Has Iron Man 3 transcended the superhero genre?
I was quite looking forward to seeing Iron Man 3. From the trailers it looked like a pretty entertaining and action packed superhero flick that would be a welcome addition to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe for those that don’t know). A new director (Shane Black) brought a new direction (naturally) with a slightly darker tone that appealed to me. I was very interested to see how Tony’s post-Avengers shock was affecting him as he was faced with his greatest treat yet (in his solo films anyway), Ben Kingsley’s the Mandarin. His presence was hinted at in the previous films and they were seemingly making the character a theatrical terrorist leader as opposed to an outlandish and (inappropriately?) comic bookish super powered villain, which would certainly work for the established Iron Man movie verse.
Iron Man 3 gave us something we truly did not expect. Was this a masterful piece of writing?
However, upon seeing the film I, along with many other people I believe, was greeted with probably the biggest surprise I have ever been greeted with while watching a superhero film. We were tricked. The Mandarin (or Ben Kingsley’s portrayal at least) was not actually the main villain of the film; in fact he wasn’t really a villain at all! He and his terrorist cell were merely a fabrication created by Guy Pierce’s character Aldrich Killian to conceal the illegal activities of his organization A.I.M. from public view. The actual character played by Sir. Kingsley was in fact an English actor named Trevor hired by Killian to portray the fictional persona of the Mandarin in phony terrorist video broadcasts intended to send the authorities on a wild goose chase. Well that was…….different.
While I was initially rather shocked and a tad disappointed by this narrative decision, as I thought about it I began to think that this approach was, well, pretty clever. When a superhero’s staple antagonist is adapted for the big screen, for example Batman’s Joker or Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, everyone expects an obligation on the filmmakers’ part towards a certain level of faithfulness to the character (i.e. they will actually be a big bad villain as they are in the comic books), but when adapting The Mandarin, Shane Black threw us a curve ball and gave us something totally new that had never been done before. And I say hats off to him. While it has inevitably pissed off many hardcore fans, I feel that this was a remarkably fresh approach. The predictable approach would have been to have Aldrich Killian as a pawn working under the Mandarin who would be the big baddie that ol’ Shellhead would have the arduous task of taking down (and how many times have we seen that?) but the writers must have been feeling rather creative and decided to give us something unexpected that we’d hopefully appreciate a lot more from a narrative standpoint. I mean did we really want to see another generic adaptation of a generic villain? So the Mandarin from the comics, he’s a typical “lord of darkness” type figure who shoots energy blasts and s**t from magic rings on his fingers. Not that I want to offend any of his fans but would that really have had as much of an impact? I don’t think so.
Additionally, to get political for a moment (sorry), I feel that this interpretation has a lot of cultural significance in today’s media driven, post-modernist society. The idea that a stereotypical terrorist figure threatening the public could just be a fabrication of the media moguls as a means of aiding their own ends is very thought provoking (and not a little disturbing). Maybe the real villains have always been hiding in the shadows away from the public eye? To quote Killian in the film, “once you give evil a face, you give people a target”. I can’t think of another superhero movie that’s attempted social commentary on that deep a level (not even The Dark Knight).
While their approach to an iconic villain was pretty original, is it enough to make this a truly revolutionary comic book movie? I do think the film as a whole was very solid and the action was mostly pretty satisfying (that climax was nuts!!), however I will admit that it does have a few flaws. For instance the exact nature of extremis and Killian’s motivations could have done with a tad more explanation and the fact that Iron Man’s invincible armor broke apart like Lego whenever it flew into a wall or got hit by a truck was a little silly (although I maintain the argument that actually having a person inside it must give it a lot more structural integrity). Also, when “Trevor” is revealed I think Kingsley maybe hams it up a tad too much.
At the end of the day, whether or not Iron Man 3 truly transcends the genre is debatable. As for the Mandarin however, we certainly never saw him coming!
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