides a softer take on masculinity that is also explored (and lauded) more recently in Black Panther. Over the course of the movie, Iron Man needs a lot of help from his friends – and his girlfriend (Gwyneth Patlrow) saves him twice – as he navigates his own vulnerability. And that makes him even more of a hero.