Iron Man 3: One Big Joke

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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55 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    Unforgiven did not end the Western.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Actually, out of curiosity Burt, do you happen to have an idea of how many Westerns there have been since Unforgiven?Report

      • carr1on in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Here’s what I can easily remember since Unforgiven:

        3:10 to Yuma
        Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
        True Grit
        The Alamo

        The Lone Ranger remake is coming this year.

        Perhaps the point should be that there aren’t a lot of original screenplays as Westerns coming out…Report

        • Glyph in reply to carr1on says:

          I haven’t seen them, but plot descriptions make me think Django Unchained could arguably be classed as a Western; same with Brokeback Mountain.

          No Country for Old Men was arguably a modern Western. Sukiyaki Western Django was inarguably a weird Western.

          The Proposition is set in Australia, but it’s a Western fo’ sho’.

          The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada & Dead Man.

          TV: Deadwood & Hell on WheelsReport

      • Burt Likko in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        According to IMDB:
        1992: 85 (the year Unforgiven was released)
        1993: 113
        1994: 151
        1995: 195
        1996: 129
        1997: 97
        1998: 115
        1999: 75
        2000: data not readily availalbe
        2001: 85
        2002: 133
        2003: 85
        2004: 71
        2005: 179
        2006: 188
        2007: 135
        2008: 138
        2009: 191
        2010: 285
        2011: 312
        2012: 371Report

      • Ethan Gach in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        “There will of course be plenty more big budget comic book movies, but there won’t be any new ones.”

        I think that stands–in so far as none of them will do something new or different. I’m less well versed in Westerns (though the same question would be posed: do those movies offer original takes on “the Western?” Also, perhaps it wasn’t Unforgiven, but Wild Wild West and Cowboys and Aliens that mark some Hegelian end to the Western), so I’ll have to stick to comics on this one, my contention being that Iron Man 3 is where this genre unequivocally jumped the shark.

        It’s an interesting coincidence too that Shane Black made “The Last Action Hero.”Report

        • CK MacLeod in reply to Ethan Gach says:

          It’s a Hegelian “end of history” argument: The end appears “in principle” long before its epiphenomena cease to epiphenomenalize. I have no idea what those 371 Westerns done last year were, but few to none of them was a “real movie movie,” there is no Western in the current top 10 Box Office films. Or you have a world in which the 10 most popular Westerns on the IMDB list are 50+ years old Spaghetti Westerns, are RANGO and COWBOYS & ALIENS, are one of two re-makes (one of them a parody, the other of a so-called “New Western”), something called DEAD MAN’S BURDEN with a 4.7 Audience Rating, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, also part parody or send-up, and a poor fit for the Western genre. If you stretch the definition far enough, Sleepless in Seattle is a re-make of High Noon, and even this comment contains Western motifs. The “end of the Western,” in short, simply meant that the genre as we thought we knew it, reigning supreme in popular culture, was over. The appearance of an UNFORGIVEN or a DEADWOOD is irrelevant to the concept: They’re movies that happen to be set in in the 19th Century American West, but not revivals of the “genre.” If Mr. Gach is right, in twenty or thirty years, there may still be tales of which special individuals gain super-powers and fight evil, but, from that perspective, THE NEW TESTAMENT belongs in the comic book superhero genre, when it’s the comic book superhero who belongs in the NEW TESTAMENT’s.

          On the other hand, when TERMINATOR 2 came out, James Cameron said it would be the end of the big budget special effects blockbuster. So even the people who should know, often don’t. Still, the question isn’t whether they stop making a particular type of movie, but whether it continues to attract expanding interest in a way that anchors an entire industry both financially and conceptually.Report

          • Kimsie in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            This is mostly because people haven’t seen The Good The Bad and the Weird.Report

          • Burt Likko in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            Even given that definition, Unforgiven did not end the Western (note the critical and audience interest last year in Django Unchained) and Iron Man 3 will not end the comic book movie. As far as Hollywood (or rather, the industry) is concerned, the superficial trappings and setting of the movie is a big part of what moves the product and puts asses in seats.

            What might end the comic book movie is when the stable of well-known superheroes and supervillians is exhausted. There’s still plenty of good inventory: Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, Aquaman, the Flash, and as many new generations of X-Men, sidekicks (Iron Patriot, Black Widow), successors (new Batman, new Green Lantern), supergroups (Justice League of America: the movie!) reboots (keep doing Superman until they get it right again!), and morally reformed supervillians as they want. Even then it’s not clear that writers will not be able to tease out different kinds of narratives from the mythical trappings of the familiar stories.

            The narrative structure of a Western (archetypically High Noon) or a comic book movie (archetypically Superman: The Movie) will never go away, because those narrative structures are embedded in the concept of mythology. The settings of Westerns or comic book movies will also never go away because the audience, it seems, never tires of those spectacles.

            All of which is to say, I enjoyed Ethan’s review and I’ll probably plunk my money down to see the flick notwithstanding his critique, but the idea that Iron Man 3 will be the last comic movie is not one I can credibly sign on to.Report

            • CK MacLeod in reply to Burt Likko says:

              Mr Gach specifically disclaims the notion that the “end of the genre” = “no more made.” It’s like two people still legally married, still living together, maybe still having sex on occasion and visiting friends and family as a couple, etc., but knowing “deep down” that the marriage is “over,” that they’re no longer truly committed to each other, that it is no longer meaningful for them, that if the stopped living together, stopped having sex together, stopped visiting friend and family as a couple, etc., they wouldn’t feel it, that it’s no longer alive, is no longer growing, is no longer worth defending, is a zombie marriage, a dead parrot marriage, it has joined the choir invisible of marriages.

              To me, the Movies are or is already over along with all of its genres. The popular cinema is no longer or at most is just barely the primary cultural form of our time, if we define TV and internet as “cinema” (image plus sound, with verbal content delivered between either of the two forms of apperception), and the movie theater no longer the primary setting of the cultural unconscious. It’s now and has been for quite some time the “alone together” living room, mutating into the omniscreen, a unitary virtual location whose technological endpoint vanishes in the cerebral nether regions not yet fully mapped by cognitive science. So the real search is the search for the remnant biological or organic or vital essence, the meaning of remnant life in its near complete reduction, overwhelmed by the technological or technomic superstructure: The sheer absurdity and busy hilarity of these stories is the old “imposition of the mechanical on the human” defined as the essence of humor, but implicitly also of industrialized warfare or the utter annihilation of the human, a little bit more than 100 years ago, implicit in Americanism and technologism all along. And that’s your Iron Man.Report

  2. Dude says:

    Pretty damn good review, brah. How old are ye?Report

  3. Barry says:

    Burt, it did. You just *think* that you’ve seen other Westerns.

    We’ve been humoring you.Report

  4. Glyph says:

    Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a terrific deconstruction of the buddy cop movie. That film should be better known than it is.

    I never saw Iron Man 2 but the first one was entertaining enough. Haven’t seen Avengers…I am not a huge “superhero” guy though I have seen a fair selection of the superhero movies out there, so take the following FWIW (aka, “not much”):

    how does a movie … still invoke the bold grandeur of a $200 million dollar heroic action flick?

    This is the problem IMO, right here; not that it’s a comedy, OR a “serious” film, OR some hybrid, but that a superhero flick must follow a proven “blockbuster” format of some kind that the studios will bank on – the economics of the thing don’t allow for the kind of experimentation that is needed to revitalize the genre – the studio has to go bigger, bigger, bigger each time to try to ensure massive ROI.

    You know a Batman movie I’d be interested in seeing? A (relatively) lower-budget one where he’s largely stripped of his toys, and forced to escape some OG Die Hard-type scenario in a single confined setting like Arkham Asylum, purely on the basis of his wits (he IS the World’s Greatest Detective after all) and physical prowess. Get really crazy and posit that he might need to lose the cape and cut off the bat ears – maybe they prevent him from crawling through some claustrophobic setting, like a service tunnel. Pre-Hollywood John Woo directs, or maybe Chan-Wook Park (come to think of it, just remake Oldboy with Bruce Wayne).

    But the studio would never stand for a Batman stripped of his cool toys, with smaller explosions, any more than they would stand for a Bond without his toys (an idea I think would be equally excellent).

    IMO the studios are painting themselves into a corner by insisting on ever-larger scale – “more” is always a dead end sooner or later. You can only go so big (or so dark, or so pomo, or so comedic, or…) until you’ve squeezed all the juice out of the source material. Switch it up – big/small. Light/dark. There should be room for different types of stories at (crucially) differing scales.Report

  5. CK MacLeod says:

    “Iron Man 3 also has two female characters, but I feel I would be inaccurately communicating the essence of the movie if I bothered to mention their names, or the actresses who play them, or spend any longer than this sentence considering them.”

    LOL – well-enacted.Report

  6. North says:

    Wow Ethan, we came out with completely different reads on the movie. Like almost opposite. I certainly enormously enjoyed Iron Man 3 but I actually thought it did really well on many of the points you’re criticizing.

    I’ll try to be oblique but obviously there’s spoilerish stuff in this comment.

    Regarding Stark’s PTSD I agree they didn’t delve into/explore it as much as they probably should have considering that they chose to include it but I think you’re way off target when you talk about it.
    Stark certainly had trauma from New York on the surface of his PTSD but we saw, in a couple cases, that it wasn’t New York directly but rather things dealing with his helplessness and especially his helplessness when without access to his suits that triggered his worst attacks. The phrase “seeing Tony cowering in his suit” is especially inapt since Stark never did cower in his suit. Indeed it was to his suit that he fled when having his first attack and another attack was induced not by bringing up New York but by mentioning that his only nearby suit was non-functional.
    Stark was able to, if not overcome, then at least mitigate his PTSD at least in the short term by embracing that it was he, not his suits, that were the heroes. He overcame his lack of suits simply by building alternatives affirming that it’s Starks mind and will that give him his power, not the presence of his mechanical toys. We see a later affirmation of this new mindset in his (expensive, wasteful, destructive) gesture to his suit collection and his (why the hell wouldn’t he???) operation formally disconnecting himself from his mechanical crutches.
    I’ll agree this was given a rather light treatment but not, I’d opine, as lightly or shallowly as you seem to think.

    I think you’re massively off about the “second-hand post 9/11 tropes” indeed so off with them that you interpret them inversely to how I did and then find that interpretation offensive. This is especially surprising to me since the message I got from IM3 is so in line with your own inclinations; I’d have thought you’d have latched onto it immediately.

    Again spoilerish.

    In IM3 the 9/11 tropes are thick and heavy but what we ultimately see is a world power furiously, hysterically even, flailing at supposed terrorist threats that, ultimately, turn out to be phantoms. Indeed the true villains of IM3 are not terrorists but rather the entrenched institutional interests who are profiting from the war on terror. AIM is not some diabolical religious band of thugs, no; they’re a military industrial think tank feeding deeply at the trough of the War on Terror. The Mandarin is (you affirm) entirely not as he’s implied to be in the trailers in a hilarious and cutting way. The villains over and over again are demonstrated as living among us. IM3’s villains are cynical domestic war profiteers, power hungry scheming domestic politicians and tragically, exploited and neglected veterans lured into darkness by promises of a return to heroic strength and social position.

    Frankly I can’t think off the top of my head of a mass appeal movie that more broadly and pervasively blasted the War on Terror (and by extension the War on Drugs) than this one. The theme was that it is our national overreaction to terror that is the true existential threat to the nation rather than the piddling efforts of terrorists. That one of the arch schemers is the Vice President manipulating a credulous rather dim President sure struck me as a sharp elbow at a certain former administration. The theme was enormously liberal and even libertarian (and yes also very funny). I’m quite surprised that you didn’t get the same read off it. I’ll be interested to see what Connor F. and others think of it.Report

    • Scott Fields in reply to North says:

      This is the version of IM3 I saw, so maybe they showed a different version at the cineplex nearest Ethan.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to North says:

      My read isn’t necessarily that it’s politics were wrong, but that it doesn’t really have any politics at all.

      The problem is that the plot is such a mess, and the character motivations so unclear and inconsistant, that trying to actually tease out some coherent critique of all the war on terrorism stuff is just a laughable project.

      There’s an arbitrariness to what the aims of the villains are, and why Tony is all the sudden a anxious wreck (in a handful of extremely short scenes/moments–rest of the time he’s still cool as ice), that limits any kind of further analysis, because ultimately all that is based on what the movie actually does, and that is a very open question at this point.

      I’ll try to give more of a point by point response later, meanwhile here’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of things that bothered me about the movie as well (and which I think leave it conceptually impotent):

    • Ethan Gach in reply to North says:

      Wesley Morris also gets at some of my thoughts:

      “Outside the masks, Iron Man 3 never achieves that balance. Nothing in the movie makes sense — it really doesn’t. What are Killian and the Mandarin hoping to achieve? What’s Hall’s character about? Much of the dead and loose ends are frustrating not because Black, who’s credited for writing the script with Drew Pearce, has conflated decades of Iron Man story lines. It’s because the story itself isn’t a priority. The effects are. But effects without a good narrative are like a magician’s rabbit without the hat.

      This is a series that might not have needed a third installment, but we’re past need now. We’re at the contractual obligation/cultural expectation stage of things. (At the risk of mixing Marvel metaphors, an Iron Man 3 movie is already a box office colossus overseas.) So a kind of weariness has set in. The movie has a lot of decent ideas — about terrorism, heroism, patriotism. But nearly everything it does with those ideas wilts. There’s a long sequence between Tony and a cute small-town kid (Ty Simpkins) that features some of the feigned heartless banter that Tony and Pepper once traded with each other. Now that castwide crackle of flirtation is all but gone, and without it Downey’s charisma really sputters. Tony’s angst might be the actor’s. The iron suit is starting to feel like a coffin. He’s applied all his movie-starness to the comic-book movie, and he’s out of subversion. This Tony has an indolent, witless sense of humor. (He taunts a bald henchman he’s just assaulted, “You like that, Westworld?”) He could be saving the world. He could also be hosting the MTV Movie Awards.”Report

      • North in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        I can sympathize with your sentiment here even if I don’t share it.

        What I saw in the Tony and the kid scenes was an absolute shopping cart of tired movie cliches being gleefully dumped on their heads. Yes Tony was a smarmy jerk to the kid; that’s who he is. The kid was kindof an emotionally manipulative kid back at Tony. That it didn’t work for him was not only pleasantly different, I found it quite funny.

        I would reiterate that the villains explicitly stated what their aims were: to control both sides of the War on Terror so that they could heighten it and reap the rewards as arms dealers/power brokers in between. I wouldn’t say it is a very grand scheme, almost classic Bond vallainish to be frank but I loved it as a implicit critique of the War on Terror/War on Drugs. Because what this villain is doing, what his cohorts are trying to get out of this is what the interested middle parties in the War on Terror and the War on Drugs are actually doing just writ large.Report

  7. Barry says:


    “Iron Man reigns as the standard-bearer of Hollywood superheroes with a $175.3 million domestic opening weekend for his latest sequel and an overseas haul of a half-billion dollars in less than two weeks.”

    Assuming that the studios got half of the take from the first week or so, they made something on the order of a 100% ROI within two weeks of opening.

    If this is failure, then the studios are gonna want more 🙂Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Barry says:

      “If this is failure, then the studios are gonna want more ”

      Which is the whole problem. I think it was Kevin Mowery who wrote of a conversation with some movie exec who said something like “how can you hate ‘Anaconda’? It made ninety million dollars on opening weekend!”Report

  8. Shazbot5 says:

    I’m more interested in the new Star Trek movie. But it will probably disappoint me as much as the last one.

    Iron Man is pretty blah. The Avengers works because you don’t get tired of the same character for 2 hours.

    Hint to Hollywood: comic book movies should be pretty short.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      (Most movies should be pretty short) 😉

      If you are a Trek guy, you may enjoy these new original posters created for reviews of the six TOS movies:

      • Kimsie in reply to Glyph says:

        I often find movies to be a bit unsatisfying. I like a longer story, in general, so long as people aren’t pulling Gainax on me.Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to Glyph says:

        I like a good long movie, too.

        My problem with long comic book movies is that the characters are, well, caricatures. Literally, they’re caricatures. (They’re also literally two dimensional characters.)

        So you get bored with them very quickly. Iron man is cocky and rich. Bat Man is brooding. Peter Parker is a nerd in love with a Catholic sense of guilt. The Hulk is trying to be alone because he gets angry. Superman… loves America and morality or something. Now watch Superman love America and be perfect for 5 hours straight!

        On the other hand, if you try to humanize the characters too much, and balance their personalities, you end up moving too far away from an action movie and into making a really bad drama about someone wearing tights, and you lose what makes the characters work in the story. For example, If Batman has fun dooing the Batoosie dance and falls in love, it can make him less of a totem/symbol of darkness and brooding, which is what makes his appearance on screen cool ad dramatically interesting in the first place.

        That doesn’t mean super hero movies can’t be really exciting and fun in brief doses. Moreover, the characters can serve as symbols for something precisely because they aren’t balanced, richly textured people, which can be really deep. But once you’ve shown a little action and you’ve been exposed to the character as a symbol for such and such, or you played out a little allegory, that should be the end of the movie. You can do that in a little over an hour, not an hour and 45.

        Also, I think audiences (though they won’t admit it) rather clearly love cliffhangers. Therefore, IMO, the best way to deliver comic book movies would be more like they deliver comic books: as serials. They should film, say, a little under 4 hours of Iron Man adventures and then release 3 one hour and ten minute movies about 3 months apart. (And continue to charge the same amount as for a longer film.)

        IMO, the serializing might also help with the story telling. (Avengers would have benefitted from this.)

        I thought the success of filming all of LOTR at once might open up that kind of serialization of comic book and other action adventure movies into brief little things, but it hasn’t really happened and we see long movies with sequels.Report

        • Glyph in reply to Shazbot3 says:

          This all makes a lot of sense to me, except I wonder why they wouldn’t just serialize it on TV, if it comes in hour-long installments. LOTR arguably paved the way for Game Of Thrones (for which we thank the gods old and new. But not that Lord Of Light character. I don’t trust Him).

          But I will admit a bias (or maybe just a short attention span/easily-tired ass) towards most movies topping out around 90 minutes; I also often prefer novels that are relatively shorter in length (some of the English language’s most celebrated novels are between 2 and 400 pages). If done well, compact economy increases the punch.

          I can’t find it right now, but IIRC some director speculated that 90 minutes was the ideal film length because that’s also the approximate length of a human dream cycle. I have no idea if that makes any sense, but I found it an appealingly romantic notion.Report

          • Will Truman in reply to Glyph says:

            Have you ever seen Red Eye? It’s notable primarily for one of the most intriguing trailers ever made. One of the things that really impressed me about that movie is that it told its story, and then it was done. It didn’t worry about meeting the 90-minute threshold.Report

          • Shazbot3 in reply to Glyph says:

            “I wonder why they wouldn’t just serialize it on TV, if it comes in hour-long installments.”

            I guess the only reason is that it is harder to charge 14 bucks to see a movie on TV. The great thing about the movie theater is you can really rake in cash for movies that are perceived as “big events.” If you serialize the big event movies more, so that each movie is, say, 3 big events per year, you can maybe make even more cash out of them. IMO, anyway.

            I guess you could just sell the installments on Itunes for $12.99 for a rental, too, and bypass the theater, but I wouldn’t go there yet, if I were the film companies. Big theaters are still a good draw for a lot of people with cash to spend.

            And who doesn’t love going to the theater, even if you have a big screen at home?Report

  9. Mopey Duns says:

    I stopped getting mad at films being endlessly rehashed when I realized that is just how storytelling works. Forms die and evolve and fade and grow as we work through new ways of telling ourselves the same things over and over again.

    A lot of those attempts will be duds. Some will work. And that’s life.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Mopey Duns says:

      “Dja see the new Oedipus?”

      “What? Sophocles did the whole series, what, 2 years ago?”

      “Yeah, but this is a different take on it: Jocosta knew who he was the whole time, but Zeus …”

      “Hey, I might want to see it.”

      “Sorry. Oh, and they got Thespis to play Oedipus. It was way cathartic.”

      “Actually, that sounds OK. I just wish Athens could find some new material.”Report

  10. Mike Schilling says:

    Iron Man 3 also marks the beginning of the end of big blockbuster comic book movies.

    I’d applaud this if it didn’t mean that they’ll be replaced with something even worse. (No idea what, just yet. We’ll have to wait and see.)Report

  11. Jason M. says:

    The PTSD seemed superfluous and tacked on, but that’s probably because they want the set up for future stories that weave in Tony Stark’s alcoholism.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Jason M. says:

      Or it’s because alcoholism isn’t compatible with a PG-13 rating.

      In four movies now, we repeatedly hear about how Tony Stark is such a lush but we never actually *see* him *drink* alcohol.Report

  12. “Iron Man 3 also marks the beginning of the end of big blockbuster comic book movies.” came to the same conclusion for different reasons (it’s the tail end of a Hollywood pattern).Report

  13. Rufus F. says:

    Meh. Seen a bunch of these superhero movies now and they just strike me as proto-fascist Dirty Harry nonsense with tights.Report