08 May 2013

First Impressions: Iron Man 3 - Expectations and Politics

Half a decade ago, Iron Man (2008) ushered in both Marvel Studios as a legitimate movie house and a new way of shared-universe filmmaking that is going to shape our blockbusters for years to come. Last week, Iron Man 3 (2013) had the unenviable position of both capping Tony Stark's individual story arc and set the tone for what Marvel is calling "Phase Two" of its film production: a series of interlocking films that will eventually culminate with Avengers 2: Balls of Thanos (2015). In my preview I was skeptical of the film's ability to do both as well as the tendency of Marvel films of late to resemble more generic superhero fare coated in the identical candy color palettes rather than anything of substance or interest.

Well, Iron Man 3 shut me up. On the final part, at least. It's far from a perfect superhero movie, but whether or like it or not probably has to do directly with how much you like the Mandarin. This is meant to be a thoughtful discussion of the film rather than a review, so needless to say, SPOILERS abound.

The Problem with Expectation

So, let's address the Mandarin straight away. In the film, a character played by Sir Ben Kingsley purports to be a shadowy terrorist leader called "The Mandarin," and throughout the first act commits atrocities like blowing up Mann's Chinese Theater, Tony Stark's House, and then shoots an American Oil Executive on live television. He's got a UBL beard, topknot, aviators, and the truly menacing voice of a Midwestern baptist. He's a pastiche of American fears and slightly less racist than his comic incarnation.

In an admittedly hilarious scene, though, Ben's Mandarin is revealed to be no more than spaced out actor Trevor Slattery, who is merely a figurehead for Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian, who desires to use him with one hand while keeping the President in the other, and creating an endless War on Terror while profiting from all of the arms sales.
Yep. So now this makes no sense.

There are some potent political implications there, some of which are obvious, but let's just talk about the character itself for a second. If you are an Iron Man comic book fan, there are certainly immediate problems with writer / director Shane Black's interpretation of the character, namely that he ceases to exist in a familiar form. The Mandarin was always Iron Man's best villain because of his nature as a mysterious foreigner who relied on magic alien technology. Tony Stark, as the right-wing American scientific industrialist could never really wrap his head around his schemes, which made for an interesting dynamic. The Mandarin is able to play on Tony's own xenophobia.

This is a fine dynamic, and although it is lacking from the screen, that doesn't necessarily a poor movie make. What is more significant, though, is the fact that much of the marketing material leading up to the film presented the Mandarin in a similar fashion. Thus, even for the Mandarin novice, something other than what was on screen was expected. Upending expectations is not a bad thing at all, but there is surely some disappointment in the fact that what could have been the next great supervillain portrayal ended up being a drunken bum.

Or is there? This article by Jacob S. Hall of Movies.com suggests that Killian, in creating the Mandarin (and by proxy, Iron Man 3 itself in almost a bit of metacommentary) successfully employs supervillain cliches to create an over-the-top villain, complete with a nutty wardrobe, voice, and an undetermined menace (you could say as much for Heath's Joker) that provides a perfect character for the world, Americans in particular, to latch on to. From the disappointment in the set-up as I mentioned earlier, that worked pretty damn well in the real world. I would say this echoes a return to realism, but of course, this is a world now filled with Loki and aliens, along with Iron Man 3's  actual villain, Killlian, who breathes fire and glows in the dark - so much for satirizing over-the-top villains...

As expressed by Landon Palmer here, each Iron Man film has had these dual villains - one crazy foreign terrorist (Iron Man: The Cult of 10 Rings [btw - that's a damn Mandarin reference, what the hell happened to that? We do see his rings once. I'm still kind of waiting for a Hans Gruber / Bill Clay thing to be honest], Iron Man 2 [2010]: Ivan Vanko, Iron Man 3: the Mandarin), and one crazy industrial competitor (Iron Man: Obadiah Stane, Iron Man 2: Justin Hammer, Iron Man 3: Aldrich Killian). In no film, though, are the Stark parallels as apparent as they are here. Killian is rich, the head of a weapons manufacturing firm, and has a loyal (usually) squeeze by his side (Rebecca Hall). He's also cocky, twisted, smooth, and confident. As Stark is trying to turn away from weapons, though, Killian is ramping up production and competition. Finally, isn't there some echo of Stark's confident identity claim in the first film ("I AM IRON MAN!") in Killian's last words ("I AM THE MANDARIN!"). The struggle to find an identity is perhaps the greatest theme of both this film and the whole franchise. More on that later.

Iron Patriot Act

Again like other Iron Man films, the third installment ultimately shies away from presenting a straightforward U.S. vs. Terrorists story and instead presents a group of terrorists funded by American business interests. Iron Man 3 takes this a step even further by presenting the terrorist leader as a complete fabrication on the part of those interests.

Still kinda wanna see Willem Dafoe in there...
What's more interesting then, is how Killian and again, by proxy, the film, constructs the Mandarin and builds the case against him. The Mandarin is a conglomeration of a lot of things, all centered around an anti-American iconography and ideology. Stark's Iron Man in the second film famously "privatized world peace," and part of his initial opposition to the Mandarin may stem out of the fact that he is using tactics that Stark cannot seem to fight against. There are again, a lot of parallels to the current War on Terror. There's also almost a little Dark Knight thing going on here on a global scale - because the presence of Iron Man has forced normal terrorists out of business, a higher calibre of villain emerges. As Mickey Rourke's Vanko says in Iron Man 2, "If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in him, there will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you." That's what's happening in Iron Man 3.

So while Stark is initially opposed to the Mandarin because of this threat to both the nation and his personal role as its defender, when Rhodes rebukes his desire to go after him, he's quick to use personal revenge as an excuse. Thus we see this relationship between the jurisdictions of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. Government forming. Apparently while the Feds will still tackle the small time terrorists (mostly through War Machine / Iron Patriot), S.H.I.E.L.D. will handle aliens, gods, and all the other really crazy fucking shit. Tony has a stake in both and one role has informed the other, especially because he had an instrumental hand in founding both (and to go meta again, his film founded the whole Marvel Empire). Part of his panic attacks may be because he's losing his place in both.

The final parallel between Stark and the War on Terror is this running theme of creating our own demons and enemies. As it's clear that the past actions of Stark created the Mandarin, if we can read Stark as a parallel to the United States, then our own excess and selfishness inspired our own persistent enemies. This is clear from the first scenes in Iron Man 3. Instead of sharing his knowledge he literally leaves a possible partner out in the cold in favor of chasing tail. It would be simplistic and inappropriate to say that the United States has done the same to inspire resentment in other places in the world, but the parallel is there.

There is much more to talk about, including the major theme of the film, Stark's own identity as well as the merits of the film itself as both a finale and a launchpad for Phase Two. Read Part 2 here.

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