[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
Marvel’s Phase Two begins without a Marvel movie. It may have a “Marvel Studios” logo on it and technically follow the events of The Avengers, but Iron Man 3 is really a Shane Black film that stars Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Rather than invest further into the new world established by The Avengers, Iron Man 3 takes some big steps back and flies in the opposite direction by ignoring as much of Joss Whedon’s film, and even the previous Iron Man movies, as possible.
After a prologue taking us all the way back to 1999 and Tony’s carefree, insensitive times, the movie does try to throw in a bit of post-Avengers “PTSD” by explaining how he can’t sleep and it’s caused by his near-death experience during the Battle of New York. The movie doesn’t really expand on this in any significant way, and it functions more as “Yes, we acknowledge there was a Battle of New York.” The movie doesn’t feel the need to constantly revisit The Avengers or even examine the fallout of an alien attack. We’re pretty much back to Tony doing his thing, and the film disregarding the existence of other superheroes in the world.
When Tony speaks to Rhodey (Don Cheadle) about The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), Rhodey says, “It’s not superhero business. It’s American business.” That’s the difficult line these movies need to walk now—there has to be more spectacle, but the problem can’t be at “superhero” levels, except Iron Man is a superhero. And if this problem were “American business”, wouldn’t it be a good idea to call in Captain America?
The Mandarin is basically Osama Bin Laden, but the movie doesn’t really want to wonder what it would be like if we had superheroes who could take out the FBI’s Most Wanted list. And why wouldn’t Tony do it himself? We already know he does what he wants. The film employs PTSD as a prop to push The Avengers away and force Tony to act on his own, but Tony—being as selfish as he is—doesn’t act until he’s personally affected. In an interview with Marvel.com, producer Kevin Feige said that he wanted Iron Man 3 to throw the character back to the first film and rely on his ingenuity and a box of scraps. This approach also throws the MCU back to the beginning by trying to avoid any person or organization that could conceivably help Tony.
Iron Man 3 is divisive film because of this struggle. Iron Man promises a much bigger world of superheroes. The Avengers showed us an alien attack. Iron Man 3 goes to Rose Hill, Tennessee. Black made a film that at times is both consciously avoiding and wholly indifferent to the fact that there’s a “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Marvel’s gameplan—and remember, even though there might be writers and directors, this is still Marvel Studios’ show—for Phase Two began by taking a break from everything they had established.
So instead of being a new MCU movie, Iron Man 3 feels like a Shane Black movie. Black had only directed one film prior, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and while that film has a visual style, Black’s personality comes through his screenwriting. The script he co-wrote with Drew Pearce features all of Black’s trademark quips, comedy, subversions, and even setting the film during Christmas even though the movie came out in May.
Black doesn’t seem particularly interested in Marvel lore. He’s more invested in telling a story on his terms, and those terms don’t include S.H.I.E.L.D. or other superheroes. He’s still willing to provide some nice set pieces, but the comic beats hit as hard as the action. Marvel movies are about drawing us into a world filled with superheroes, and Black has way more fun pointing out action tropes like the nameless henchman who decides it would be better to quit than die for his job.
Then Black went one step further with The Mandarin Twist. To diehard comics fans, revealing The Mandarin as nothing but a befuddled, washed up actor was blasphemy. This was Iron Man’s archenemy, and Black and Marvel said, “So what?” That doesn’t mean anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it definitely means nothing to a director who’d rather make a comment on the optics of terrorism (as offhand and largely inconsequential as that comment may be). Iron Man 3 is the irreverent child of the MCU, which is fitting for its cocky protagonist.