Is Iron Man 3 the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film, or is it the only good Marvel Cinematic Universe film? I like The Avengers and Captain America: The First Avenger quite a bit, but I’m willing to entertain an argument for the first part of that question. I’ve always found the vitriol lobbed at Iron Man 3 from Marvel fans rather baffling, especially since it seems so universal. The consensus opinion seems to be that this is one of the weakest entries in the franchise, down there with The Incredible Hulk and either Thor film. Is it the only good MCU film? Not really. But it’s so much better than all the rest that it might as well be.
The reason for its superiority boils down to one simple fact, one that has held true in the two years since its release: This is the only MCU film that’s actually about something. Captain America: The First Avenger comes close, with its brief takedown of American propaganda, but the rest of the bunch are big, loud blockbusters and not much else. That’s never necessarily a bad thing, but Iron Man 3’s ability to be a big, loud blockbuster with something to say places it a cut above the rest. Captain America: The Winter Soldier attempts this, but its political themes are never given more than lip service. It throws out some buzzwords and references to drones and government surveillance in-between incoherent action sequences, but it doesn’t actually explore those concepts in any significant way. It only appears to because audiences go into it with preconceived opinions about those concepts.
(I guess this is where I warn you that there are spoilers for the film in this article, but I assume that if you’re reading this you’ve probably seen it already.)
Iron Man 3, on the other hand, has some pointed and potent critique of American exceptionalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Consider the film’s most controversial element, that being the twist involving the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). It’s revealed two-thirds of the way through that the terrorist mastermind who has ostensibly been the film’s villain is actually Trevor Slattery, a British stage actor hired by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to play the Mandarin in several threatening videos. Killian, a wealthy entrepreneur, plans to goad the United States into military action and benefit financially as a military contractor. So we have a rich white American capitalist who invents a vaguely Middle-Eastern terrorist caricature meant to draw the country’s fire while he sells them bullets. At one point, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) asks his computer JARVIS (Paul Bettany) to locate the source of the Mandarin’s broadcasts, listing off a bunch of possible locations in the Middle East. When JARVIS responds that the signal is coming from Miami, Tony assumes that it’s a mistake. Meanwhile, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), once known as War Machine but newly rebranded as Iron Patriot (and we’ll get into that in a minute), invades Pakistan to hunt the Mandarin down. Meanwhile, Killian lives the high life in the States, protected by ethnic privilege.
The villain of Iron Man 3 recycles the stereotypical iconography of Middle Eastern terrorists and lets American citizens fill in the blanks, using their own anti-Arab anxieties to distract them from the evil in their own midst, the evil that operates within the bounds of the nation’s capitalist structure. It’s one of the only post-9/11 blockbusters I can think of that dares to challenge America’s presumption of righteousness in global affairs. It doesn’t pull any punches, either; a large part of Killian’s scheme involves turning American war veterans into human bombs, detonating in the sort of suicide attacks that are typically associated with organizations like Al Qaeda. That is a brutally unpatriotic thing for a Hollywood film to depict, especially in a franchise with a character named Captain America. And then you have War Machine, who gets a red-white-and-blue paint job and is renamed Iron Patriot. The American government has literally taken a war machine and made it acceptable by appealing to jingoism. It’s not subtle, but as Killian says at one point, “Subtlety’s kinda had its day.”
That’s only half the story, though. Iron Man 3 is additionally a total deconstruction of its eponymous hero. As opposed to the symbiosis on display in their prior MCU appearances, this film treats Tony and Iron Man as disparate elements. It tears them apart and debates which of them is the superhero. Tony keeps remotely piloting suits, sending them out on his behalf while he stays far away from danger. Early in the film, he greets Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) with a remote-controlled suit without her knowledge, taking it for granted that he and the suit are one and the same. The climactic fight has Tony call in dozens of automated suits as backup, jumping from one to another as he does battle with Killian and his henchmen. Tony acts heroically independent of his suits, which is a major step forward for the character and his series.
A common criticism of Iron Man 3 is that Tony’s panic attacks are not explored thoroughly, but I think they’re a major part of this Tony/Iron Man dichotomy. Tony’s anxiety comes from his reliance on suits, an obsession that manifests in his compulsion to build more and more of them. His first panic attack prompts him to rush back to his suit, a later one is triggered by the news that his suit isn’t repairing as anticipated. The man who was such a brash and singular personality in his first appearance has shrunk to almost nothing, allowing his superhero persona to take over the rest of his life. At the end of the first Iron Man, he broke convention by refusing to hide behind a secret identity. Iron Man 3 reveals that openness to be a kind of hiding in its own right, questioning whether “I am Iron Man” is a declaration of synergy between Tony and his suit or Tony’s way of abandoning himself and letting his suit take over his life.
So it takes Tony’s suit away, forcing him to come back into his own. At that point, he’s forced to act as an individual and reassert his own personal value. Almost every superhero movie in history is about the hero wrestling with their powers and coming to terms with the fact that their powers are a part of them. Iron Man 3 has its hero realize that he’s just as well off without his powers (his suits, in this case) and destroying them. It’s not revolutionary stuff, but it puts this film more than a few pegs above the more conventional films that make up the rest of the MCU.
I doubt this article is going to convince the film’s strongest detractors, who for the most part are motivated by annoyance that the twist with the Mandarin deviates from comic book canon. There’s no point arguing with that sort of pedantry. That said, I hope I’ve at least persuaded you to revisit the film. I’m on record as not being a great fan of the MCU, but I find Iron Man 3 worth defending without taking its place in that franchise into consideration. It’s a fearless portrait of 2010s America and a relatively complex exploration of the (super)human condition. Comic book movies don’t get any better.
Featured Image: Walt Disney/Marvel Studios