I’ve liked Shane Black ever since I saw his largely ignored noir crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang years ago. The interaction and chemistry between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious, the dialogue is clever, and the story is a highly entertaining send up of classic hardboiled detective stories that I enjoy. When he was selected to take over the Iron Man franchise, I had a good feeling but I was curious if they would be able to take Iron Man 3 into new territory of some kind; I had a difficult time figuring out what new direction was left, since the second film in the series had already mastered the idea that if one powered flying suit is cool, dozens and dozens will be a guaranteed improvement.
Iron Man 2 has apparently left a bad taste in a few people’s mouths and I’m not sure why, exactly. It was more or less what I expected: there were lots more robots going vroom, Mickey Rourke played an effective Russian Mickey Rourke type character, and I will watch Sam Rockwell in absolutely anything. Anything. I would watch him read Congressional minutes on CSPAN-2 with a six pack and a bag of Frito’s. So as far as I was concerned the movie was satisfying, if missing a little bit of substance. But that’s okay, I don’t look to the Iron Man movies for substance. Tony Stark is the kind of character I would really enjoy in real life for about a weekend, maybe at a party or on a road trip , but if I sat next to this guy at an office job I’m probably going to discover that his massive intelligence, ego, and air of superiority are about as charming as the swift kick to the balls he would be on the deserving end of after a few weeks. That being said, I love RDJ. But the important question that remained was what is left to tell in a story about a man with near unlimited wealth, ingenuity, and resources?
The answer provided by Iron Man 3 is a very good one. Pride goeth before the fall, and Tony Stark’s character has no shortage of hubris. His fall comes in two parts, the first cleverly tying in the events of The Avengers presenting a dilemma completely alien to him: fear, in the form of anxiety. His near-death experience begins to unravel his supreme confidence and self control; for once he finds himself vulnerable, mortal. In a darker film that isn’t designed to be a summer blockbuster, I would have really liked to see this development explored but I can forgive them for only touching the surface for the sake of accessibility. In the actual canon, and briefly touched on in the previous film, Tony Stark has a serious drinking problem, at one point retiring as Iron Man while in the throes of his addiction. I think that an actor like Robert Downey Jr., with his own experiences of hitting rock bottom with substance abuse in real life, would have portrayed the descent and nadir with brilliant verisimilitude but, again, I’m just happy they were willing to do a darker story at all, rather than simply further increasing the number of flying robots. I digress.
The second fall comes in the form of his open challenge to what he believes to be a psychotic terrorist (Ben Kingsley channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker by way of Richard Nixon) , inviting his wrath in an emotional tirade. When that wrath arrives, his arrogance puts everything he values in jeopardy and, in a clever metaphor, he is nearly dragged to his death by the same house and possessions that he previously believed had made him invulnerable. After a thin transition, he wakes up to find himself stripped down to just a man without any of his toys and this is where the movie has a real opportunity to mature the franchise.
Gone are the gorgeously expensive cars, the bright sunny skies of Southern California, and the fantastic holographic computers and technology. Instead, Stark is in a dark, cold place, with the all the rustic charm of a small town in the middle of nowhere. Out of his element, with nothing but his wits and his instincts to guide him, he pushes on. These are the stories that are the most interesting to me: what is the character of a man or a woman in the face of real defeat? How do you get back up from the mat when you have truly been knocked on your ass?
The opening narration describes the idea that we have a tendency to create our own demons, which is then take literally in the form of the antagonist and figuratively in the form of Stark’s anxiety. There is also the requisite nod towards a post 9/11 world in which we find out that the antagonist is a hilariously fictional manifestation of what we imagine when we picture terrorists (Ben Kingsley channeling Russell Brand). Also fascinating are the permanent shadows burned into the walls at the site of each ‘terrorist’ attack, reminiscent of the same such shadows found in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is this a subtle implication that the United States has created its own demons around the world with its presence as a nuclear capable superpower? I’m reaching pretty far on that one but it is fun to think about. I read somewhere that so much of Japanese manga and anime takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting because Japan itself is, for all intents and purposes, a post-apocalyptic society following the toll and devastation of World War 2. The same can be said of the United States following the September 11th attacks, that sense of vulnerability follows us everywhere now, in every film or TV show, unavoidably informing our way of life.
For Tony Stark, when that sense of vulnerability threatens to unravel his confidence he does the thing that comes most natural to him, the thing that brings out his passion: he builds. For me, when that feeling comes, if I can, I write. And for you, when you’re all the way down without the things that we think we need to be happy and productive, you may feel alone and overwhelmed. Or you may find that without all the distractions and expectations all that’s left is exactly what you need.