How does a movie bring you down to the depth of despair, but still makes you laugh out loud? I have no idea. But Iron Man 3 did exactly that.
What I have loved about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how much character development there is across the board. Even the "sidekicks" get it (Pepper got quite a bit and I think Jane Foster is going to get some similar treatment, if the trailer for Thor: The Dark World is any indication). It would have been so easy for them to take Tony Stark and send him straight back to his garage, snarking with JARVIS and being his same sarcastic-yet-lovable self. And while we get some of that in Iron Man 3, it is clear that we are firmly into Marvel: Phase 2.
Just to get an idea for how clear this is - I took notes for this movie while in the theater. Because I am just a nutcase like that. And a good portion of my notes (the few I managed to get written down while my eyes weren't glued to the screen) were things like:
- new tone for post-Avengers Marvel
- darker tone - really digging it
- closer and tighter shots - more claustrophobic
- taking some cues from The Hunger Games - televised politics, terror in front of the camera
- some lighter moments - hearkening back to the earlier Iron Man movies, but still so dark
Basically, this movie felt like they were taking cues from The Dark Knight, but not completely. This is still Tony Stark, not Bruce Wayne. The filmmakers don't ignore what makes Tony Stark's story so compelling and why he is such a popular character - he a brash and cocky guy, but he still has his share of vulnerability and he deals with it in the most unorthodox ways. The movie even touches on that at the end - the Iron Man suit has become a cocoon for Tony to wrap himself in and shut himself off from the world, even to the point that he builds the suits during his prolonged bouts of insomnia. Now, he did that even before he became Iron Man - he wrapped himself up in the "live fast and free" lifestyle that we saw at the beginning of the first Iron Man and that we see here at the start of this movie (just to remind us how far Tony's come). For most of his life, Tony has pretty much been a jerk to other people. But even through all that, there's always been this little spark of goodness that started building the day Tony escaped from being held hostage in Afghanistan. That's what Iron Man was about - a real pain-in-the-ass guy who learned to be somebody that could actually be a hero. While he never loses his swagger or his bravado (for better or worse) - but he's living for something beyond himself. And that is a beautiful thing to watch.
I've never kept it secret that of all the Marvel superheroes, Tony Stark is my absolute favorite. It could be so easy to write him off as this self-centered, pompous jerk - but you never feel like that's his whole story. And the reason for that is that his friends are still there for him, though they don't lie down and take Tony's crap the way a lot of other people do. Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, even JARVIS (even though he's a programmed entity - but he still gets his digs in) - you can't be a total waste if you've got people of that caliber behind you. And I think that's the story of the first two movies (plus The Avengers).
So, Iron Man 3 is what you get when you take Tony away from everything that's supported him throughout his life (especially since becoming Iron Man) and make him do everything on his own with very little outside help. Now, Tony doesn't trust anyone beyond himself and a few close friends. Which is why taking him to Rose Hill, Tennessee in search of Extremis was a brilliant move on the screenwriters' part. As tough as Tony acts and talks, he is almost worthless without outside help. Especially in this movie, where he's dealing with the PTSD and frequent panic attacks (those scenes where Tony just about loses it - those were hard for me to watch, but they added so much to the story).
I guess the main thing I took away from Iron Man 3 is how vulnerable Tony Stark really is. And he shows that vulnerability by locking himself away from everyone he cares about (even Pepper - though he does tell her that she's the only reason he's been able to keep it together since New York) and building more Iron Man suits. What I thought had been a massive spoiler in the trailer turned out to be a "Holy crap - this is... wow!" moment. Because Tony has been working on all these suits and all these different modifications (like the fact the suits can move on their own without having someone inside them), just to keep the bad memories at bay. And none of that is working for him. Even when one of the suits threatens Pepper, Tony just breaks down the pieces, but he doesn't get rid of it. Contrast that with the end of the movie when Pepper's become one of the Extremis soldiers and that same Mark 42 suit targets her, Tony has JARVIS blow up that suit (and he subsequently destroys the rest of the suits - meaning that he doesn't need them anymore. He doesn't need to work on all that stuff just to keep his sanity together). The final scenes of the movie show that between his house in Malibu being attacked and the battle on the oil rigs in Florida, Tony's figured out that he doesn't have to hide from his weaknesses anymore. He can still be Mr. I'm-So-Freaking-Awesome-and-Badass, but also recognize that he needs help from other people just as much as they need him.
I came to these conclusions after discussing the ending with my roommate - the ending where Tony has surgery to remove the shrapnel from his chest, thus rendering his trademark electromagnet completely unnecessary. While I did a bit of a double-take at that at first, it makes a lot of sense the more I think about it. And this is going to sound odd, but go with me here on this - the shrapnel was almost a lame excuse for Tony to stay "special." What I mean by that is that Tony thought he's only worth something if there's some external force making him remarkable - his company, his money, his inventions, his fast-living lifestyle. But the arc reactor and Iron Man slowly replaced that - and his experiences made him reassess what was really important (the events of Iron Man 3 - like coming thisclose to losing Pepper and everything else around that - probably moved him further to that end). I mean, he still has this need to tinker and fix things (because that's what he does - he even signs his note to Harley as "The Mechanic") so Iron Man isn't completely gone - it just isn't going to take over Tony's life. Besides - he can still be a superhero. But it's going to be in a much different place in his life and it won't be so connected to him as it was when he had this glowing metal thing installed in his body.
Wow. I've spent most of this review navel-gazing and I really haven't talked much about the rest of the movie. I did NOT see the Mandarin twist coming. I thought the trailer had spoiled all the cool stuff - like multiple Iron Man suits and Pepper getting a suit (which, I thought that was awesome when Tony saved Pepper by diverting the suit to get her out of harm's way). But to turn the Mandarin into this complete and total joke - and then reveal who the real Mandarin was… holy crap on a cracker, that took some balls in the screenplay department! That was either going to be totally awesome or totally shit. And it went the former route (thank goodness). It was brilliant turning it into the loser who is almost in direct competition to Stark Industries (remember Justin Hammer? Yeah, he was a dork), but it turns out that said loser is really kicking everyone's ass seven ways to Sunday.
Other things I liked -
- Happy Hogan is a "Downton Abbey" fan.
- The giant bunny. Tacky, yes. Endearing and really funny? Of course!
- The whole movie takes place around Christmas and was released in May.
- Pepper: "That was really violent!" (I think in the comics, she gets a suit and becomes Rescue. Which, I would not be opposed to that happening in the movies).
- Harley! I mean, I never envisioned Tony Stark getting along with a kid without there being major character issues, but those interactions were gold.
- The Barrel of Monkeys skydiving scene - and then it turns out Tony wasn't in the suit at all (but I did scream when that semi busted up the Iron Man suit - and then all of a sudden, Tony's talking again. Like it's no big deal). I mean - jeez - way to scare the crap out of me!
- I talked a lot about how dark this story is - but there was TONS of humor in the dark moments too. I don't know how many times I burst out laughing right in the midst of something so grim and dark and serious. I thought the movie struck a perfect balance between both extremes and I appreciated that a lot.
- Post-credit sequence - turns out this whole movie has been Tony laying on Dr. Bruce Banner's couch and telling him the story. After enjoying Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers, I was thrilled to see him back in even this small capacity. Bruce and Tony need more screen time together. They're just awesome.
All that being said - I liked the changes and the newness of this movie. At the same time, I'm a little worried that we've seen the last of Tony Stark (at least, the Tony Stark we've come to know and love). There are rumors that Robert Downey, Jr. is wanting to call it quits, which I can see why and I would almost be okay with… but at the same time, I'm not ready to say goodbye to Iron Man. I mean, I love all the Avengers and the Marvel characters, but for some reason I cannot get enough of Iron Man. He is hands-down my absolute favorite and I love the way RDJ plays him and I'm not ready for it to be over (at least, not without more warning than a credit sequence showcasing all three Iron Man movies). I guess I can get over it and enjoy the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - but it's not the same (I don't do well with change, guys. I just don't).
(Dear Disney/Marvel - If Robert Downey Jr. asks for more money - give it to him! Don't care how much it is - it's worth it!!)