7. Iron Man 3 (2013)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man 3 (2013) Poster

Marvel’s Phase Two started off with something that was less a “phase two film” and more just a continuation of a remarkably successful franchise. With Jon Favreau choosing not to return as director, Shane Black was brought in to take over, having worked with Robert Downey Jr in the past. Because it’s a Shane Black film, it’s set at Christmas, although that has no real relevance to the plot.

Iron Man 3 does two interesting things with Tony Stark: It shows him vulnerable – suffering from panic attacks after he almost died in space in The Avengers – and it shows him suffering consequences for being an asshole to people. The film’s villain, Aldrich Killian, becomes who he is because Tony treated him like dirt back before Iron Man was a thing. When your hero is an arrogant prick who gets away with being an asshole because he’s rich and charismatic, it’s nice to sometimes bring him down a peg with things like that.

One of the more controversial elements of this film was the handling of the Mandarin. The Mandarin had been hinted at as a major villain for Iron Man since the first film, and although many more overt references didn’t make it into the final films, people were expecting a lot – and the film subverted it, presenting a fairly stereotypical middle-eastern terrorist only to reveal him as an actor, Trevor Slattery, hired by Aldrich Killian to distract people from the real source of the bombings. It’s a fun reveal, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays Trevor brilliantly, but apparently some fans didn’t like that the Mandarin turned out to not be what they expected. I didn’t have a problem with it myself. The presentation of the fake Mandarin feels a little dated these days, belonging to the 2000s and fears of Osama bin Laden, but it works for the film.

What’s not clear is what Killian’s plan was meant to be. I can understand him allowing people to think explosions caused by the Extremis formula were the act of terrorists as a cover up, but I’m not sure why he was carrying out such a coordinated terrorist campaign or even doing things publicly at all. The closest thing to an explanation I can see is that it was meant to draw out War Machine – rebranded Iron Patriot – so they could then use it to get the President, all in aid of installing the Vice President in the White House, who would support A.I.M.’s research… which seems kind of over-elaborate. They already had the VP on side, they had money and technology, they could probably have been pretty well positioned regardless. Why kill random people?

Of course it’s those random explosions blamed on terrorists that leads Tony to Killian. Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) follows a suspicious-looking employee of Killian (Eric Savin, played by James Badge Dale) and ends up caught in one of the explosions, which leads Tony to try to track down the Mandarin and ultimately discover the connection with A.I.M.

Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce treat this more as an action thriller than a superhero blockbuster, and one result is that Tony spends most of his time out of the suit. It’s an opportunity to show the character as more than his high tech armour, as the inventor who could build an Iron Man suit in a cave with a pile of scrap. It also lets Black make full use of Robert Downey Jr without the CGI getting in the way, which is a positive. The focus on Tony without the armour is backed up by the final line of the film, a repeat of Downey’s final line in Iron Man: “I am Iron Man.” The same words, but this time after Tony has destroyed all of the suits he built when he was dealing with his paranoia and trauma. It leaves the impression that this is a new Tony, that he can be Iron Man without needing to wear the Iron Man suit.

Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be what Marvel wants for the character, because the next time we see Tony, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he’s back in the suit, back to being obsessed with protecting the world and building endless iterations of his Iron Man technology to do so. Iron Man 3 functions well as a cap on a 3-film sequence, moving past Tony’s dilemma from the first film – how can he protect the people he loves from the same weapons he helped create? – and leaving us with a satisfying conclusion, but because of the endless nature of the shared cinematic universe, the very next film they hit the reset button. They can’t do that forever in the films, of course – they’ve just gone and done the opposite in Endgame, killing Tony Stark and retiring Steve Rogers – but so long as a character is recurring there will always be this tendency to revert to default, especially when multiple creators are involved. It’s already a little surprising that the change in writer/director for Iron Man 3 resulted in a film that keeps so much to the spirit of Jon Favreau’s work on the first two.

The Iron Man trilogy came early in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at a time when the films didn’t have to feel so clearly a part of a bigger world. That world is there, but the story is Tony Stark’s, and we get three films that are only about Tony Stark. You could begin and end your Marvel watching with just these three and feel like you got a complete story.

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks, so I’ve probably forgotten something I meant to say.

Oh, right. The voiceover at the beginning and end was out of place and unnecessary.

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6. The Avengers (2012)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Avengers (2012) Poster

After five films setting up the universe and introducing the characters, it was time for the team-up film. This was the experiment, the test to see if the cinematic universe would work and fans invested in the previous films would turn up for the crossover. Spoiler: It worked.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed the film, a sensible choice given his reputation for being good with ensemble casts on TV, and having a similar tone in his work to what Marvel had begun to establish. At the film’s release his hiring was pretty widely praised, though it’s since been tarnished both by his lacklustre follow-up film and revelations about his personal conduct with actresses on his shows. Regardless, he turned in a solid movie that still sits among the top tier of Marvel Studios’ work.

But a top tier Marvel movie tends to be more of a B+ than an A, and it’s not without its faults. The first half of the movie is a mixed bag. The opening scenes feel more like a TV show than a blockbuster movie, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at the beginning is lacking that dramatic flair that made him so popular. There’s some good dialogue and jokes for Tony Stark, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and Steve Rogers, but when Thor arrives his stilted cod-medieval speech has been dialled up far beyond what it was in his first film, and Hemsworth struggles to deliver it convincingly.

Black Widow’s characterisation is pretty one-note. One of the biggest sources of backlash against Whedon following Age of Ultron was the way he wrote Natasha, having her compare herself to the Hulk as a monster, and specifically linking that to the fact she had been sterilised as part of her spy training. That take on her is already evident in Whedon’s work in this film, where she’s fairly detached from other people, and her biggest driving motive is making up for the “red in her ledger”, from the people she hurt before Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) spared her and brought her in to S.H.I.E.L.D. She has a close relationship with Clint that seems more built out of guilt and blood debt than affection. Whedon also puts Natasha up against Bruce Banner and Hulk multiple times in the movie, first sending her to recruit Banner in India, then being the one trapped with him on the helicarrier when he loses control. It’s clear in hindsight that this was another play on the idea she sees herself as even more of a monster than Hulk, having had full control of herself when she did whatever it was that makes her feel so guilty – and also gives him plenty of opportunities to make her scared and vulnerable, something that none of the other characters have to go through. You could do something interesting if you dive into that kind of characterisation deeply, but here it’s not really explored, just present.

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The characters that are meant to form our big super-team spend a lot of this film bickering pointlessly. Thor’s arrival to claim Loki turns into an excuse to have him, Iron Man and Captain America punch each other, and then on the helicarrier they all get into arguments for little more reason than that the screenplay wanted them to not come together until after they’d lost someone (specifically, Agent Coulson, returning from the Iron Man films and Thor). Captain America’s famous rant against Tony Stark, that he isn’t the type to “make the sacrifice play”, doesn’t hold up given Cap – having been briefed on all the members of the team – knows Tony regularly puts himself into danger wearing his suit with no superpowers of his own (we don’t see Tony start to use drones and remotely-powered suits until Iron Man 3). Of course he then goes on to sacrifice himself by flying a missile through a portal into deep space, not the first or last time he’d risk everything to protect people. Having the characters mistrust Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. makes sense, but these personal rivalries are only there to force a second-act low point that could have worked just as well without them.

Hawkeye gets the shaft (ha) in this one. He’s mind-controlled by Loki and doesn’t get the chance to have a personality until well past the halfway mark where there isn’t time to really do anything with him. It’s not something any of the later films remedied, as we continually find out things about him – he spared Natasha’s life when he was meant to kill her; he’s secretly a family man; when his family died he became a merciless assassin – but we don’t actually get to know him at all. I still believe that Jeremy Renner is capable of playing a decent Barton as a down-to-earth, more comedic character if given the right material, and I can only hope the upcoming Hawkeye TV series takes inspiration from the excellent Matt Fraction and David Aja comics and gives us that side of the character, though having a family doesn’t really fit that version of him.

But on the more positive side, the film gets more fun as it goes on. Loki gets to be his flamboyant egomaniac self from Stuttgart onward, although his “mewling quim” line to Black Widow remains a terrible decision that seems to have come from the idea of “villain = sexist”, ignoring that Loki was raised by Frigga and grew up with Lady Sif and has no reason to think of women as weak or incapable.

The action scenes from the helicarrier to the final battle are well executed. The Battle of New York makes a good set piece; it has a strong sense of location, we get a lot of perspectives of the people on the ground – something notably lacking in later films – and showcases all our characters. Every one of the main heroes gets to take a shot at Loki (literally, in Hawkeye’s case) and demonstrate why they’re here. And Hiddleston is great at being a character you love to see get punched, particularly when it’s by the Hulk.

Ruffalo is an excellent Bruce Banner, bringing an interesting nervous energy to the role, that of someone who seems laid back but is constantly holding himself in check, which fits in well with his iconic moment from the final battle.

Hulk transforms
“I’m always angry”

It’s a shame that Hulk gets sidelined so much in the MCU, only appearing in team films and Thor Ragnarok (which takes enough pieces from Planet Hulk, one of his best comic storylines, that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a real adaptation of it in the current MCU), apparently all because Universal still has some sort of hold on Hulk’s distribution rights.

The Chitauri invaders are a pretty boring enemy for the most part – a bunch of identical mindless drones; literally so, judging by how they all collapse when their mothership is destroyed – but keeping things centred on Loki and the Avengers instead of developing these aliens is clearly the right choice here.

An odder choice is the decision to obscure who was responsible for this invasion. The film opens with Loki being told by a strange alien – called only The Other – that he will be provided an army to conquer Earth if he retrieves the Tesseract, and we see The Other again later in the film, when he chastises Loki for not making enough progress. We only find out who this person is working for in the end credits, where it’s revealed – to those who recognise his face from the comics, at least – that he works for Thanos. I’m not sure what including this throwaway character really added to the film, other than allowing them to make Thanos into the mid-credits stinger. They could have easily had Thanos be the one giving Loki his instructions, and I don’t think it would have made any difference to the film at all – it would be essentially the same role he fills in Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course if they’d used Thanos as a character in The Avengers they might not have cast Josh Brolin for the part, and who knows how the MCU would have turned out in that case.

The film ends with the Avengers all going their separate ways – Thor to an entirely different planet – with Nick Fury assuring us that when the world needs them they’ll get together again. He doesn’t seem to have any real evidence to support this assertion, but that’s par for the course for the MCU’s Nick Fury, who seems to run on faith more than information, an odd trait for the head of a spy organisation. Still, he has to be right or Marvel wouldn’t have an opportunity to make all the money in the world, and isn’t that the goal of every corporation?

The Avengers brought to a close Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There had been some mixed successes in these first six films, but they’d proven that they could introduce a bunch of characters in individual films then have them come together for a big crossover event, and now it was just to be seen where they would take things next and what new elements they could introduce. In terms of what came after, The Avengers now looks like a pretty small film, but you kind of have to start small(ish) and build from there, and that’s what Marvel – particularly Kevin Feige, who has been the driving force behind Marvel Studios over the last dozen years or so – was doing.

3. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man 2 (2010) Poster
How do they follow up on “I am Iron Man”? By making Tony Stark a rock star.

Iron Man 2 picks up 6 months after the first film, and sees Tony at the height of his flashy, attention-grabbing antics, flying in as Iron Man to a stage filled with Iron Man-themed dancers to deliver the opening speech for the Stark Expo, the MCU’s answer to the World’s Fair. We learn that not only has Iron Man made him more of a celebrity than ever, it’s also been responsible for a period of relative peace – where the first film compared Tony’s weapons tech to the atomic bomb, now the existence of the suit is spoken of as a deterrent. Other countries have tried to replicate the technology, but no one has come close.

The US government tries to force Stark to hand over the technology, but he isn’t giving in. The scene where Tony attends a Senate committee hearing is one of the highlights of the film, and also introduces us to some of the characters who’ll be playing a major role. Most significant is Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, a recasting of the character played by Terence Howard in Iron Man. Cheadle brings a different energy to Rhodey, and though I have nothing against Terence Howard, I find myself more convinced by Cheadle’s portrayal of the old friend who eventually gets frustrated and pissed off when Tony’s behaviour gets in the way of what he believes is the responsible thing to do, as a member of the US military. Rhodes has gotten short shrift in the crossover films over the years, being something of a second stringer alongside the main cast, but Cheadle’s been consistently good in the role. Avengers Endgame gave us no hints where the character might go next, if he continues to appear at all. Let’s hope they make some use of him.

The other major character we meet at the Senate hearing is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Hammer is a knock-off Tony Stark; he’s who Tony was before Iron Man, but without the charisma – constantly in second place, trying his hardest to do everything and be everything Tony Stark is. Rockwell is a brilliant actor, and it’s the subtleties of his performance that make this character work. He can deliver a speech with all the braggadocio you’d expect from a Stark-type billionaire entrepreneur, and yet leave you with the sense that something’s missing, like he lacks the confidence to back up his words. Where Tony can get away with being an asshole because of his charm, Hammer just comes across as a creep.

There are two main threads to the plot in Iron Man 2; one in which the Russian Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, attempts to knock Tony Stark off his pedestal by demonstrating he is not invulnerable as Iron Man, and a second in which Tony is dying because of the arc reactor in his chest, and must find a replacement element before it kills him. The film tries to tie these together through a connection to Tony’s father – Ivan Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, a soviet defector who helped Howard Stark design the original arc reactor, but was deported once Stark discovered he was selling secrets; and the solution to save Tony’s life eventually comes from looking back at something his father built. The two threads rarely cross, however.

Vanko is aware that Tony is dying, but Tony has no idea Vanko is still alive and working with Justin Hammer after his first attack and arrest in Monaco. The solution to Tony’s problem comes not because of anything Vanko does, but because Tony’s self-destruction in the face of his mortality is halted by a falling out with Rhodey and the intervention of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fury informs Stark that his father was one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that the arc reactor was “only a stepping stone” that Howard always expected Tony to follow up on. He gives Tony a box of Howard’s old stuff that just happens to contain a recording of the pep talk Tony needs to shake him out of his selfishness, and indirectly leads to Tony finding a secret map in a diorama showing the composition of a new element that would be perfect for his arc reactor. The element would be “impossible to synthesise” according to the AI J.A.R.V.I.S., but Tony manages to do it by… uh… building a particle accelerator in his basement which he… uses to fire a laser… at a bit of metal… turning it into the new element?

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This sequence is one of the dumbest things I have seen in a major blockbuster movie.

I could almost forgive them for not really caring about realistic science, except that this is the culmination of the entire second act. Apart from the fight between Tony and Rhodes in the Iron Man suits, the second act is all plot, no action, and it’s all building up to this ridiculous nonsense science. This one thing is the reason I had never rewatched the movie until this week.

From here, the film proceeds in a pretty straightforward manner through the third act: Tony finds out Vanko is alive and at the expo, he goes there, Vanko hijacks the Hammer drone suits to attack Tony, there’s a big robot fight, and finally Vanko himself shows up in a giant Iron Man suit of his own. This last part is where it kind of falls flat. Iron Man already fought another bigger copy of himself in his first movie, so this was something of a retread in that aspect, and from Ivan Vanko’s perspective he shouldn’t have any reason to go after Tony Stark again. He’d already made his point by showing Stark was vulnerable, and although he’d been humiliated by Hammer for not delivering the designs he wanted, he hadn’t learned anything to suggest he needed to hit Tony Stark again – he doesn’t know Tony has cured the poisoning that was killing him.

All in all it’s a very small, traditional action film, compared to the first. Some of the improvisational humour is still around, but it’s altogether more conventional. Tony has had a pretty straightforward arc at this point: in Iron Man he learned he had to take matters into his own hands if he wanted to protect people; in Iron Man 2 he learns to accept help from the people around him and not isolate himself so much.

The film is probably most significant in the work it does to establish the wider Marvel universe. This was the third movie in the franchise, and came two years after the previous films; it had to do most of the heavy lifting on its own. Hence the use of S.H.I.E.L.D. much more heavily this time round, although I think it did come at the cost of a potentially stronger middle act.

This was the first film in which Samuel L. Jackson played a significant role as Nick Fury following the brief cameo at the end of Iron Man, and it’s interesting to see him and S.H.I.E.L.D. used mainly as a plot device to force Tony to get over himself and get to work, instead of having his falling out with Rhodey and Pepper Potts cause any kind of self-reflection. Even then, the house arrest they place him under ends up meaning nothing as he freely pops out to visit Pepper at the Stark headquarters and returns with the aforementioned diorama, with S.H.I.E.L.D. barely acknowledging he went anywhere.

This is also where Scarlett Johanssen first appears as Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, here undercover as Stark employee Natalie Rushman. While she does have a decent fight sequence near the end of the movie – in which Johanssen performs most of her own stunts, having trained pretty heavily for the role – her character has no personality whatsoever here. With Natasha being one of the characters who only gets to show up in ensemble movies, we never really get to know her as a character, and this is probably the least amount of work any of the films has done to establish her, despite her being present for a significant portion of the film. The lack of time given to characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye is part of the reason their storyline in Endgame ends up falling flat, as the series hasn’t done the work to earn the emotional payoff they strive for there. Natasha in Iron Man 2 is cool, sexy and badass, but it’s all about how she looks on screen; there’s nothing to care about as a character.

Tony Stark is the core of the Marvel universe because for most of its early years he’s all they had. The other films didn’t work out so well, and the characters they introduced in secondary roles – like Black Widow and Hawkeye – weren’t fleshed out. It helps that the Iron Man films were also a lot better than the others they were making, of course.

I realise this post has gotten long and pretty unstructured, but there was one final thing I wanted to add here that I’d forgotten to mention when talking about Iron Man: the music. Looking back on it from our current perspective, the first movie doesn’t sound like a Marvel movie. It has a guitar-heavy soundtrack that often doesn’t sit quite right with the feel of the film – it draws attention to itself a little too much. In Iron Man 2 we find the guitars are still there – the soundtrack even includes two AC/DC tracks where the original used one – but it’s within an overall more traditional score, and it’s one aspect where it feels like Marvel was beginning to find its footing in this film.

The final teaser in Iron Man 2 was, of course, for the next film they had lined up: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which was due for release in 2011. Iron Man 2 was the last time Marvel would have more than a one year gap between releases.

1. Iron Man (2008)

This post is the first in a series I’m writing about every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. They will contain spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man (2008) Poster

I don’t think Marvel knew exactly what they’d be getting with Iron Man. At the beginning, the idea of the shared universe and the Avengers seems to have been an amorphous thing, an idea more than a plan, and there doesn’t seem to have been a strict roadmap of how the individual character films would get there. These days people tend to talk about Tony Stark as the centre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Iron Man was kind of a fluke.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau approached making the film with a very improvisational style, and star Robert Downey Jr shared that attitude to the script. The film was shot mostly in continuity, dialogue written and rewritten immediately before shooting a scene and altered further through on-set improvisation. They had a story, but the individual beats evolved and changed to fit what the creators brought to the work.

As Favreau said himself in a live commentary recorded with Downey in 2008, this approach to the script meant many of the major plot beats were given less significance than might have been expected, with the core of the film instead forming around the smaller character moments that came out of their improvised conversations. Shooting in continuity also meant that small things they came up with during production could be built upon and paid off as they worked through later scenes, from running jokes about a fire extinguisher robot, to major events like Tony using the spare arc reactor Pepper Potts got framed as a gift (an idea Favreau had for a nice character moment for Potts) to save his life in the third act. It also had long lasting implications for the entire shared universe: Downey’s famous improvised line, “I am Iron Man”, left us with a world of heroes who rarely keep secret identities.

And the thing is, it all works. The dialogue feels natural, the relationships feel real, every actor in the film is at the top of their game. They made a solid film, beginning to end, and if some of the action is a little rote, the stuff around the action makes up for it.

This is the film that went on to define the tone of the MCU, which is no surprise when follow-ups The Incredible Hulk and Thor didn’t quite live up to expectations. Modern Marvel films might not be so loose in their production, but they’ve largely kept the same level of fun and humour established in the first film. (And knowing how Iron Man was made, the decision to give the struggling Thor series to director Taika Waititi for Thor Ragnarok makes a lot of sense.)

And it was Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark that made Iron Man work, so no surprise again that Marvel Studios built their franchise around him. He was their best asset, and by the time they were ready to make Avengers they knew it. The last decade of blockbuster superhero films would be very different if it wasn’t for the pairing of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.

Tony Stark, billionaire playboy philanthropist superhero, has appeared in 10 of Marvel’s 22 films (one of those being a minor cameo), and his character has been remarkably consistent throughout. Having seen the impact of his weapons first hand, he seeks to stop their production, only to find none of the people around him – who, because of his area of business, are all in the military or arms manufacturing – are willing to help, so he has to take on the job himself of protecting the world from his own creations. This was the plot of his first film, and it’s been his story throughout, as he goes further and further to protect the world, constantly trying to make up for his own failures.

This is why Captain America is wrong, in Avengers, when he says Tony is not the type to make the sacrifice play. He may have been arrogant at times about what he can achieve with his technology, but he’s been putting his life on the line since he first built the Iron Man suit. He did it in Iron Man when he told Pepper to overload the arc reactor even with him hanging directly above it. He did it in Avengers with the missile, and in Infinity War going toe to toe with Thanos. So audiences weren’t really surprised when he was the one to make the ultimate sacrifice in Endgame.

But that’s all in the future here. In 2008 Iron Man was a surprise win for the brand new Marvel Studios. Now the creators were left with the question of where to go next with the character – what happens after the hero reveals his identity to the whole world?

But before I get to that, the studio already had different film in production…
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