Note: This blog is spoiler heavy all the time, but the following post spoils elements of Iron Man 3 that will have a strongly negative effect on your enjoyment of the film if you haven’t seen it already.
I enjoyed Iron Man 3 but it took me a while to get there. From early on in the film, I found the chief antagonist’s iconography unsettling. Really, I thought to myself. We’re going to go with clumsy caricatures of scary Muslims? What is this, the opening five minutes of a Transformers film?* It actually got to me and took me out of the experience of being in the cinema. Now, this wasn’t the film’s fault, at all; I started wondering if I was taking crazy pills, or if America was just as bad I used to think it was and that critics whose work I liked were happy to overlook some jingoistic rabble rousing crap because there were lots of things that go boom and Robert Downey Jr. being funny.
*I find the anti-Muslim stuff in Transformers films really odd. It’s shoehorned in early on so we can see a handsome white man (Josh Duhamel) defend our freedoms against monstrous hordes of scary people of colour. Then it moves on to robot fights with the racism relegated to the comic relief.
Oh, ye of little faith (well… me, in this instance). I don’t think Ben Kingsley is particularly mind-blowing in the film. His accent as the Mandarin is bizarre, though his performance doesn’t fit into Kermode’s Law of Kingsley: “When he’s good, he’s very very good and when he’s bad he’s Gandhi“; my issue is with the laziness of his “Brit drinking lager and watching football” performance, a trip beyond broad comedy and into caricature in my humble opinion. At any rate, the whole conundrum of Kingsley’s performance arises due to the film’s great twist: that the Mandarin was a sham used to hide the fact that Killian’s weaponised henchmen were exploding more or less accidentally.
How wonderful this was. For one thing, I didn’t even know there was a twist in this film. So often in film culture today the twist is marketed as a feature that the effect is automatically reduced. Not so in Iron Man 3. What was so fantastic about this for me though, and what inspired me to write on it (as, to be fair, there are many excellent reviews of the film out there already) was how this twist turned the entire film on its head not just from a narrative standpoint from political and aesthetic standpoints. The vulgarity of the vaguely anti-Islamic portrayal of a supposedly Islamic terrorist makes more sense once the viewer realizes that the creator of this ruse is deliberately playing up to those prejudices. Iron Man 3 was not, as I had feared, another example of post-9/11 fear and prejudice seeping into an ostensibly harmless blockbuster film; Iron Man 3 actively mocks and derides that prejudice.
Now, I don’t want to get carried away and start talking about intricate political commentary within the DNA of the film; we’re not talking about 28 Weeks Later here.* I’m not convinced that there is meant to be a specific “message” in the film beyond the thematic journey for the story’s central characters. I do like to think, however, that Shane Black is taking the piss a little bit here. It turns the whole film on its head. In its own subtle way, Iron Man 3 has its cake and eats it too. It’s big, it’s goofy, Downey does his Downey thing. It’s not stupid though, and Downey’s thing goes in different directions, particularly with a PTSD story that would have been nightmarish with a mediocre actor. Action films don’t have to be high brow (and in fact shouldn’t be), but it’s nice to see filmmakers understand that you don’t have to immediately skip to the bottom of the barrel either. Not that I’m surprised, with Shane Black involved. Hopefully we’re going to see more approaches like this in the next spate of Marvel movies. Films that are fun but not stupid. The two do not have to go together, you know.
*One of these days I’m going to sit down and write about the political message embedded in 28 Weeks Later. It’s amazing.