Big Man in a Suit of Armor

Less than three weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, I am sitting in a crowded movie theater, watching a movie about terrorist attacks on Americans. Every 15 minutes, an usher walks to the front of the theater, checks that the exit door is closed and secure, logs an entry on a pad, surveys the crowd, then retreats for another 15 minutes. In Iron Man 3, the Mandarin ties each of his bombings to an atrocity committed by the US government. In return, the government sends the ridiculously named (and painted) Iron Patriot to clumsily burst in on various gatherings of Middle Eastern people. Meanwhile, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) suffers from increasingly severe anxiety attacks over the near-death/near-annihilation events depicted in The Avengers. He is paranoid, fearing his world could come to an end at any moment. The usher marches to the front of the theater again. I have an inkling of how Tony feels.

Terrorism, the movie suggests, is just so much theatre. It’s a show. A violent, deadly show, to be sure. Responding to terrorism is also theatre. Colonel Rhodes dons the Iron Patriot armor, and it’s supposed to evoke, not just an image of patriotic might, but a narrative. We can’t ban assault weapons, we’re told, because criminals bent on hurting people will get guns, anyway. So, ushers check and re-check doors, to present the illusion that we’ve found the better solution. If the door is closed, criminals, no matter how determined, can’t get in. And the circle of theatre plays on.

This sort of Barnum-esque theatrical quagmire is a somewhat nihilistic view for a Marvel superhero movie, which usually forgoes the grim hopelessness of the likes of Batman for a snarkier approach. Of course, when it comes to snark, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark is the master, and even while he succumbs to paranoia and pressure, he still manages to do it with wit and style. One of the great recurring themes in superhero mythology, though, is the struggle with identity. Who am I, really? Am I Peter Parker or am I Spider-Man? Am I Bruce Banner or am I the Hulk? In the first Iron Man movie, Stark proudly proclaims, “I am Iron Man.” Now, he’s not so sure. It’s as if he’s still trying to answer Steve Rogers’ question: “Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?”

Instead of sleep, he spends his nights in his work room, building an army of Iron Man suits. But for a movie called Iron Man, he doesn’t spend much time in the actual iron. When he invites the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to do his worst, and the Mandarin complies, Tony is suddenly left without his usual devices, and must face his worst fears and anxieties as Tony Stark, not Iron Man.

In Iron Man 3, Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) takes over the directing role from Jon Favreau, who still appears as Stark’s former bodyguard Happy Hogan. Black brings all his action-adventure experience to the task. He wrote Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight, after all, and shares writing credit here. The action is relentless, but not exhausting, and the quieter moments feel earned and appropriate, not just filler until the next explosion comes along. Speaking of explosions, the effects are near-seamless. You should know, however, that there are bombings, and people get hurt. It’s not graphic, per se, but the emotional resonance, at least for me, was probably higher than it would have been before April 15.

Joining Downey, Jr. are returning allies Pepper Potts (played again with grace and intelligence by Gwyneth Paltrow) and bromance buddy Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). Ty Simpkins (Insidious) plays new ally Harley Keener, who comes to Tony’s aid and shares some of the best dialogue (and attitude) in the movie with Downey, Jr.

New to the franchise for this outing is Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, co-inventor of Extremis, an injectable compound that can build a better body and regenerate tissue, but can also cause 3,000-degree spontaneous combustions, if not monitored properly. Pearce is a suitably malevolent mad scientist, and his brief origin story will be heartbreaking to any nerd who’s ever been the butt of a joke by the popular kids. If anything, I wanted a little more origin story for him, more background about his journey from nerd to menace. His mad scientist machinations are more theatrics to feed a narrative, yes, but more details on how he got there would have crafted a more compelling character.

A superhero movie about the evils of the US government and the theatrics of politics, patriotism and terrorism may seem like an odd start to the summer blockbuster season. But when you’re surrounded by theatre, from the subtle to the extreme, the most powerful thing you can do is strive to be your most authentic self. It’s a compelling and relevant goal, and Downey, Jr.’s performance proves once again that Marvel’s stable of flawed superheroes can still pack an emotional and psychological punch.

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