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The ‘Truther’ Element That Sours ‘Iron Man 3’

The final Morning Jolt of the week includes plenty of scandal roundup from this busy week, but I try to close out the week on lighter topics . . . 

A Spoiler-Filled Assessment of the Latest ‘Iron Man’ Sequel

It’s late enough for a spoiler-filled look at Iron Man 3, right?

‘Iron Man 3’ is a wildly uneven movie. When it works, it really works; when it doesn’t work, it falls flat on its iron faceplate.

The first part that I liked, and thought was a strong screenwriting decision, was the choice to have Tony Stark suffering from panic and anxiety attacks because of his near-death experience in “The Avengers.”

A couple of recent movies and television shows have irked me recently when their characters go through major, dramatic, often life-threatening or certainly outlook-altering events . . . and then return just fine afterwards. I can hear it now: “Come on, Jim, that’s just the magic of the movies,” but plot holes and slipshod characterization aren’t actually what’s supposed to be “magic” about the movies. If a character goes through an experience that should be consequential and significant, then we need some signs that it actually was consequential and significant. If the actions of the characters have no real consequence, why should the audience get involved in the show?

I can believe, for the sake of the story, that aliens exist, that superheroes exist, robots, magic, whatever you want — so long as the fictional universe I’m seeing has a certain internal consistency to the whole thing. A recent example of the writers botching this came a few months ago on “Castle,” when the protagonist’s daughter was kidnapped, taken overseas, her life threatened . . . and the next episode everything was fine, no mention made of it. In fact, I don’t think any character made any reference to it until this week’s season finale. What I watch in a fictional television series may not have to be realistic, but it does have to be believable.

I had high hopes for Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin, and as a result, the “twist” revealed halfway through the movie struck me as a nearly insurmountable hurdle.

First, the makers of Iron Man 3 decided that the Mandarin’s propaganda videos would make the villain really, really resemble and echo Osama bin Laden. I don’t think that’s necessarily offensive or exploitative; I think that’s hitting the notes that stir fear in our subconscious in a very effective way. (Ben Kingsley talks a bit about it here.) He hates the United States of America for reasons that seem unclear, he’s determined to teach us a lesson, and he launches random, explosive terror attacks at various targets.

But making the Mandarin a ‘fake’ figure, created by a greedy Pentagon contractor who seeks to “control supply and demand of the War on Terror” . . . well, it’s one step away from joining the 9/11 Truthers. Director Shane Black more or less made this point explicitly:

I would say that we struggled to find a way to present a mythic terrorist that had something about him that registered after the movie’s over as having been a unique take, or a clever idea, or a way to say something of use. And what was of use about the Mandarin’s portrayal in this movie, to me, is that it offers up a way that you can sort of show how people are complicit in being frightened. They buy into things in the way that the audience for this movie buys into it. And hopefully, by the end you’re like, “Yeah, we were really frightened of the Mandarin, but in the end he really wasn’t that bad after all.” In fact, the whole thing was just a product of this anonymous, behind-the-scenes guy. I think that’s a message that’s more interesting for the modern world because I think there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes, a lot of fear, that’s generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what’s behind them.

Except that the terrorists we see in the real world are not in fact driven by “anonymous behind the scenes guys” like shady defense contractors. The Boston bombers were not secretly being manipulated by Halliburton. The guys who killed our ambassador in Benghazi were not being paid by somebody who wanted a fat contract to provide embassy security in the future. This is conspiracy-theory thinking, and not only does it not fit in well in an Iron Man movie . . . it takes what had been this movie series’ most thoroughly menacing, frightening figure and turns him into a quick, cheap joke, and refocuses us on Guy Pearce’s Killian villain. Meh.

Killian’s grand plot to “control supply and demand in the war on terror,” by the way, makes little or no sense. Is the notion that as he does it, he’ll get rich? He’s already rich. He wants to humiliate Tony Stark, to get revenge for ditching him back in 1999? But he has many opportunities to kill him, and fails to do so.

Oh, and while the president played by William Sadler seems like a good guy who wants to protect the country (although there’s a throwaway reference to failing to prosecute anyone over an oil spill), we get the tired trope of the evil, or at least supremely morally compromised, vice president.

With all this complaining, what worked? Well, the movie’s theme, emphasized explicitly by its closing line, is that our hero is really Tony Stark, not “Iron Man.” The creators decided that Tony would spend a large chunk of this movie torn down to his core, without all of his wealth and high-tech toys, forced to improvise creative new solutions in life-and-death circumstances.

If indeed this is the last Iron Man movie, we’re left with a relentlessly enjoyable character . . . who never quite had a plot or villahat matched what he brought to the screen.


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