Columns > Published on May 9th, 2013

Iron Man 3: Marvel Studios Is In The Superhero Zone

Marvel is in the zone right now when it comes to superhero films. They’ve learned from past mistakes and are primed to get these movies right. They've created a massive quilt of comic book movies that can stand on their own, but at the same time acknowledge each other and work inside a framework. (All that said, I’ll confess that the preview for Thor 2 looked pretty bad).

Tony Stark is suffering from severe PTSD in Iron Man 3, and it’s as much a result of taking a nuclear bomb into a wormhole to kill aliens in The Avengers as it is the knowledge that gods with magic hammers exist and hang out on Earth.  It’s a lot to process, even for a genius, and the way director (and writer) Shane Black, writer Drew Pearce, and star Robert Downey Jr. execute Tony Stark’s fear and trauma is exceptional.

What’s the best way to make a billionaire genius with all the literal toys and weapons in the world vulnerable again? Break him down by taking it all away and making him prove why he became a superhero in the first place. There’s no doubt that Tony is a brilliant man, and it’s fun to see him playing with toys and tech that boggles the mind, but it’s even more fun to see him stripped down to what makes him so amazing and watch him do it all again in new and different ways.

Marvel is in the zone right now when it comes to superhero films. They’ve learned from past mistakes and are primed to get these movies right.

There are a lot of clever things going on in the script for Iron Man 3, things that I love to see in a blockbuster action movie, even if I don’t always expect it. Beware of spoilers from here on out!

First and foremost, the villain and entire concept of the villain, which could have been a huge misfire – an offensive mistake in fact – turns out to be wonderfully layered.  Instead of presenting us with a terrorist from a struggling, poverty stricken nation going up against a white American male who is the definition of the 1%, the terrorist is revealed to be yet another corrupt white male one-percenter with delusions of world domination, one who is happy to let the world believe he is the exact opposite. It’s a astute reveal that has complex layers you rarely see in this kind of film.

On the same page, while Tony dealt with war torn countries and what his company had done to perpetuate their problems in the first film, part three brings the troubles back home – reminding viewers that the US is a country with its own problems. The US is not some perfect bastion or utopian model of how to live; it makes mistakes, and frequently exerts its will on others in unsavory, corrupting ways. Iron Man 3 isn’t some high-minded political film, but it does acknowledge complex corruption and world politics in a way that is unexpected for this kind of action movie.

As previously mentioned, the PTSD angle is good. It makes sense in the context of the film and it honestly trips Tony up. He has to overcome it, and it’s difficult for him, especially since he’s not used to things being terribly difficult. Again, this, like in the first film, was an excellent reminder that Tony is a superhero BEYOND his suit. What makes him a superhero is his big brain, and his interest in doing the right thing – against all odds (and even, sometimes, his own philandering self-interests). Tony has grown a lot since the first film, and this movie really dotted that “i” and crossed that “t” in insightful ways. 

Also, the film is funny. Full stop. Not unlike The Avengers, which felt almost as much like a comedy as it did an action or superhero movie, Iron Man 3 is funny. Largely thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s fantastic performance and absolute ability to morph into a perfect Tony Stark, but also because it’s a fun script. Tony is allowed to be technically unlikable – doing things like telling a kid he’s being a pussy for whining about the father that left him – but we like him anyway, because he’s honest and real and he doesn’t patronize anyone, including a kid. Tony tells it like it is, and since Tony/Downey are exceptionally charming, and because beneath it all there’s a kindness and humanity, it works. It makes us laugh.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is smart, savvy, and well drawn throughout the film. And while Potts does get stuck in the traditional damsel in distress role at some point, Black and Pearce reverse the stereotype by not only letting Potts save herself, but she is ultimately the one to defeat the bad guy. This is HUGE. In actuality what this does is show incredible belief in the power of Tony Stark. He’s an amazing hero, and as such, he doesn’t have to be the only one that can save the day. The filmmakers (and Iron Man) can let someone else save the day, because there is no question that Tony Stark is a hero. The confidence of everyone involved in the story makes Potts heroic moves at the end of the film possible. It’s a quantum leap forward from what you usually see in superhero films and kudos to everyone involved for making (and sticking to) this bold choice. It was unexpected. It was awesome.

There are a few problems with the film. Namely, the opening narration and the tacked on “epilogue” narration are unnecessary and annoying. I know they wanted to tie things up nicely, but this is a little extreme. The narration also seems like a bit of a crutch when you consider that Black (and Downey) used an almost identical narration (including the execution) for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It worked beautifully in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, because that’s the kind of film it was, here it feels like a cop out.

The effects and technology are fantastic. I am a total ball-busting prude when it comes to special effects – I have an extremely low tolerance for bad effects. I didn’t find a single bad special effect in this film – they were flawless — however the reliance on special effects in this film does make me wary. In ten years will the effects and the technology they represent feel dated and embarrassing like…say…Hackers does? Well, okay, Hackers effects and technology looked dated and embarrassing almost instantly, but still. I’d hate to see a really solid action film like Iron Man 3 become unwatchable in ten years. Hopefully that won’t be the case – and for now it looks brilliant – so we’ll put a pin in that one.

The tiny bit that you stay for at the end? Don’t bother. I mean, the completist in me had to stay so maybe you will too, but the two minute scene between Bruce Banner and Tony Stark suggests nothing about future films, gives no inside information, and is not particularly funny. It was not worth watching nearly ten minutes of credits and coming down from the general high of the film. And this leads me to my next point…because if I was a 10-year-old kid that stayed for that scene I would feel RIPPED OFF.  There was nothing in that scene for a kid. It was all a not so clever bit that only an adult could enjoy (barely).

So, who is the movie for other than, well, me? And listen, it’s great if Hollywood wants to start making action movies specifically for ME…they’ve long been ignoring me as far as I’m concerned, so this is great news, but I confess to confusion. I saw Iron Man 3 on a Saturday afternoon and my theater was PACKED with kids. Most ten and under. On one hand I liked seeing all these kids there (well, not specifically at MY showing—I could have done without that, but at the movie in general) since superheroes are awesome and kids should know this. But a lot of superhero movies are also very dark, despite their PG-13 rating. Superheroes are about heroics but also death. They’re about triumph and defeat. They’re about breaking yourself down and finding yourself again. All good things for kids to know about, to learn about and experience. But when presented with a massive amount of violence (as superhero stories generally are), a complicated plot, and complicated adult relationships (as Iron Man 3 is) I have to wonder what a ten year old is going to do with that movie. Not to mention the 2 hour and 10 minute runtime —there were a lot of little kids getting up to pee during that time!

Maybe it’s like The Simpsons where the ten year old can appreciate the doo-doo jokes and the adults get the other stuff and it all works out in the end. But the violence was intense, the plot layered and complex, the villain clever but probably over most young viewers heads, and the adult romantic relationships must have been putting these kids to sleep…or making them gag…possibly both. I wrote not long ago about Dredd and how it was unapologetically R-rated – and great in part because of that. But it has left me questioning action movies and who they’re for when they skate the line of PG-13. Things in Iron Man 3 were deliberately PG-13 – no more than chaste kisses between Tony and Pepper, violence was broader and less specifically detailed and gory, language was deliberately tame, things like that – but the actual content of the movie and the messages, were well above what a PG-13 movie should probably be about.

But these ten year olds were PUMPED to see Iron Man 3…I don’t want to take that away from them (even if I WOULD like to see an R-Rated Iron Man 3 – which would be decidedly hot). So where’s the middle ground?

Maybe all those 10 year olds (and much younger) loved the movie and got plenty from it, but I didn’t hear the enthusiasm for it as we left the theater. And that didn’t surprise me. I was damn happy as I left the theater…but was a 10-year old?  Hard to say.

About the author

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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