Okay, yeah, that title is kind of a bad joke. Shut up. Moving along, now.
A few weeks ago, I saw Iron Man 3, the latest in the Marvel extravaganza that is the Avengers. If you haven’t seen it yet, maybe do that before reading this, because spoilers. Now, we all know that the Avengers series, while totally a game-changer for the film industry, is not exactly “high cinema.” I mean, we all saw Thor, right? That entire movie works off the (incredibly accurate) premise that all you need to attract a film audience is Chris Hemsworth’s abs. Iron Man and Iron Man 2, while both thoroughly enjoyable, were basically thinly disguised excuses to blow a bunch of shit up and watch Robert Downey Jr. swagger around a lot.
I expected no less from Iron Man 3. Lots of explosions, very little substance, right? Except that’s not what I got. Iron Man 3 is a damn good movie, for reasons that have nothing to do with the incredible cinematography and graphic feats and amount of stuff that went up in flames.
First of all, we have to talk about Pepper Potts. Pepper has been the most developed and three-dimensional female character in the Avengers-verse since the first Iron Man film came out, because she exists separately from Tony. Unlike most love interest characters, Pepper has her own ideas about how things should be done, and she isn’t afraid to make what she wants happen, even when it puts her at odds with Tony. But she was still restricted by all the usual love interest tropes, by which I mean she was constantly getting captured and needing saving.
In Iron Man 3, Pepper does get captured and requires saving, but she also does some saving of her own, in the most phenomenally bad ass way possible. It would have been nice to see her saving herself rather than waiting for rescue, but ultimately she ends up saving Tony’s life not once, but twice. It’s not a lot, but I will take it.
On a related note, this movie also passes the Bechdel test, and not in that wimpy girls-talking-about-shoes way. Pepper and Maya have an extended conversation about the morality of accepting government and military funding in order to further their scientific goals, and the dangers of losing sight of your values in the pursuit of greatness. I mean, Maya later turns out to be a horribly lame attempt at a female double-agent, but points for trying.
That said, let us talk about the real meat of this film: Tony Stark’s complete mental breakdown.
Throughout most of film history, male “heroes” are expected to keep their shit together and be impervious to things like, you know, emotions. Mental problems are the realm of the weak, popular thought goes, and heroes can’t be weak, so therefore they cannot have mental problems. Try to think of another superhero movie in which the protagonist shows any kind of long-term emotional damage, or even so much as sheds a tear outside the belly of the whale (a lone tear is usually acceptable at this point).
Iron Man 3 completely throws that thinking out the window. Tony Stark has just been through a horrifically traumatic experience in the Avengers–discovering that there are multiple worlds, then blasting himself through a portal into space and nearly getting stranded there, then witnessing the devastation of New York afterward. For him to not experience any kind of psychological after-effect from that would be downright implausible, so Iron Man 3 doesn’t do that. This movie gives him intense, crippling panic attacks at the very mention of the name “New York.” Tony straight-up cannot function as a regular human being, and the movie makes it clear that his refusal to face his problems is destroying him, and that he needs to stop hiding behind bravado and seek professional help.
Think about the wider implications of that. Here we have an iconic superhero character, who children the world over look up to, experiencing a severe mental disorder and learning to ask for help. What. That’s so reasonable, practical and downright human that it’s hard to believe Hollywood came up with it. Instead of chastising Tony for his “weakness,” the film is showing how his issues can be worked through and dealt with. It is saying that it is okay to need help.
The other thing that this film does that I absolutely love is that it takes Tony back to his roots as an Odyssean hero (for a brilliant discussion of Odyssean vs. Herculean heroes, check out Anne’s blog). The suit gives Tony super strength and speed and flight, but it isn’t his power. His power is his brain. Take the suit away from him, and he’s still a super hero, because of how smart he is. In Iron Man 3, Tony is stripped down to his essentials, and he still manages to build himself a functioning set of weapons and invade the enemy base. Odyssean heroes for the win.
Basically, Iron Man 3 is a really smart movie. It does a lot of really unique things with wider social implications that I can only approve of. I hope there is a lot more where this movie comes from in the Avengers franchise, because it gives me hope for the quality of conversation happening in big media.
Also there are a lot of really pretty graphics and huge explosions and stuff, so that’s pretty cool, too, I guess.
“I’m Tony Stark. I build neat stuff, got a great girl, occasionally save the world. So why can’t I sleep?” -Tony Stark, Iron Man 3