Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Man Inside the Can : Iron Man 3

Most of the hype surrounding Iron Man 3 (Marvel Studios, 2013) related to Robert Downey Jr.'s transformation into Tony Stark and China's enthusiasm for the American action films. I wasn't following in closely because I assumed it would be another explosion sequel that found some random Middle-Eastern villain to once again put the world at jeopardy and boost Tony Stark's ego. If we were lucky, there'd be a romantic scene and some chuckles.

Hah! Wasn't I surprised. Iron Man 3 is a well-crafted visual novella, complete with character development, plot twists, romance, motivated events, and, most of all, real-life situations that drive the storyline. It has less New American Mythology than most comic-book movies, but it excels at using monomyth to communicate a variety of society's concerns without being too heady or heavy. Good job director/writer Shane Black, writer Drew Pearce, and everyone else involved its making.

If you havn't already, I highly recommend you GO SEE THE MOVIE. Also, it's the only RealD movie I've seen that wasn't distractingly 3D. It enhanced the experience even.

Now, onto the post. I could writer several essays about Iron Man 3, but chose to follow Tony Stark's transformation along the hero epic cycle. I encourage you to think about the socio-political and culture implications of the movie on your own time.

Phrases in parenthesis that may not make sense refer to the hero epic cycle.

**Spoilers Beyond This Point**
That being said, the post assumes you've seen the movie.

The traumatized Tony Stark has lost the public cool he exudes in previous films; he does not go out to bask in the glory of his victory, nor does he gloat about it to his friends. An aloof hermit that can barely maintain his relationship with Pepper Potts, Stark pours himself into the 'hobby' of creating more suits. The charm and humor remain within him, but with a considerably more defensive flair.

Something is wrong with our ultra-cool super-hero. Much like Django Unchained, the director Shane Black eases audiences into the hero's perspective, rather than blatantly giving a name to whats going on. In doing so, the stigma and assumptions often attached to PTSD becomes less of focus, allowing audiences to better understand the character's struggle, not his disease. So while Pepper, Happy, and Col. Rhodes keep pressing Tony to pay attention to other matters, the audience sees how it's not as easy as "getting over it."

"Getting over it," is what drives the plot. In order to re-assimilate into culture and reconnect with loved ones, Tony Stark must redefine himself as a man, not a man-in-a-can. 

Tony Stark's identity is closely tied to the Iron Man suit, but unlike the suit he can, and nearly did, die. Shaken, he puts his efforts into making suits of all kinds. Of course, multiplying the number of suits does not help his situation, but drives him further away from society and loved ones. In the first Iron Man, Stark rockets over to Afghanistan to take out some low-level baddies just because. Now, when a mysterious explosion occurs and a maniacal terrorist claims there will be more, Stark seems to just panic and retreat even further into his fortress. (Refusal of the Call) This is where the testing of the hero comes in. The 'forces that be' remove Tony from the safety of familiar territory into a place where he is more vulnerable, but closer to his true identity.

The attack at the Chinese Theater first awakens Stark to action. Rather than going out and actually killing Mandarin however, he retreats into his Malibu mansion/Tower and relies on it/his suit to protect him and Pepper.  The second test, the attack on the mansion, forces Stark to mobilize. He encases Pepper in his suit, knowing it better protects her if she's in it than if he was in it covering her. Once he gets the suit back, its unreliability forces him to use brainpower over tech-weaponry. It also puts him dangerously close to death. Luckily J.A.R.V.I.S. (the Supernatural Aid) kicks in and saves Stark. At this moment, Stark crosses the threshold and begins his journey.

Largely without a suit, a supernatural aid, or any connection with his known world, Stark really is in a mystical land. With the help of a regular human kid, he uses good old fashioned sleuthing to find out whodunnit and howdunnit. Yes, JARVIS pinpoints the Mandarin's location, but it's Stark who creates a low-tech non-defensive arsenal to infiltrate the palace (Belly of the Whale). Here, Stark not only solves the mystery, but finds the solution to his psycological problem (the Boon): he doesn't need the suit to be a hero. In the conversation between Maya and Stark (The Meeting with the Goddess), Stark himself voices the knowledge that will free him from his trauma: he needs to hold onto his "Moral Psychology" and not forget why he started this Super-Hero thing. It's not about the theatrics or fame. Just as Killian doesn't need a cape to be a villain, Stark doesn't need the suit to be a hero.

Of course, Stark must return to his world with this knowledge in order to save himself. Killian hinders this psychological return when shows Pepper in pain and when he kills Maya (Apotheosis), creating a sense of helplessness/loss of identity that is necessary for his eventual rebirth.

The rest of the movie is Stark rebuilding himself has Iron Man. His escape from the palace involves faulty Mark 42, that keeps him from blasting off into heroics allowing him to slow down and think through a plan. The Barrel of Monkeys scene allows Stark to continue towards Pepper, while saving innocent people in a decidedly heroic fashion, regaining his confidence. In addition, the suit's destruction at the end of the scene shows the suit's vulnerabilities, while alerting the audience to Stark's strengthened psyche.

Reach out, he can't do it alone.

In the final fight sequence, Stark calls all the suits to action while he focuses on saving Pepper. Didn't quite catch the gravity of that? The suits act as offensive weapons while Stark plays a defensive role of saving the thing he loves most (opposite of what happened at the Malibu mansion). (Col. Rhodes doesn't get a suit for the same reason- he must make his way to the president and escape all with a defensive mentality.) When Stark does jump in a suit, his plans to use it tend to fail: He can't lift the debris off Pepper without killing her; Killian traps Stark in it; After slicing of Killian's arm with the suit, the whole floor caves in; The point where a suit would be most useful, Stark can't get one because all of them are fighting and therefore he can't run to or reach Pepper in time; The suit becomes a hindrance during the fight sequence with Killian. Even when Stark finally lets go of the armor by encasing Killian, he doesn't win, just creates a big explosion. The suit is not a hero.

It takes Pepper's rebirth and near second death for Stark to finally remember what it is to be a hero. The suit attacks Pepper, exactly the opposite of what Stark designed it to do. Pepper, in complete bad-ass fashion, takes down the suit, then uses it to destroy Killian, saving Stark,  and becomes the hero.

She was already a hero.

What does that mean exactly? Tony Stark doesn't need the suit. He needs Pepper (i.e. human relationships); she is a force more powerful than machine. Without her, and the other people he cares for, he would not be Iron Man; he would be a deranged engineer without a moral psycology. Being a super-hero isn't about the indestructible "false-faces" that the public sees, but defending what you believe in.

Stark destroys his fleet of autonomous suits not just to make Pepper happy, but because he realizes that he, a human being, is Iron Man not the suits. He is not a 'god' whose identity is tied to a super-persona. Unlike Thor or Capt. America, he is a vulnerable, flawed individual. Stark no longer fears his mortality, but understands it as an integral part of his self that brings him closer to the people in his life, and thereby makes his heroics more meaningful. What's more, the people around him recognize his vulnerability, know he can't do it all, and are still willing to say "I got you." They don't expect him to be a super-hero/god, but a man.

Stark's Return (to the realm of mortality)

I welcome your comments below.

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