Having written something about the first two Iron Man films on this blog in the past I felt obligated to write at least something about the third. My thoughts on this film are framed by Hassler Forest's assertion that the superhero film is a post 9/11 cultural form; the genre not only emerges after that historical event but it provides sufficient fantasy difference to confront both historical trauma and to legitimate the emerging national security state. It makes large scale destruction, often of New York, palatable and it, more importantly, it makes generalized surveillance and extra-judicial forms of enforcement not only acceptable, but cool.
Iron Man 3 takes place after the events of The Avengers and it follows that film's use of the alien's attack on New York as an allegory for 9/11. This is the political background of the film's plot, which finds the US in a frustrated war with a powerful and elusive terrorist mastermind, the Mandarin. It also defines the character arc of Tony Stark, who is traumatized by his encounter with the aliens and his weaponized trip through the wormhole. Whereas early superhero films used the space opened by the science fiction and fantasy elements of the superhero genre to address such things as surveillance and the idea of a "politics of fear," in effect providing ideological justification for the transformations of state power, Iron Man 3 begins to address the negative effects of this ongoing war. These are seen in the aforementioned post-traumatic stress disorder, which leaves the always cocky Tony Stark in fits of panic. As the movie opens he is manically building an iron legion of suits, suits for every possible contingency, a one man security state. The suits do not resolve his trauma; they are more a compulsion to repeat than a "working through" of the trauma. The third film thus changes fundamentally the series perspective on work. While the first two presented work, in terms of the extended scenes of Tony in his workshop or cave, as a way to wrong past sins and traumas, from a life lived mercilessly in pursuit of profit to the despair of an absent father, the third film presents work as something fueled by an anxiety it cannot resolve. It cannot resolve this anxiety because it cannot address every possible contingency, one cannot make a suit for every possible situation. (Iron Man versus precarity?) The movie thus opens with a Tony Stark that is increasingly unstable and prone to panic. (From what I gather on several websites, this is fanboy complaint number one, an unacceptable change in the character of Stark and a plot that keeps him out of the suit for most of the movie).
When the movie opens, the "war on terror" has had other effects on the characters in the film as well. In a perhaps unknowing nod to Deleuze and Guattari's nomadology (Axiom One: The war machine is exterior to the State apparatus) James "Rhodey" Rhodes iron suit has undergone a name change from "War Machine" to "Iron Patriot" as he has become the one man war on terror. Multiple scenes show him undertaking missions in Pakistan, searching for the Mandarin. These missions are based on faulty intelligence, but unlike the actual war machines of drone warfare, the Iron Patriot is capable of distinguishing between a factory and a terrorist base. In the film it is explained that he has been renamed as a public relations move, war machine is too aggressive, but he also functions to give a red, white, and blue paint job to our own anxieties about collateral damage.
This exhaustion and anxiety with "the war on terror" also features into how the film adapts Warren Ellis' Extremis storyline. In the comic book version the super-soldier like nano-technology is developed by two scientists who then release it, while claiming that it has been stolen, to a group of militia like terrorists, who undertake an attack on a FBI headquarters. In the comics this is done to jumpstart the "extremis" program, avoiding lengthy tests and acquiring the funding to make it a successul technology with potential peaceful uses. In the film A.I.M. develops the formula, and takes advantage of the large number of amputees and wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as guinea pigs. The tests have disastrous results, with some ex-soldiers exploding, but A.I.M. takes advantage of these random explosions, turning them into justifications for more military spending. In both the film and the comics the core of the Extremis story has to do with the intersection of science and war, that all funding comes from military uses and that every technology will be weaponized. (Perhaps additional echoes of Deleuze and Guattari's nomadology: the state captures all nomadic science). However, what is striking the film, or at least striking in its presence as simple background matter, is how the film treats post-traumatic stress, war wounded, and even post-war suicide as simple matters of context upon which its narrative can be constructed.
Spoiler Alert: This brings us to the biggest change from the comics, the character of the Mandarin. If you follow the various interviews and articles on the Iron Man films, you know that they have struggled with what do with the Mandarin. He is one of Iron Man's greatest foes, but he was created in the sixties as an orientalist Fu Manchu character. Such a character is untenable now, especially for a film that is so dependent on funding from China that it includes special "China only" scenes, which include product placement for a chinese energy drink and an expanded part for a Chinese character (barely mentioned in the US version). The Mandarin was alluded to in the first film, remodeled as a terrorist. This is how he first appears in the third film. He regularly interrupts American television, seizing all airways, in order to lecture the US audience on everything from the horrors of the genocide of the Native Americans to the cultural horrors of the supposedly Chinese fortune cookie (it is described as being like America: empty, bland and meaninglessness). He delivers the latter speech just before detonating a bomb at the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Having a character that was initially created as a racist chinese stereotype lecture audiences about orientalist cultural appropriations is one of the perverse pleasures of contemporary post-Hollywood cinema (or Hollywood post-cinema). A pleasure that will increase as films try to cater to an increasingly global audience. Globalization has emerged as perhaps a more potent form of ideology critique than cultural studies could ever aspire to be.
Initially the Mandarin appears as "the sum of all" fears, whose iconography is almost a dream image combining in a single character everything from anti-colonialism to the current war on terror. It is almost like someone did a google image search of "thing Americans fear" and superimposed everything they found onto one image. He turns out to be just that, an image. In one of the funniest scenes of the film Tony Stark confronts the Mandarin in his lair only to discover that he is a british actor named Trevor paid (in drugs, prostitutes, and a speedboat) to play the Mandarin on TV. (This is fanboy complaint number two, the violation of canon). The fake Mandarin is being utilized by the real mastermind to both cover for the failures of the extremis project, he takes claim for every guinea pig that "blows up real good," and for its continued justification. The actual mastermind and head of A.I.M., Aldrich Killian is using the fear of the Mandarin to drum up a kind of eternal "war on terror" which will continue channeling money and power to his security/arms company. At which point one can only say "it is only a movie."
As the superhero genre continues, the question is raised again and again as to how long it will last as trend. Iron Man 3 shows no signs of it abating, but it does show that the structuring reality underlying the genre, that of the war on terror, is begin to transform the films themselves.