Superhero films are overly fond of the redemptive arc whereby a hero is prematurely vanquished, only to rise up again more formidable and determined than before. The familiar trajectory lowers expectation; it serves as an acceptance that a ceiling has been reached, a complacency exposed and the hero has need of returning to ground zero before he builds up his capital once more. These blips in a protagonist’s progress used to be minor hindrances in a larger script, usually occurring after a midway game-changer of a battle that necessitates an introspective re-evaluation before the real final battle commences. Nowadays, these minatures peaks and troughs are the engine for entire films, especially ones that emanate from an already worn-down franchise in desperate need of a kick-start. The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and now Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 are the key culprits. If only the superhero genre itself would take the same hint, admitting a creative fatigue in order to rest up, reboot and refresh its narrative and aesthetic qualities. In a perfect world…
We rejoin Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he indulges his own idiosyncratic brand of reclusiveness. Bond and Bats were presumed dead (one of them still is), but Stark is merely gestating at his own leisurely pace, safely away from the public eye following the understandably harrowing ordeal of defending New York City from an alien invasion in The Avengers. He’s not willing to sit still, though. Girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) looks on in concern as Stark whiles away his hours tinkering with successive incarnations of an Iron Man suit (currently at a curious Mk42), which he’s content to grant autonomous status instead of wearing it on his own body. Some would say it’s a quintessentially American tic to surround oneself in an insular cocoon and meticulously obsess over weaponry. More customarily gung-ho is the reactive call-to-arms exhibited in Stark’s gifting of his home address to the nefarious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) whose spate of domestic terrorism has the nation collectively gnawing their nails. Stark’s foolhardy gesture sends Potts into panic mode and even facilitates the reappearance of Stark’s ex, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, in a thankless role) who comes knocking on the door, with grave tidings to bear, at an inopportune moment.
It’s here that the film begins to rev its engine, though not Iron Man’s especially. Tony Stark the Man comes to the fore; he spends a large percentage of the film outside of his burdensome mechanical suit, whose recurring motif of falling to pieces infers a final, crowning failure of technology in the service of our titular hero. When our tools fold on us, humanity must search back to the beginning and start from scratch. Consider the effects of an EMP attack or a volcano’s ash-cloud on your region and know that our machines’ greatest facet is their innate fragility. Stark cautiously dispenses with technology not once, but twice during the film: first by default, second by choice.
War is, fundamentally, a business. For every action, there is a reaction whether chemical, mechanical or expedited by human bloodlust. The Mandarin utilises Extremis technology developed by Dr. Aldrich Killian (a serpentine Guy Pearce) to forge the next evolution of man, injecting amputated war veterans with a super-soldier serum that imbues them with enhanced strength and the unenviable ability to glow a volcanic shade of red. There’s a catch; these experiments are essentially ticking time bombs, and their calculated detonations comprise parts of The Mandarin’s terror campaign. The Extremis virus in all its glory recalls Robert Patrick’s invulnerable onslaught in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, though these unwitting superhumans are really only guinea pigs, or lambs to the explosive slaughter. Their mutations are a horrifying realisation of the Iron Man experiment, a fusion between man and machine whose damages are tragically irreversible. Stark’s reciprocal action of calling upon an army of autonomous, unmanned and highly efficient Iron Man suits paints a patently obvious picture of contemporary global conflict.
My predisposal to attribute an ideological foundation – or in fact, to simply notice its clear-cut inclusion – is an unwavering human trait recognised in the film by the Mandarin’s considered tactics. One significant action set-piece occurs at an oil rig, a locale chosen to provoke the public into prescribing ideological motivations to the attack and then pursue their own divided conclusions. Similarly, the figurehead of the Mandarin serves a greater purpose than mere leadership and co-ordination. He is the symbol of terror; though one day he will be destroyed, his ideology will live on through another, stronger cipher. Much like Osama Bin Laden and Margaret Thatcher, our tendency to concentrate an attack on physical, mortal characters is fundamentally misguided, as is our celebration when their bodies rot away and their intangible ideas continue to further permeate the minds of willing disciples.
These aren’t ground-breaking concepts; they’re worn on the film’s sleeve, embedded in its fabric much in the same way as the politically dubious The Dark Knight Rises shoved its proselytising script down our throats (in place of an interesting aesthetic, I might add). Where some films proudly grasp onto an ideology with all the eagerness of a face-hugger (Olympus Has Fallen), and others swim in its waters without overtly embracing it in its fullness (Spider-man), others like Nolan’s Batman saga and Iron Man 3 confront the issue head-on, believing themselves to be diligently constructing socio-political commentaries. The War on Terror analogies, if they haven’t already, are destined to reach a critical mass. The comic book genre is in dire need of a radical subversion.
But to focus on Black’s intended takeaway value is to miss the film’s biggest trick, embedded in the oft-repeated phrasings, “I am Iron Man” and “You know who I am”, the latter of which amusingly constitutes Stark’s name badge at dinner parties. We know who Stark is, of course. He’s Iron Man, and always will be despite his continued misgivings over the role. If he does quit, how long before he starts to tinker again? It’s accepted that Tony Stark is the civil face, and Iron Man is the war machine (to use an in-house reference). But the American people are still immensely proud and in continual awe of Iron Man in spite of his intrinsically violent function, perceiving him and his Avengers cohorts as an embodiment of the US ideal of freedom realised through essential militaristic assertiveness.
He truly is this embodiment, eternally; just as it is in his country’s troubled history and inherent nature to return to violence as means to an end, so too will Tony forever be compulsively drawn back into that iron suit. Recall the standout shocker from the trailer – the scene in which Tony and Pepper, lying in bed, are set on by an autonomous Iron Man suit acting of its own accord. There can be no clearer indication of a return of the repressed. As much as Stark shirks from his damnable responsibility, he is the United States. He is Iron Man. Tony Stark has forever ceased to exist, except as a shadow on the wall.