In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.

Chapter 7: Iron Man 3

Director: Shane Black
Writers: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Release Date: May 3, 2013
U.S. box office: $409 million
Worldwide box office: $1.21 billion
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 80 percent
Metacritic score: 63
Letterboxd average grade: 6.4
CinemaScore: A

What Holds Up

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Iron Man 3’s Mark 42 armor is maybe the ugliest Iron Man armor in the entire MCU (too much gold, not enough red, don’t @ me), but it’s also the most conceptually interesting; it’s the only case where Tony Stark’s specific innovations to his armor actually reflects the themes of the movie we’re watching. The Mark 42 is an “autonomous prehensile propulsion suit”; where the previous iterations of the suit were essential giant, robotic onesies, each individual piece of the Mark 42 can operate separately from the rest. The arms, legs, chest, head, and even the codpiece have their own mini repulsors.

Director Shane Black finds a ton of clever ways to use this armor in his storyline. There’s one set-piece where Tony’s been separated from the Mark 42, and the pieces are delayed in returning to him, so he has to beat several bad guys with just one glove and one boot. And on several occasions Black uses the way the armor can instantly break apart into its constituent pieces as a punchline to undercut a moment of triumph with a laugh that brings Tony back down to earth.

These gags are satisfying in and of itself, but they also serve the ideas in the movie. Iron Man 3’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is having a hard time coming to grips with the insanity he witnessed in The Avengers. He’s just a obscenely rich dude who likes building stuff in his garage. Suddenly he’s been cast as planetary protector who beat back an invasion from an alien army with giant space whale slug creatures. And for all he knows they might come back at any moment.

He has issues in his private life as well. His relationship with his former assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is going well, but he loves her so much, he’s terrified that something (like, say, another invasion from an alien army with giant space whale slug creatures) might come between them. He stops sleeping. He starts having panic attacks. He challenges a terrorist named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to a fight on national television, and even gives him his home address, which seems like a bad idea until the bad guys show up at Tony’s Malibu home and obliterate it with missiles, at which point it seems like the dirt worst idea ever.

That’s why the Mark 42 armor is great. Right when Tony’s life is falling to pieces he invents an armor that literally falls to pieces over and over again. After the Mandarin’s goons destroy Tony’s house, he needs to put Iron Man, and himself, back together again. That’s the sort of added value a guy like Shane Black brings to a Marvel movie that might not otherwise be there.

What Doesn’t Hold Up

A lot of fans in 2013 were furious about Black’s version of the Mandarin. I remain much more frustrated with the movie’s “real” Mandarin.

Yes, Kingsley, the guy who nominally looks like the Mandarin from the comics, with ten rings on his fingers and ornate Asian robes, is in fact an actor named Trevor Slattery, who’s been hired by the “real” Mandarin, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who is the film’s true antagonist. Killian is the CEO of a think tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics. He uses his phony Mandarin to disguise his experiments involving a technology called “Extremis,” a body modification process that can regrow limbs [Extreme Homer Simpson Voice: That’s good!] and has a few minor side effects like turning its test subjects into living bombs [Extreme Homer Simpson Voice: That’s bad.]. The Mandarin remains a figure of mystery until late in the film, when Tony finally finds his secret headquarters and discovers his monstrous nemesis is, in fact, a bumbling drunk.

Personally, I loved the Mandarin twist five years ago, and I still think it’s a lot of fun. It’s something very rare in the MCU: A genuine surprise. And Kingsley is great in his dual role; terrifying as the drawling voice on threatening video transmissions, and hilarious as the oaf who’s oblivious to the damage he’s causing in the world. Given the ugly stereotype at the core of comics’ Mandarin, this was probably the best possible outcome for the character.

The real problem is isn’t Slattery; it’s Killian. Right off the bat, he’s a retread of the villains from the first two Iron Man movies; amoral businessmen who are so focused on profits, and so resentful of Tony Stark, that they ignore the obvious danger in their latest inventions. Then it gets even worse at the end of the movie when Killian starts calling himself “the real Mandarin,” and pulls off his shirt to reveal his chest is covered in dragon tattoos. Because if a dude is going to call himself the Mandarin for absolutely no reason, I guess he’s required by law to have vaguely Asian tattoos. It’s brutal.

The Extremis technology gives Iron Man 3 a decent mystery for Tony to solve, but the film quickly runs out of creative ways to use the technology. Mostly, the Extremis baddies just stick their hands on Iron Man or Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle’s War Machine with a red white and blue makeover) and make it really hot inside. They try this trick over and over until it gets really old and it becomes very obvious that despite the film’s posturing, these Extremis guys pose very little threat to our heroes. Iron Man can fly, he’s super-strong and durable, and he has a seemingly endless supply of weapons. He’s really gonna get beaten by a walking hot plate? I don’t think so.

One last not-so-minor quibble: Is anyone else uncomfortable with the way Tony straight-up murders the Extremis soldiers at the end of the film? Earlier, he proved that these men and women are Killian’s pawns. He even tells the mother of one dead Extremis victim that her son was not a suicide bomber, he was a victim of the Mandarin. Then, in the big action climax, he essentially tells J.A.R.V.I.S. to terminate them all with extreme prejudice even though he clearly possess the ability to restore these guys to their pre-Extremis condition. It’s not heroic, and it’s weirdly out of character for Marvel.

Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events

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Most of the future Marvel teasing in Iron Man 3 doesn’t hold up to scrutiny (more on that in a bit), but I like the way Tony and Pepper’s relationship continues to evolve in this film. In Iron Man they mostly shared an office flirtation and witty banter; at the end of Iron Man 2 they started a relationship. In Iron Man 3, they’re living together and their connection is strained by surprisingly mundane and relatable issues; Tony’s too focused on his work to pay attention to Pepper, and he’s too much of a tough guy to admit he’s struggling with serious anxiety issues.

Contractual and scheduling issues would keep Paltrow from appearing in all of Downey’s Marvel movies; she was M.I.A. in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, which alluded to an offscreen break up. Then Pepper returned, briefly, at the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, where she and Tony had reunited as a happy couple once again.

Paltrow is supposed to appear in Avengers: Infinity War, but whatever her role, I do like the evolving dynamic between Tony and Pepper. They love each other, but Tony isn’t exactly stable boyfriend material, and being with him involves a lot of ups and downs. The fact that her character comes and goes makes sense. (And if Pepper gets her own suit of “Rescue” armor in either of the upcoming Avengers sequels, the scene in Iron Man 3 where she puts on the Mark 42 and saves Tony will gain retroactive foreshadowing cred.)

Best Marvel Easter Egg

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All of the Extremis stuff in this movie is inspired by an Iron Man storyline written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov. Black pays homage to the concept’s creator by calling his film’s POTUS “President Ellis.” It’s a nice little touch for fans.

There’s also a dialogue reference to “Phase 2’ when Pepper is injected with Extremis. That’s a wink at the fact that Iron Man 3 is the first film in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it comes one movie after The Avengers, which included numerous allusions to a totally different Phase 2. (In that case, it was part of a SHIELD plan to turn the Tesseract into weapons.) Marvel loves a good meta in-joke.

(Fun Additional Fact: Granov’s intricate Iron Man armor design for the original “Extremis” storyline was a major influence on the look of the original Iron Man movie armor; Granov worked as a designer on that film.)

Final Verdict

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Watching Iron Man 3, it occurred to me that Spock’s famous lines during his death scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are essentially Marvel’s creative philosophy: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Iron Man 3 would be a much more satisfying experience if its ending was really an ending, the last time anyone saw Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark onscreen. There’s a finality to the denouement; Tony blows up all his Iron Man suits (they explode like fireworks in a nice visual rhyme with the film’s opening, where Killian watches some New Year’s Eve fireworks alone on a rooftop in Switzerland) and then has his miniature arc reactor surgically removed from his chest. From the ruins of his Malibu mansion, he tosses the reactor into the sea; he tells Pepper he’s done with his distractions. In the last shot of the film, he literally drives off into the sunset.

At the time this ending was conceived it may have been a hedge on the filmmakers’ part; Downey’s original Marvel contract was completed with Iron Man 3, and this conclusion wraps enough of a bow around things that if Downey had refused to return for more sequels, this would have provided a suitable farewell. But when Downey did return, it took all the impact out of Tony’s grand romantic gesture. On the whole, that’s a good thing; Downey is great as Iron Man, and his presence has enlivened Age of UltronCivil War, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But that comes at the expense of Iron Man 3 as an individual unit of storytelling. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Still, there are some singular touches in Iron Man 3 that I like. It’s not a radical departure from the first two Iron Man films, or the MCU’s Phase One as a whole, but Shane Black’s voice shines through the screenplay. The story, like pretty much all of Black’s work, is set at Christmastime; the ending, with Iron Man and Iron Patriot teaming up to stop the Mandarin, is like a buddy cop movie with laser guns and flying robots. Iron Man 3 is also the first MCU movie to date with any kind of voiceover narration. There’s nothing particularly radical about Black’s approach, but within the homogenous confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does feel distinctive.

As Tony prepares for a retirement that makes Steven Soderbergh’s look relatively protracted in comparison, his voiceover describes his emotions. “You start with something pure. Something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises. We create our own demons.” I’ve previously written how Tony Stark’s arc through the MCU is the perfect metaphor for Marvel’s development as a film studio. If that’s true, then Tony’s words here amount to the company taking a cold, hard look at itself and its creative choices to this point in its history. It started with something pure and exciting. Then came the mistakes and the compromisesIn making movies full of compelling characters, and then sacrificing some of their growth and evolution to conform to the requirements of maintaining a large cinematic universe, they’d created their own demons. As the MCU continues to grow, we’ll see how they addressed those demons, and tried to fix those mistakes.

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