I don’t normally go and see a movie on opening night, but I decided that if I wanted to enjoy Iron Man 3 without spoilers I needed to do it quickly. Fair warning: this post spoils the hell out of it, so if you want to see it with the element of surprise, stop reading now. It’ll be here when you come back.
So, what to say about Iron Man 3? First, it is the best of the Iron Man movies. Period. That said, I’m not sure if they’re doing another one, and I almost hope they don’t. Why? The franchise has turned into a one-trick pony. Admittedly it’s a good trick, pulled off perfectly in the first and third films, and almost perfectly in the second. Here’s the thing: in every Iron Man movie, the enemy has been the military-industrial complex. In Iron Man 1, it was Stane with Tony Stark’s own company. In Iron Man 2 it was rival defense contractor Justin Hammer. In Iron Man 3 it is AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics). The goal of each villain is the same, war-profiteering, and Tony kicks much butt by proving over and over that, while he’s out of the business himself he still makes the best weapons of them all.
(Let’s stop for a moment and unpack the logic of this: the Good Guys win by pursuing Peace Through Superior Civilian Firepower. In a moment of supreme irony, in the second movie Tony even has his own Charlton Heston moment; “You can have my armor when you pry it from my cold, dead, body!” That’s actually a Captain Rhodes line in IM3, but still pretty much what Tony told the United States Congress. It’s a libertarian’s dream.)
Back to the bad guys, though, I do not want to give the impression that I consider the movies to be sermons on the evils of militarism, or corporate greed, or some other sermony thing. The problem the Iron Man movies face is actually a result of the current zeitgeist (fancy German word meaning “spirit of the time”).
To put it simply, with the end of the Cold War, the US became–to use an ecological metaphor–the local apex predator. I emphasize apex here, not predator (although lots of America’s critics will buy that normative description). There is now no country, no ideology, no coalition, that poses or can realistically pose a true existential threat to this country. The existential threat posed by the former Soviet Union was both military and ideological, and my generation grew up under the threat of a cold war suddenly going very, very hot and then ending in mutually assured destruction. But democracy has triumphed; with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid-90s, America attained near-total hegemonic power–and we are finally starting to realize that we really don’t want it and especially don’t want to continue paying in blood and treasure to keep it. Even so, we can easily cut our military by half or more and still swing more bang and boom than any rationally conceivable coalition of nations combined. Of course Things Change, but for now the US has no external enemies that play in the same war-making league.
So, swinging back to the IM franchise, who could they write in as believable bad guys? Iron Man isn’t Batman; he isn’t about fighting crime. He has always been about fighting enemies fielding Better Weapons Through Science, and I have no problem with that. But here’s the thing. With no other military powers rising to the level of Credible Threat, we must be Our Own Worst Enemy. No external threat rings true with our modern viewing audience. Even more, in our current Politically Correct environment we can’t single out an internal enemy driven by any Real World ideology. This is why every one of Tony’s enemies has been a 1-percenter motivated by greed, greed, and oh yeah greed (except for one crazy who was motivated by revenge–but that was because of thwarted greed).
Don’t believe me? Think of all the real-world reasons why bad guys blow up lots of people and/or real estate, and not one of them is the monetary bottom line. In Captain America the bad guy wanted to take over the world, presumably to make it what he thought would be a better/purer one, and this is much truer to the Real World than Tony’s villains have repeatedly been; communists wanted a utopia of economic equality and were willing to wade through oceans of blood to get it, radical Islamists want Sharia to rule supreme for the greater glory of God, rabid environmentalists who occasionally blow things up want to save the world, etc. You can hate their means, but you have to recognize the sincerity of their goals even if you think they’re bug-nuts insane. (Note that this does not imply that I think that decent and law abiding communists, Muslims, and environmentalists are bug-nuts insane. Well, communists are politically insane, but then so are libertarians.)
And that is the touchstone of a truly dynamic, truly believable Big Bad. People will lie, cheat, steal, and kill for greed, but to threaten civilization or even a small piece of it takes conviction. Which is why in Wearing the Cape, while a coalition of super-terrorists get together to try and assassinate POTUS in a truly scorched-earth attack, the supervillain who levels half of California and kills 50,000 innocents is motivated by a sincere desire to Save The World.
So unless the Hollywood screenwriters suddenly get a clue and pick someone besides the Greedy War-Profiteer for the next bad guy (and in Iron Man 3 it is a greedy war-profiteer heating up the War on Terror for fun and profit), I’m afraid that Iron Man 4 will be a riff on an overused theme. Not that the three movies haven’t played some great riffs. Stuff blew up gloriously, heroes behaved heroically, great lines were delivered, and Pepper Potts rocks.
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.