Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

(Warning: contains spoilers.)

As superheroes go, Tony Stark is one messed-up dude.

Stark is the hero–some might say “anti-hero” compared to the likes of Captain Americaof Iron Man 3 and its predecessors.  He is a brilliant industrialist whose fortune was built on the development and sale of weapons.  Robert Downey Jr. effortlessly portrays Stark as a wisecracking womanizer who struggles with relationships and alcohol, a neurotic with an ego as big as the Marvel universe itself.

The plot of IM3 plays out against Stark’s occasional voice-over narration.  The movie, it seems, is the reenactment of the story Stark tells during a “therapy” session as he ruminates on the disastrous consequences of his past mistakes.  (Be sure to stay for the scene at the end of the credits.  Talk about therapists with anger issues.)

Chief among those mistakes, dating back to before IM1, was the thoughtless spurning of two scientists who later joined forces against him, creating a virus capable of turning people into fiery super-soldiers.  In particular, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) begins as an adoring but uber-geeky fan of Stark’s who, smarting with the pain of rejection, eventually founds Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM), an organizational extension of the stock science-fiction/comic book character of the Mad-Scientist-Bent-on-Revenge-and-World-Domination.

As it turns out, that’s not Stark’s only problem.  After his near-death experience at the climax of The Avengers, he began suffering unpredictable panic attacks.  He is forced to reevaluate his life, including his on-again, off-again relationship with his faithful assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he realizes is the one person he can’t live without.

But Stark’s inner demons have always been on display.  In IM1, he was wounded and kidnapped by terrorists, who demanded that he work for them.  Under heavy guard in the dark womb of a desert cave, Iron Man was born.  With the help of another captured scientist who gave his life to help him escape (watch for that character’s cameo role in IM3), Stark secretly developed his first suit of flying armor and the arc reactor that powered it.  But more importantly, perhaps, the experience also marked the birth or rebirth of Stark’s conscience.  News flash: weapons magnate discovers that his inventions actually kill people.  His subsequent pacifist turn drives the conflict of the rest of IM1 and forms part of the moral backbone of the sequels.

Not surprisingly, though, character development and Stark’s ethical and psychological conflicts take a back seat to the computer-generated pyrotechnics.  People blow up or are blown up, modified into weapons of mass destruction who duke it out with Stark’s army of automated armor.  The action plays out around the Christmas holidays, but the 4th of July might have been more appropriate, especially given the mock fireworks display at the end of the climactic battle.

There are witty moments among the continuous explosions.  As Stark single-handedly takes on the baddies at an AIM hideout, one of Killian’s henchmen readily surrenders, saying, “Honestly, I hate working here–they are so weird.”  The best banter, though, is between Stark and a cheeky 12-year-old boy, who comes off as Stark’s younger self and saves him in more ways than one.

And Stark’s not alone in the action hero department.  Don Cheadle reprises his role as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who dons a red-white-and-blue version of Stark’s armor as War Machine/The Iron Patriot.  Even Pepper gets to suit up to deliver a crushing blow, after which she exclaims with breathless dismay, “That was really violent.”

Indeed.  Characters speak openly of revenge.  People are shot in self-defense or outright assassination.  Terrorism again rears its head, in the persona of an Osama Bin Laden lookalike named The Mandarin (a grave then surprisingly humorous turn by Ben Kingsley–though aficionados may cry foul at how the studio has rewritten this canonical nemesis).

By the end of the film, Stark has supposedly learned his lesson, shifted his priorities, and become a better person.  He seems ready to walk away from all the chaos and violence.  (Personal prediction: the plot of Avengers 2 will introduce a crisis in which Stark will have to endure mental conflicts about recreating and donning his armor anew, which he will reluctantly do in the nick of time.)  But for all the hints of Stark’s personal growth, and the heavy-handed allusions to the relationship between technology, politics, war, and terrorism, the script delivers far less in the way of meaning than mayhem.

Perhaps that’s all one should reasonably expect of such effects-laden summer blockbusters; certainly, at that level, IM3 is an entertaining thrill ride.  But here, global terrorism is treated more as a plot device–almost a throwaway joke–than an issue worthy of actual moral reflection.

We will have to supply our own meaning, and should.