Iron Man 3 might not be an Avengers-like, nonstop action fest. But it’s the best of the three Iron Man films. In fact, it’s the only one that really understands the character.
Before I explain, however, I need to issue the obligatory spoiler warning. If you hate to know plots in advance, and you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 (or the first two) but intend to, please don’t read any further. Because we’re going to take this one apart, from top to bottom, and really get at its arc-reactor heart.
Iron Man, the Mandarin, and the Military-Industrial Complex
Iron Man 3 boils down to two plots: the main plot, involving the Mandarin, and the subplot, involving Tony Stark’s reconciliation with the Iron Man part of his identity.
The main plot is bound up in the military-industrial complex and the War on Terror. In the comics, the Mandarin was originally a Fu Manchu figure, which we now recognize as a racist stereotype. The movie recasts the Mandarin as a bin Laden figure, who issues videos threatening the world after what he claims are terrorist attacks. Played by Ben Kingsley, who sports a large beard, the Mandarin is of ambiguous ethnicity. He’s accompanied by some Asian assistants and vaguely Asian iconography, but he also borrows heavily from images of Arab terrorists. All of this could be easily mishandled, in racially insensitive ways. But as it turns out (in a twist that at least superficially recalls the one at the end of Batman Begins), the Mandarin is actually a British drug-addicted actor. He’s a patsy for the real villain: Aldrich Killian, who’s part of the military-industrial complex.
Remember how some used to idly speculate that bin Laden was a U.S. plant? He could be used to justify wars, and he could release videos in time to swing elections (as a bin Laden video helped do in 2004). Of course, the idea that bin Laden was filming on an American soundstage was absurd and offensive — as well as an illustration that asking “who benefits?” is not the same thing as actual analysis. The Bush administration certainly was conspiratorial (manufacturing intelligence, intimidating “allies,” etc.), but it wasn’t nearly this smart. Still, it’s a powerful idea — and one that makes a lot more sense with a defense company as the culprit, since it’s the one with profit motive.
It’s here that Iron Man 3 offers a view of the world — and the War on Terror — that’s not only actually responsible but a major improvement over the previous two films.
The War on Terror is big business. It’s led to a tremendous increase in government. (No, not in social services, despite what you’ve heard. In intelligence and in military spending.) But it’s led to an even larger increase in defense contracts, not only for weapons systems but for rudimentary things like transportation, translators, and services like food and laundry — things that the U.S. military used to do for itself. It’s not too much to say that the Iraq War was a massive corporate charity event, with virtually everything sub-contracted out to private companies, often in no-bid contracts. Several companies routinely and illegally overbilled the Pentagon, and that’s not even considering the absurd prices they legally charged for things like laundry services. There are reports of independent contractors driving vehicles around Iraq with nothing in them, because they were paid by the mile. And then when those contractors got into combat, U.S. soldiers had to go out — and die — rescuing them. This was Iraq, and it’s so absurd and horrific that it puts anything in Apocalypse Now to shame.
It’s this — the military-industrial complex — that’s the real villain of Iron Man 3. It’s this that Killian represents.
Killian also understands the power of a Satanic figurehead — like bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein, or Manuel Noriega before him — to inspire fear. The Mandarin serves Killian’s purpose brilliantly. He can take credit for accidental explosions, caused by the Extremis process, which thus come to be understood as terrorist attacks instead of corporate accidents. Killian’s master plan is to assassinate the president, thereby having a sympathetic vice-president installed. Obviously, after the assassination of a U.S. president, the U.S. would throw money at everything military on a scale even surpassing the irrational fervor in the wake of 9/11. Companies like AIM would have it made.
And in this, we can see that the film understands the role fear plays in such military overreactions. Bin Laden knew he couldn’t defeat America. His goal was use his limited resources to terrorize, to traumatize, and thus lure the United States into a war that he thought would unite Muslims against it — and behind him. And once at war, the United States’ absurd military supremacy could be used against it. An improvised explosive device might cost next to nothing, but it can inflict millions in damages and send images of dead and maimed Americans around the world. It was a lesson bin Laden learned fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when he saw that a hundred-dollar, hand-held missile could take down a multi-million-dollar helicopter. But to get the United States into such a situation, you had to spur it to make mistakes. And nothing spurs mistakes like fear.
Remember the Bush administration’s warnings that the first indication that Iraq was a threat might come “in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Fear is a great motivator for irrational and self-destructive behavior.
This isn’t even a recent phenomenon. The Cold War was largely spurred by fear of the bomber gap, then the missile gap, both of which were later revealed to be errors at best and deliberate lies at worst. Then there was the Red Scare and the idea that Communists had widely infiltrated the United States government, which led to blacklists and made the career of charlatans with no concern for the nation like Joe McCarthy. Then we had the Domino Theory — the idea that if one nation went Communist, others would fall like dominoes, so we had to show the Communists our willingness to double down on the horrific and unwinnable quagmire that was Vietnam.
The point isn’t, of course, that the Soviet Union, or bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein, wasn’t monstrous. The point is that fear was used, in all of these cases, to get the American public to go along with vast military escalations that were not only irrational as policies but actually rather self-destructive.
The ultimate evolution of this fear response is the Mandarin. The United States has already gone to war on false pretenses (several times, in fact). In the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, we’re at war not against nations but against abstract ideas. The next step in this evolution is to go to war against an entirely fictional, manufactured enemy: the Mandarin.
It’s the most searing indictment of the military-industrial complex one could imagine in a super-hero movie. And it’s right on target.
It’s also not a critique that’s limited to the military-industrial complex. American culture is currently defined, to a large extent, by fear. While violent crime is down, we have 24-hour news coverage of kidnapped blond-haired girls, pedophiles, the brutal murders, and of course terrorism. While illegal immigration is the lowest it’s been in decades, Americans fear hoards from Mexico stealing American jobs and social benefits. We arm ourselves against our neighbors — and some of us fear that our own government will take away these guns, or put us in FEMA concentration camps. We make children go through metal detectors at schools in such disrepair that they have windows that can’t be closed. And we fear no one will love us, unless we buy the right weight-loss products, or the right electrical shavers, or have the right plastic surgery, or are as rich and famous and handsome as Tony Stark.
In this way, the Mandarin is a perfect opposite for Tony Stark. One represents America’s fear-inspiring bogeymen. The other represents the American dream. One is a scapegoat, the other aspirational. But both are dreadful illusions. Tony Stark might be a genius, but he inherited his money. Most people are as far from wagering three million dollars on a single spin of the roulette wheel, as Tony Stark does in the first film, as they are from the caves of Afghanistan. We might dream of being Tony Stark, but when we wake, we’re as far from him as we are from being the Mandarin. There’s no path to either. One is the stuff of horror movies, the other of super-hero fantasies. Both are powerful. But both are also products of soundstages, images created by corporations to play on our hopes and fears and make money thereby.
But these aren’t the only thing Iron Man 3 gets right. While the War on Terror has been a boon to private companies like AIM, it’s also gone along with shocking abuse of actual U.S. soldiers. For years, soldiers’ relatives had to mail their loved ones body armor, purchased on the private market, because the military didn’t have enough for its own troops. Then there was the body armor that, while costly, proved defective. Then there were the soldiers who died from electrocution while taking showers, due to faulty wiring by independent contractors. No to mention that the clothes these contractors launders at terrific prices smelled afterwards. Or the sub-contracted translators who could speak Arabic but only broken English, making interrogations done by soldiers meaningless. And then these soldiers get home, their bodies maimed at far higher rates due to medical technology saving soldiers from horrific injuries that would have been fatal in years past, their minds suffering from PTSD, only to find inadequate supports, a waiting time of months to see a psychologist, and a waiting time of years to process disability claims.
And in Iron Man 3, these are Killian’s guinea pigs for Extremis: veterans, who are implicitly traumatized and abandoned by the government that sent them to war. And who jump at the chance to get those limbs back through the Extremis process. For which, like most corporate guinea pigs, they’re probably paid — which might help, while they’re waiting in poverty for their first disability check. To be sure, the film’s only clear that these are veterans. But if we understand anything about the crisis in veteran services going on today, it’s not hard to guess why these veterans might volunteer to risk their lives as test subjects for a risky new technology that’s going to rewire their brains and their bodies.
The fact that the vice-president is in league with Killian even hints at how Dick Cheney, who pushed heavily for the Iraq war beginning on 9/11 itself, had been the C.E.O. of Halliburton, which got a lot of those no-bid contracts as part of the War on Terror. True, the vice-president in Iron Man 3 seems to be motivated by the promise that Extremis could heal his handicapped daughter. In real life, government and private industry are a lot more intertwined than even Iron Man 3 dares to depict. But the connection’s there, for those willing to notice it.
And if you have any doubt that our wars are sold to us, even after Cheney referred to Iraq as a product that had to be rolled out on schedule, Iron Man 3 gives you Iron Patriot. A new, softer version of the same thing that was called War Machine. Thank God the movie didn’t introduce Iron Patriot with all the unironic pomp of the Stark Expo at the beginning of Iron Man 2! Instead, the movie mocks the name Iron Patriot and links this sort of linguistic abuse is a product of AIM — of the bad guys in the military-industrial complex.
Watching Iron Man 3, it was hard not to hear president Eisenhower’s famous farewell address, in which he coined the term “military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower, a five-star general who had served as Supreme Commander of the allied forces in World War II, told America:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Iron Man 3‘s main plot, and its villain, is an exploration of this idea as it applies in 2013, in what we may hope is the twilight of the War on Terror — a war not so much about the impossibility of eliminating terrorism as about whether American democracy can survive its fears and its Mandarins without surrendering itself to men like Killian.
I never thought I’d see a super-hero movie villain mention “War on Terror” and “supply and demand” within a breath of each other.
No, the Prior Two Films Don’t Do This
Part of what’s so impressive about this depiction of the military-industrial complex is that it’s so remarkably absent from the previous two films. Indeed, the worldview of Iron Man 3 is almost diametrically opposed to that of Iron Man 2 in particular.
Of course, the previous two Iron Man films have also involved the military-industrial complex. Both have villains who, like Killian (and Stark himself), are tied to companies with military contracts. But the first two films don’t seem to understand how the military-industrial complex, much less the War on Terror, actually works. Their depiction of the military-industrial complex is superficial, rather than systemic. And too often, this superficiality makes these earlier depictions dangerous.
The first film starts out quite well, and by its midpoint the arrogant Tony Stark has seen firsthand that the wars his weapons help make possible aren’t fun or glamorous after all. He even announces that Stark Industries won’t make weapons anymore. Resistance to this change is embodied by Obadiah Stane, the hero’s main villain. True to super-hero form, the film winds up in a metal-on-metal confrontation between Stark and Stane, who’s inexplicably improved on Stark’s Iron Man design, despite lacking Stark’s genius.
This is all good fun. But there’s no systemic problem presented here. The solution to Tony Stark being a “merchant of death” is simply for him to decide to do differently. Obadiah Stane might resist this, but Stark’s shareholders don’t, and he’s not sued by the government for failing to fulfill current contracts. He doesn’t even, in any serious way, address his father’s legacy or the fact that his immense riches are the product of what he now understands to be murder machines. More importantly, one has to presume that other companies simply fill in the gap left by Stark’s withdrawal from the armaments market. But this isn’t shown, and neither is the climate of fear that makes Stark Industries so successful. The military-industrial complex isn’t examined at all. It’s only the climate in which Iron Man is created, and then it’s ignored in favor of the much smaller, more limited stage of Stark Industries. Perhaps this makes sense, in an origin story, but it begs for a sequel that will address this larger context in a responsible way.
More deeply, the first film doesn’t present America’s wars as problematic in any real way — except that they might lead Tony Stark personally to be captured. Stark’s weapons of war, which include Iron Man himself, are shown as sexy and effective. And Stark himself is shown as ingenious and more or less ethical, at least once he’s prodded severely. This may be necessary to the story, but it’s hardly much of an indictment of the military-industrial complex, nor of corporate America. In fact, the film teeters between its democratic, anti-war sentiments and a fascistic vision in which corporations are absurdly effective producers of innovation, headed by C.E.O.s which, while arrogant, are geniuses who certainly merit their position, even when they’ve inherited their tremendous resources. The movie seems to want to be a corporate redemption story, but there’s a fascistic undertone that’s hard to ignore. And these tensions aren’t resolved.
Until Iron Man 2, which abandons the corporate redemption story, or any examination of the military-industrial complex that might flow from Iron Man’s origins, and instead openly embraces fascism with shocking gusto. It rapidly presents a vision of the Stark Expo, with synchronized dancers in skippy outfits, that mixes patriotism and corporate military might with an unapologetic lack of subtlety. Then Stark arrogantly defies (the aptly-named) Senator Stern, offering a similarly unapologetic defense for why the nation’s security is best handled by an unaccountable C.E.O. — rather than, you know, America’s elected government. All of this is presented without irony, and every trick of filmmaking is employed to make Tony Stark seem sexy and smart and right — and Senator Stern exactly the opposite. It’s all terribly manipulative, but that’s necessary to keep you from noticing the sheer wrongness of what’s being sold.
And then Tony Stark, facing certain death due to an unnecessary plot development, solves the problem by synthesizing a new element. He just strings some tubes, which look remarkably like drainage pipes, and does in a montage what teams of scientists with I.Q.s of 200 spend decades accomplishing with billion-dollar particle accelerators.
Now, I hear you say, this is fantasy. We’re supposed to suspend disbelief, and the idea that Tony Stark’s an absurd genius, who could build the Iron Man suit while under observation and using little more than paperclips, is an intrinsic part of the story.
Except that the suspension of disbelief is something that applies to the premise of a story, not to terrible writing down the line. Thus, you can’t object to Lord of the Rings by saying it’s got elves in it, or to a super-hero story by saying super-powers aren’t real. On the other hand, you can certainly object that, if Harry Potter has access to time travel, he doesn’t use it again. “It’s fantasy” isn’t an excuse for bad writing except for the most defensive of minds, who have no business being either writers or critics. And as far as Tony Stark’s genius goes, building Iron Man is one thing; altering the periodic table is another.
What’s most remarkable about this is that it’s not necessary to the story. There’s no need to show that the arc reactor in Tony’s chest is poisoning him. It gets Tony to take some risks and to misbehave rather terribly, but that could be accomplished any number of other ways — whether through presenting his alcoholism or showing that he’s wrestling with his father’s legacy as a “merchant of death” (something he ought to have done by now but never does). And even you choose to have the arc reactor fail in one way or another, is the simplest solution to have Tony Stark synthesize a new element?
But wait, it gets worse: Tony’s able to do this because he finds that his father, Howard Stark, hid a diagram for this new element in a diorama. Why did Howard Stark do this? Why would he hide it? Did he know his son was going to need this new element? And how did Howard Stark discover this new element? It’s been decades since he did — so why has no one else, not even those scientists working on super-colliders that didn’t exist in Howard Stark’s time, discovered this element? It’s the strangest thing.
Of course, it’s all supposed to be symbolic: it’s through rediscovering his legacy that Tony Stark’s able to save himself. No, none of it makes any sense, it’s all far more stupid than anything in the worst B-movie, and it’s also profoundly insulting not only to actual scientists and geniuses but to the very idea of science and intelligence. But it’s Tony symbolically being saved by his father, so let’s move on.
But this otherwise unnecessary sequence has another point, one that goes far beyond the horrors of atrocious writing and has everything to do with the film’s open embrace of fascism.
That’s because Tony Stark’s got to merit his position — not only as the sole possessor of the Iron Man technology he invented but as the C.E.O. of Stark Industries, which now single-handedly holds the nation’s security in its very private hands. Tony Stark’s the son of privilege, who inherited his company. It’s in this sequence that he symbolically earns that privilege, by fulfilling his father’s ingenious vision.
The idea, you see, is that the wealthy got there by being visionaries, geniuses in one way or another. Even when someone inherited their money, that money was earned by such visionary geniuses and it’s only kept if the inheritor is a visionary genius too. Capitalism, you see, is a meritocracy. And it is precisely on this basis that the shocking disparity between the rich and the poor is justified. Why, if you’re born poor, you just have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Look at Tony. And it’s in this sequence that he becomes the proverbial “self-made man,” not simply a self-made super-hero. It’s in this sequence that he both embraces his father’s legacy and proves that he’s worthy of it — and all the advantages it’s bestowed upon him.
In some sense, Iron Man 2 is a test of Tony’s claim, at the beginning of the film, that Iron Man technology belongs in his hands and his hands alone. That the nation’s security is best protected by private corporations — that the government is corrupt and can’t be trusted with such power, which is best held in the hands of the rich, who you know are visionaries and geniuses by virtue of their position.
And then the film goes on to show that Tony Stark was right. Howard Stark might have helped kill a great many people, but he was the visionary creator of the Stark Expo, and he was such a genius that he discovered a new element and hid it in the diorama that embodied his visionary status. Such actions make no sense, except from this symbolic perspective. His son, Tony Stark, might be a womanizer and an unnecessary taker of risks and possibly a drunk, but when it counts, he shows that he’s as much of a visionary capitalist hero as his father.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged holds a similar view of the rich, where even railroad tycoons are depicted as visionaries who earned every bit of their immense wealth and power. Her heroes are every bit as confident and uncompromising as Tony, when he refuses to bow to his government’s attempt to confiscate his most cherished private resource in the interest of the collective. But probably even Rand would have shuddered at the thought of having John Galt prove his worth by altering the periodic table.
It’s true that Tony Stark behaves unforgivably, throughout the film. He takes unnecessary risks, despite his responsibility as the pilot of a suit that’s essentially a one-man army. He also gets drunk and treats this same suit as his own personal toy, and luck’s the only reason he doesn’t kill one of his own party-goers. Then there’s the climax, in which he and War Machine blast away at drones and then a new armored villain, all in the middle of the Stark Expo, with almost no concern for the civilians who were almost certainly dying all around them. It’s because of this shocking irresponsibility that comics critic Colin Smith quite perceptively calls Tony Stark the real villain of Iron Man 2.
Except that, in the Randian world of Iron Man 2, such visionaries are forgiven their transgressions. You’re not supposed to judge such men by normal morality. Visionaries — like corporate fat cats — can’t be constrained in such a way! In a Randian analysis, selflessness is a great evil, and Tony Stark has no responsibility to the government, nor indeed to others. In a Randian analysis, Iron Man is indeed Tony Stark’s toy, to do with as he wishes, whether he’s drunk of not. As for those party-goers, or the civilians at the Stark Expo, they’re not Rand’s select visionaries, and Rand occasionally wrote about how most people existed simply to be used by those visionaries, who owed these others nothing. Tony Stark’s an uncompromising visionary and an ingenious C.E.O., and he’s therefore a hero, no matter what he does to anyone.
Super-heroes are often compared to classical mythology, and Tony Stark’s position as the hero of Iron Man 2 is a much more melodramatic version of Achilles in The Illiad. Sure, he’s powerful and capable, but when he doesn’t get his way (i.e. a beautiful woman he wishes to own — and as we’d see it, rape), Achilles goes and sulks in his tent, while the Greek army to which he belongs suffers terrible losses. It’s only when he loses his best friend that he rejoins the war effort with a vengeance — and soon denigrates the corpse of Hector, who he’s killed in combat. Is Achilles a hero, in any of this? If he is, it’s solely by his power and his position. Rand would presumably say he is.
And so would Iron Man 2, which never turns against Tony or presents the crimes of which he’s guilty as anything more than acceptable mistakes. Just like it doesn’t present his defiance of Senator Stern as anything other than sexy and right.
So no, Iron Man 2 doesn’t depict the military-industrial complex, the way Iron Man 3 does. It involves the military-industrial complex, but it’s not interested in examining it or criticizing it in any way. Instead, Iron Man 2 offers a full-throated defense of the privatization of warfare and the intrinsic rightness of those with power. In the world of Iron Man 2, there’s no reason governments should wage wars at all. Better to leave it to visionaries like Tony Stark.
Of course, Iron Man 2 does involve corporate espionage, in the form of Justin Hammer — who, like Obadiah Stane, steals the Iron Man technology and improves it in order to make a suitably threatening villain for the movie’s climax. But Rand’s fiction is equally filled with powerful men — and women — who are jealous of genius and try to keep geniuses down. Such characters are never really geniuses themselves, though they sometimes steal credit for the work of others in order to be proclaimed as visionaries by fellow lesser beings. And this is exactly how Justin Hammer acts. He’s not only interested in winning military contracts, but in discrediting and destroying Tony Stark out of a kind of petty resentment of true genius that’s straight out of Rand.
And as in Rand, Justin Hammer loses. True genius, in her stories, might go through hard times, but it never compromises, and it ends up rising to the top — while the petty faux-geniuses are overthrown. That’s part of the myth of capitalism — that over time, it produces meritocracy, rewarding innovation and intelligence. Justin Hammer doesn’t represent a critique of the military-industrial complex, the way Aldrich Killian does. Instead, Justin Hammer’s defeat represents that capitalism works, visionaries will triumph, and petty thieves will get what’s coming to them.
One key difference, in this comparison, is that Justin Hammer’s incapable of innovation. He’s only capable of theft. Aldrich Killian might use Maya Hansen’s Extremis technology, but he hasn’t stolen it, and it’s completely independent from Tony Stark’s Iron Man tech. True, Tony helped Extremis by writing a formula drunkenly — in yet another case of the series’s absurd depiction of intelligence as innate and working without actual effort. But Extremis is its own technology, and for once Stark’s corporate rivals are actually capable of producing their own work, rather than simply leeching off the Randian hero.
Of course, Justin Hammer manages to steal the Iron Man tech with help from Senator Stern — see, the government can’t be trusted! Iron Man 3 also involves collusion between Killian and the government, in that case the vice-president. But there, it’s part of a wider critique of the way military contractors can influence government, and the vice-president only does so to help his daughter. The vice-president’s agenda isn’t to gain control over Iron Man or any other technology. In Iron Man 2, Senator Stern’s defined right away as the man who wants to “take” the Iron Man technology from its proper, private owner — the defiant “hero” Tony Stark. His agenda is the nationalization of private resources, and his corruption therefore has the effect of discrediting this agenda — even when national security’s at stake.
It is worth noting, however, how terrible Iron Man 2 is at presenting its own worldview. Not only does Tony Stark behaves so irresponsibly that only a Randian view of heroes can save him, but he’s also wrong on his own terms. One of the most infuriating elements of the first two films is how Tony Stark’s a singular genius, yet others are so easily capable of understanding, copying, and even improving his designs. In the first film, Obadiah Stane manages to have a team improve upon Stark’s designs. In the second film, Justin Hammer’s also able to do so.
There’s a key difference between the first two films here, which again aligns the second with a Randian worldview. In the first film, Obadiah Stane has a team of people who reverse-engineer and improve upon Tony Stark’s design. In the second, Justin Hammer has Ivan Vanko, who builds his own arc reactor as soon as he sees Iron Man on TV. Vanko, we learn, is the son of Anton Vanko, who worked on the first arc reactor with Howard Stark. Tony Stark thus has two opposites in the film: Justin Hammer, the opposite of Tony Stark, C.E.O., and Ivan Vanko, the opposite of Tony Stark, genius inventor. There’s no collective scientific effort in Iron Man 2 at all; the closest we get is the two-man private collaboration of Howard Stark and Anton Vanko, which occurs decades before the film takes place.
Forget teams of scientists — especially employed by government! True science is the product of individual geniuses.
Part of Stark’s justification to Senator Stern for keeping the Iron Man technology for himself is that others, including both governments and rival companies, are decades away from duplicating what Stark’s done in a cave in Afghanistan. Because, of course, Stark is a singular genius, deserving of private ownership of Iron Man technology — as well as his wealth and corporate position. No amount of collaborative effort is ever going to match a Randian visionary.
That Ivan Vanko is so easily able to build an arc reactor of his own, and is later able to modify and improve upon the Iron Man technology, might seem like a challenge to Stark’s claim. But in the Randian world of Iron Man 2, it’s not, because Ivan Vanko is a genius too. Not as much of one as Tony Stark, of course, but still one of those special, singular visionaries we’re supposed to worship and who get to write their own rules.
And so the existence of Ivan Vanko isn’t supposed to be a challenge to Stark’s own justification for keeping Iron Man to himself. After all, governments and rival corporations aren’t able to duplicate Tony Stark’s work. The collective efforts of teams of scientists, we’re really supposed to believe, would take decades to do what Tony Stark and Ivan Vanko do so easily. And only in the bizarre Randian worldview of Iron Man 2 can one hold what logically ought to be completely conflicting pieces of narrative information.
All of this couldn’t be more different from Iron Man 3. Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen might be visionaries and geniuses. But they exist as part of larger systems. It’s clear in the film that neither character, when they approached Tony Stark in 1999, were planning to use Extremis for military applications. Instead, they found themselves without funding and realized the opportunities that military applications would allow. They even seem to understand that this represents a personal corruption, although Maya’s troubled by this and Aldrich isn’t. They’re caught up in the “War on Terror” and “supply and demand” — larger forces, to which even their vision and genius must bend, since they lack Tony’s resources.
Sadly, this too reflects reality, in which the many American scientists have had their budgets slashed in the economic downturn. Some have said that the only research opportunities they have left are for military projects.
Of course, there’s little room for individual genius in any of this — unless, of course, you’re Tony Stark and can bankroll things yourself.
You can call all three Iron Man movies “fantasies” if you want. But Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 couldn’t have more different views of the world and Iron Man’s place in it. In the Randian fantasy of Iron Man 2, there are no social or historical forces, nor collaborative efforts or responsibilities. There is only the uncompromising, fascistic genius that is Tony Stark. It’s a complete betrayal of the first half of Iron Man, in which Iron Man’s creation is rooted in the horrors of the real-life war in Afghanistan and in the military-industrial complex to which Tony belongs. In returning to these concerns, Iron Man 3 has the courage to follow up on what was good about the first film — even if it means that Tony Stark has to confront social and historical forces he can’t really defeat.
Tony Stark Vs. Iron Man: The Subplot of Iron Man 3
It’s here that consideration of Iron Man 3‘s main plot, which uses the Mandarin to explore and to expose the intersection of America’s culture of fear with its post-War-on-Terror military-industrial complex, intersects with Iron Man 3‘s subplot, in which Tony Stark wrestles with his own identity as Iron Man.
To a great degree, this subplot owes its existence to the decision to make Iron Man 3 not compete with last year’s The Avengers. That film was an over-the-top action movie, filled with absurdly high stakes and a huge cast. Iron Man 3 could have tried to follow suit, ramping up the action and the number of villains, as so many super-hero sequels do.
Indeed, Iron Man 2 already did this, escalating the number of main villains from one to two, and expanding the climax of the original, in which Iron Man fought one evil Iron Man, into an over-the-top battle with a whole slew of unmanned Iron Men, followed by their video-game boss, another bad guy in an Iron Man suit. Also stuffed into the crowded and confused Iron Man 2 were Nick Fury and the Black Widow — neither of whom have much need to be there, and the latter of whom gets just the sort of absurdly unrealistic, slow-motion, ninja-like takedowns that by now can surely entertain only moviegoers who find the Resident Evil franchise too brainy. (And which, by the way, don’t do women any favors, since they manage to combine physically unobtainable bodies with physically impossible martial arts prowess. And yes, I agree she’s sexy, but that’s not the point; come back when you’re done masturbating.)
In comparison, Iron Man 3 seems rather muted. That’s not say it’s lacking on action. The assault on Tony’s home is pretty remarkable. The concluding fight is overlong and fairly boring, like the climax of the previous two films, but at least it puts all the Iron Man suits on Tony’s side for once, and it shows a good deal of inventiveness, both in these suits design and the way Tony jumps in and out of them in combat.
But there’s no Avengers shoehorned into the plot, this time. There’s no second super-villain with electric whips. There’s not even a big reveal in the after-credits sequence. In fact, Tony Stark spends the middle half of the movie entirely out of his armor, during which he hangs out with a 10-year-old boy named Harley.
It’s a risky choice, but it’s also an important one — one that allows the film to explore Tony as a character in a far deeper way than the previous two films.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have any connection to The Avengers. In fact, Iron Man 3 can be considered a denouement to that film, showing its psychological aftermath.
Tony can’t sleep. He’s having panic attacks. And it’s because of “New York” — which is shorthand for the alien attack in The Avengers, in which Tony nearly sacrificed his life.
It’s clearly PTSD — Harley even uses the term once, in a barrage of questions. And although Tony’s trauma has come through alien warfare, this roots the subplot in the concerns of the main plot.
Tony is, after all, a veteran. He’s not missing a limb, like the veterans Killian uses for the Extremis project. But Tony’s not whole, just the same.
He’s throwing himself into his work to hide it. He’s pretending he’s well. But he’s not. And it’s hurting his relationship with Pepper Potts.
It’s the most daring and touching of super-hero plots. Super-heroes are usually depicted as confident and invulnerable, at least outside of the great strain required to triumph over the villain at hand. But once the movie’s over, they’ve achieved their new status quo, and long-term consequences are usually dismissed — until the next episodic adventure.
By all rights, the first Iron Man film could have had Tony suffering from PTSD, after his return from Afghanistan. He’d been through great trauma, including being thrown into combat for the first time, being held prisoner by terrorists he knew would kill him, killing people himself for the first time, and having a device planted in his chest to keep him alive. But the first film wasn’t interested in exploring much of this. It was instead interested in Tony’s vengeance and then on building to the big fight with Iron Monger.
Still, there’s a certain logic to Tony suffering from PTSD in the wake of The Avengers. Tony is a man of science, and he’s used to being in control. Now, he’s battled aliens, and he’s on a super-team with a god. And he almost died.
At one point, Harley asks if the aliens are coming back. It’s a brilliant moment. Of course, he would wonder this. The whole world is probably wondering.
Tony says he doesn’t know.
It’s hard to express how brilliant that is. It makes the world of The Avengers feel more real than anything in that film, for all its superbly done bombast. It lets us, in a single exchange, understand Tony’s PTSD emotionally. We can identify with it. It’s not simply a plot device, or an abstract string of letters, at that moment. It’s stems from something that’s real to him, in a way it’s not to Harley, but that’s probably real and felt by the entire world, in Marvel’s cinematic universe.
But having Tony deal with PTSD isn’t only a brave way of depicting him as vulnerable, despite what super-hero audiences seem to want. It’s not simply a way of telling a very different kind of story from The Avengers. It’s also an important statement that even a hero can suffer in this way. Whether that hero’s Iron Man or a returning veteran.
There’s been a lot of talk online about how Tony’s alcoholism was shelved for this film. The PTSD plot serves something of the same function, making Tony vulnerable. But PTSD is a lot more timely, a lot better of a fit with the film’s main plot, and a much more important statement for a film to make, in 2013.
It’s something that needs to be said, especially in a culture that still sees vulnerability or psychological problems as unmasculine. Lives are lost because many of us still think that being tough means hiding problems, needs, or pain — rather than understanding that nothing’s tougher than recognizing a problem and addressing it.
Strength isn’t the perfect genius of the Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. It’s more like the journey Tony takes in Iron Man 3, admitting his problem and deciding to take steps to correct his life.
In the film, Tony’s PTSD is dramatized by his relationship with Iron Man. He’s throwing himself into his Iron Man work, which is pushing Pepper Potts away. In fact, this is dramatized — in a riff on the famous sequence in Watchmen — by Tony greeting Pepper with a remote-controlled suit, while continuing his work.
Tony is quite literally a man beside himself. In neither previous Iron Man film are there so many shots of Tony and an Iron Man suit, positioned so that it seems alive. At one point, Tony even positions Iron Man, turning the suit’s head.
After Tony’s house is destroyed, Tony’s trapped in the rubble underwater, with his suit filling with water. He sends out his Iron Man glove, which literally gives him a hand and lifts him free. At this point, when faced with an imminent threat, Iron Man is literally a helping hand.
But soonafter, when Tony crashes the armor in rural Tennessee, he’s forced to drag it until he finds Harley’s place. Of course, it’s highly improbable that Tony could drag the Iron Man suit so far, since it surely weighs quite a bit. But seeing him pull the suit on straps is a perfect visual image for how Iron Man’s now become a burden.
This recalls the experience of many soldiers, in which their training helps them in combat but becomes a burden upon returning to civilian life. If the same adrenaline that saves your life in combat kicks in every time a car backfires, it’s become a burden much as Tony’s armor has here.
Without his armor, Tony’s forced to be a hero anyway. First, by confronting and defeating a couple soldiers transformed by Extremis. And second, by assaulting the Mandarin’s compound in Miami without his Iron Man armor.
In the second case, Tony initially thinks he can’t do anything without his armor — until Harley suggests that Tony, as a brilliant inventor, build something. To the film’s credit, he doesn’t build a new Iron Man suit or anything like it. Instead, he fashions a bunch of fairly low-tech weapons.
Now, it’s certainly odd to see Tony acting like a soldier, without his Iron Man suit. But the point of the sequence is that it’s not the clothes that make the man. Tony has to discover that he’s a hero without Iron Man.
The fact that the devices Tony builds are makeshift place him, surprisingly, in the position of a guerrilla fighter. As Iron Man, Tony represents American military might, including state-of-the-art military technology. He’s shielded from most of the dangers of actual warfare, much as soldiers who used Stark missiles don’t have to be on the front lines. Now, Tony’s put in the position of his captors, and for the first time he’s forced to practice asymmetrical warfare against a militarily superior opponent. This helps bring the character full circle.
Of course, Tony’s not entirely successful as a guerrilla fighter. He’s captured and has to call the Iron Man suit to him to escape. But he’s proven that he’s a hero, whether in or out of the armor. And it’s only then that he’s able to become Iron Man again.
Even before his house is destroyed, Tony recognizes how much Pepper matters to him and has the courage to open up to her a bit about what he’s going through.
One of the film’s most touching moments occurs when Tony’s house is attacked. He summons his current Iron Man armor, and we assume for a moment that he’s calling it to himself. But no, in the split second after the explosion but before his and Pepper’s bodies go crashing into walls, it’s instinctively Pepper’s safety he thinks about. It’s her he sends the suit to.
The film doesn’t make a huge deal out of his instinctive decision here, but it’s marvelously done. And it tells us everything about Tony. He may be a wreck. But he loves Pepper Potts, and he’d rather save her than save himself.
In this moment, we know that he’s a hero. For all his bluster, for all his past womanizing, for all his thoughtlessness. It’s Tony who’s the hero. Even if he still has to prove it to himself.
Later, the film reverts to a more traditional damsel in distress plot, with Tony struggling to save Pepper, after she’s been subjected to Extremis herself.
But to the film’s credit, Pepper’s no traditional damsel in distress. After Tony saves her by putting the armor on her instead of him, she shields him from falling debris, saving his life. She seems as able in Iron Man armor as he is.
And at the end, after Tony’s failed to save Pepper from falling, we see that she’s survived anyway, thanks to the Extremis process. Even with an Iron Man suit targeting her, Pepper makes short work both of the suit and of Killian. It’s Pepper who delivers the killing blow.
Okay, so maybe it’s not realistic that she’d be so skilled. The Extremis process didn’t give her martial arts training. But it’s at least a redemption of the way she’s been used as a damsel in distress. And compared to the equally unrealistic Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Pepper Potts is a lot more emotionally satisfying.
And then Tony orders all the Iron Man suits to blow up. He does so explicitly because Iron Man has gotten in the way of their relationship. And in this love triangle, Tony chooses Pepper.
Of course, in real life, PTSD isn’t nearly so quickly and conclusively fixed. Nor do we know that Tony won’t suffer from additional panic attacks. And of course, he can build another Iron Man suit, just like he can build another mansion. What he’s doing is really eliminating Iron Man, despite the melodrama involved. It’s removing Iron Man’s ability to distract him and committing to building his relationship with Pepper.
The Dark Knight Rises got a lot of acclaim for giving Batman an ending. Iron Man 3 does this too. Both heroes, whose alter egos are rich, find redemption in love.
When Tony was held prisoner by Killian, he told Maya why he prefers Pepper to her. “I get to wake up every morning with someone who still has their soul,” he says. It’s a good line that comments on how Maya’s sold her science to the military-industrial complex and tolerated Killian’s many unethical practices — which include murder and treason. But the line also speaks to what Tony loves about Pepper: that she’s a good person, and he knows this, despite all the flashbulbs and alcohol. But of course, it’s Tony’s soul that ends up getting saved.
As the Iron Man suits explode, they recall the fireworks at the beginning of the film, which takes place on the last day of 1999. The Tony Stark of 1999 is a womanizer who sends Killian to the rooftop and never thinks of him again. He’s thoughtless. He’s not very likable. He’s certainly incapable of committing to Pepper Potts.
And it’s here that Tony’s personal journey dovetails most completely with the main plot.
One of the movie’s themes, mentioned in the opening and closing narration, is “demons.” This may recall the famous “Demon in a Bottle” comics story, addressing Tony’s alcoholism. But in the film, it’s tied to Tony’s old lifestyle and how it led, inadvertently, to all of Killian’s subsequent actions. In the present, Tony’s repeating these same patterns by neglecting Pepper. His demons also come back to haunt him in the form of Maya, with whom he had a one-night stand back on that final day of 1999, and whose arrival is greeted by Pepper very much as Tony’s old demons coming back to haunt their relationship. In the concluding narration, Tony says, “We create our own demons.”
And he states that he is Iron Man, even though he doesn’t wear the suit anymore and has even had the arc reactor removed from his chest — symbolic of how he’s removed Iron Man but also how his heart has been healed. Even with Iron Man destroyed, Tony can still be Iron Man because Iron Man isn’t a metal suit. It’s a part of him, because he’s shown himself that he’s a hero even without the suit. Tony’s at the end phrase represents how he’s achieved an integrated psychology.
But the idea that we’re haunted by our past also relates to the main plot, and not only because Killian is in some way a product of Tony’s thoughtlessness.
We’re still dealing with the ghosts of Eisenhower. And McCarthy. And bin Laden. And Hussein.
What is the Mandarin but a ghost of bin Laden? The reality of the Mandarin is as insubstantial as a motion picture image, or a video sent from a cave. Yet he’s a reflection of America’s national PTSD, in the wake of 9/11, in which our traumatic triggers are still so easily still pushed.
And in which America’s still as split as Tony Stark is from Iron Man. Split between left and right. Split between our values and our fears. And yes, split between democracy and the machinery of corporate influence.
The solutions to this aren’t likely to be as simple as storming a Miami compound. And no one’s naive enough to think we can blow up the military-industrial complex, the way Tony can Iron Man.
But perhaps we can decide, like Tony, to wake up with our soul intact.
You don’t have to see these implications to enjoy the film. But they’re there, if you’re willing.
And that’s saying a lot for an Iron Man film. No, Iron Man 3 isn’t by any means a perfect film. But it’s got so much heart. And it’s the first to have the courage to use this super-hero, who’s a product of the military-industrial complex, to say anything meaningful or coherent about these pressing issues.
I’m sure that most viewers would prefer The Avengers. And there’s a place for super-hero action for its own sake, especially done as well as it was there. But it’s nice to see a space carved out, once in a while, for something a little more thoughtful, a little more brave, and yes, just a little more real.
If the Marvel cinematic universe is to be taken seriously, there has to be.