If I could, I would start this whole thing out with some audio of myself letting out a very long, exasperated sigh of frustration. Iron Man 3, nearly five years removed, still serves as the single most frustrating movie that Marvel Studios has ever made. So far. Frustrating to those who hate it. Frustrating to those who love it and don’t agree with those who hate it. It’s just something that rarely breeds an entirely positive conversation and, in my opinion, with good reason. But this is the movie that had the impossible job of following up The Avengers and kicking off Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For that, it should be cut some slack. But only some.
So far on our journey to Infinity War series, we’ve looked back at the entirety of Marvel’s Phase 1 slate. The whole thing serves as a fun journey to the top of a roller coaster that climaxes with one heck of a fun ride in the form of The Avengers. What does a studio do after something like that? Turn to its golden boy, naturally. And that golden boy was and still is Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man 3 was always the best way to kick off Phase 2, it’s just unfortunate that the movie we got is so puzzling and maddening.
It all starts with that teaser trailer. That first Iron Man 3 teaser trailer is still my favorite MCU teaser to date. It’s a brilliant, wonderful and exciting thing. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin looming large, a broken Tony Stark, tons of super cool shots with almost no context, that amazing sequence of the house being absolutely leveled. All of it. The stuff fanboy dreams are made of. That being said, I’m still waiting to see that movie. Iron Man 3 is very much not the movie that’s set up in that first teaser, in a lot of ways, and that’s where my personal, aggravating relationship with this movie begins.
Part of what makes this movie frustrating for someone who doesn’t like it, and I’ll make it clear that I don’t like Iron Man 3 for reasons far beyond that dreadful Trevor Slattery twist (though it still sucks and I’ll never say it doesn’t, because it sucks), is that the bones of an excellent movie are here. There’s just too much unnecessary fat surrounding those bones. Imagine if one, or maybe even two of the twists were taken out of the movie. Imagine if The Mandarin was actually just The Mandarin and it was just Tony Stark dealing with some post-Avengers PTSD, but also having to go toe-to-toe with a truly amazing version of one of his greatest foes from the world of Marvel Comics. A villain that could actually exist in the world today. That’s what the teaser trailer promised and that could have been the movie. But it isn’t. Instead, we get a cluttered, twist-ridden, convoluted, uneven mess that just gets more annoying as the minutes tick by.
Iron Man 3, had it been a bit more streamlined, could have served as a fascinating examination of this country’s very complicated relationship to terrorism. We could have had one of the best villains in the MCU to date. Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin is nothing shy of a brilliant idea and, prior to the devastatingly stupid twist, was executed to perfection. That first video in Iron Man 3 that introduces us to Mandarin still sends chills down my spine. It’s amazing. For my money, there’s nothing more terrifyingly badass than when he says, “You’ll never see me coming.” Why ruin that?
Director Shane Black (bless his heart, I love him as a filmmaker) wanted to do something different. I respect that. But not when you ruin something, perhaps simpler, but truly excellent. To that point, in a lot of ways, this is a good Shane Black movie that doesn’t really work great as an MCU movie, overall. Seriously, Christmastime doesn’t benefit this movie one bit and that’s one of his little obsessions that made its way into Iron Man 3. And one of the things that clutters it up.
Back to the whole annoying bit with Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery. I remember when that was revealed in the theater. I’ve never felt the need to groan loudly, and rather rudely, in a movie theater before, but that did the trick. Trevor enters the movie with the sound of a flushing toilet, which pretty much signals where the movie goes from that point on in my humble opinion. Oh, and there’s still an hour left at that point. Some of the best villains in the history of cinema are pretty simple on the surface, yet mysterious. The Joker, as Alfred so eloquently puts it, just wants to watch the world burn. Hans Gruber is a vaguely European guy who just wants a whole bunch of money. Even Loki just wants power. That might be an oversimplification, but you get the point. The Mandarin, as portrayed prior to the Trevor Slattery twist, is simple yet mysterious. And, unlike many comic book movie villains, he’s realistic. He’s a terrorist. That makes him a great Iron Man villain, specifically. Thor can fight ridiculous villains because he’s literally a god. Tony Stark can’t.
Instead, we get Aldrich Killian, played by the charismatic and handsome as ever Guy Pearce. For his part, Pearce does a fine job, but as the main villain, it’s a step down from what could have been. The whole Extremis thing is a big part of this movie as it exists, but I’d prefer it just not be there. It feels like one layer too much. It overcomplicates Iron Man 3 a lot and makes it a little silly. Wouldn’t it be great if Killian was actually just the Bond-esque sidekick for Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin? One can dream. That bit when Rhodey calls Killian out for breathing fire sums it up the silliness of it pretty well. Plus, we have the added layer of Rebecca Hall’s Maya turning on Tony. Again, Hall is a great actress and shouldn’t be condemned for questionable story decisions, but this was yet another twist we didn’t need.
But hey, this movie isn’t all bad. Shane Black is one hell of a director and he knows action. Hence, there are two truly outstanding action sequences in Iron Man 3. Pretty much the whole third act is a bit muddled and ridiculous, so it’s not really worth dragging through the dirt. But prior to that, Black really does a couple of special things. First and foremost is the attack on Tony’s house. Tony (foolishly) issues that totally badass threat to The Mandarin after Happy, who is loveable as ever in this movie, winds up in a coma. Then, as one might expect, Mandarin, or Killian really, issues an attack on the house and we get about ten minutes of pure comic book movie action bliss. It’s epic. It’s well executed. It’s original. It’s everything. It’s Black at his best. It’s why the annoying parts of this movie are extra annoying.
There’s also the “Barrel of Monkeys” sequence after everyone aboard Air Force One is sucked out of the plane. Again, totally original, expertly executed and totally awesome. After that, pretty much everything only serves to frustrate. We get a fake-out Pepper Potts death that could have actually been a very meaningful, real death. Also, Iron Man suits essentially are treated like cheap, disposable garbage. Seriously. Aren’t these things supposed to be hardcore and pretty superhero-level strong? Why are they just getting scrapped like cheap cannon fodder? I’d insert another sigh here if possible.
Oh, and just because I want to start wrapping this thing up on a positive note, how wonderful is Ty Simpkins as Harley? That kid has a lot of charisma and I’d love for him to show back up in the MCU at some point. His outstanding chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. really drives the second act of this movie.
While I’m definitely not kind to this movie, the numbers would seem to indicate I’m wrong. Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion at the box office and currently holds an 80 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly, Marvel has no reason to be upset about it. Still, there’s a point where Brandy, Killian’s cool henchlady, is closing in on Tony Stark and quips, “That’s all you’ve got? A cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner.” I’d say that’s actually a pretty accurate description of what this particular Marvel movie has to offer.