NOTE: This piece assumes public foreknowledge of Iron Man 3 to include everything depicted both trailers which can be viewed/downloaded at The Official Site. Spoilers ahead.
It’s Iron Man Three, underscore Three, and not Iron Man 3 if the high-speed, high-impact ‘70s retro-stylized end credits montage is to be believed. And the exact location of this subtle, persuasive shift in the movie’s title (appearing as it does amid the garishly, delightfully enhanced rubble of history), clues us in to something wildly important lurking just beneath the surface of Iron Man Three—the role of nostalgia.
From the moment Robert Downey Jr.‘s sublime Tony Stark says that magical line, “I’m just a man in can” with just the right mix of dread and fragility and hidden optimism… or even before that, from the point where he cracks wise about each of us creating our own demons while visuals of the various Iron Man armors on display behind pristine glass begin to explode and be consumed by fire, there’s a thematic focus on the role of the past. This is director Shane Black’s first time at the helm of an Iron Man movie, but thematically, ideologically, cinematographically Three fits smoothly into the visionary work of erstwhile Iron Man Trilogy director (and current exec producer) Jon Favreau.
It wouldn’t be fair to claim that Black does nothing to bring his own touches to the movie. Point in text, he dispenses with the metal/hard rock soundtrack (just as Brett Mobley called it earlier this week) that has come to mark Iron Man during Phase One of Marvel’s cineverse. But just Iron Man Three kicks off Phase Two (as the original Iron Man kicked off the first Phase of the cineverse), the movie also delves into questions around the role of the past and the cultural use of nostalgia. Black’s vision of Iron Man is more than an homage to Favreau’s, it actively engages that particular vision. But watch the movie carefully enough, and you’ll realize Black engages with a wider palette of Tony Stark characterizations that even go back to the comicbooks; back to writers like Kieron Gillen, Matt Fraction, David Michelinie, and even all the way back to inaugural Iron Man creators, Silver Age dream-team Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
And yet, that ultrachic, ‘70s-retro end credits montage (composed of various scenes from the Trilogy, this montage is almost as beautiful and as vivid as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video), is the best giveaway of all. Black doesn’t present audiences with some literary uroboros that simply devours its own past and effectively insulates it against the world. Instead he delves more broadly, and more deeply into the concept of nostalgia, and questions around the design, production and use of technology. Black forces Tony to confront the question, “Of what use is the past?”, and as the movie progresses and the stakes increase finding an answer becomes ever more vicious a quest. Especially as the definition of “the past” grows to encompass every moment that you’ve experienced that has led to this one.
Black’s creative vision of Tony staring down the demons that have haunted him since before that fateful moment in Afghanistan in the opening of the Trilogy is incredibly rich and deeply poetic and superbly well-executed. But Tony wrestling down his demons is only one act in the quintessential magic that is the cinematic Iron Man. The other main acts include Tony’s love life (his now blossoming romance with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts) and the geopolitical lease of a transnational company like Stark International. Black’s intuitions lie in the direction of connecting these in a richly-woven narrative that continually filters these three character arcs through each other. Unlike Favreau before him, with Black, we’re never convincingly locked into one particular character arc. We’re never exploring Tony’s love life without also moving the geopolitical narrative forward, or without returning to the question of Tony’s functionality. If nothing else, the partnership of Black directing and Favreau exec producing achieves a dramatic upgrade of the cinematic Iron Man storytelling style.
And it’s with this crosshatching of the three narrative elements, the burden of genius amid a character riddled with vices, the genuine interpersonal work done to ensure that a relationship last longer than merely its initial romance, and the geopolitical game of chess that Tony Stark was heir to by birthright as much as anything, that “Three” takes on a much deeper color. “Three” rather than “3” marks the rise of the human, denoting a more human kind of interface with the concept of 3. It’s the story of the human relating to the technology, the human learning about newer, more sophisticated complexity-driven environments. And in this regard, the human struggling with the technology is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the geopolitical game of chess, and perhaps even for a man struggling to liberate his genius from the vices that hold him back, and perhaps even a suitable metaphor for a Tony Stark struggling with love beyond mere romance.
By the time Tony utters the line “I can’t come home…” we’ve already reached a point where we’ve entered into uncharted territory for the character. From the very beginning, this is the Tony Stark we haven’t seen in earlier cinematic outings, but very much the Tony Stark we’ve needed to see all along. There’s no longer just one Iron Man armor, no longer just 10 or 20, but more than double that. When we first encounter Tony, he’s tinkering away on the Mark 42. It’s not the stable platform that the earlier versions of the armor, those versions seen in Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and even in the Avengers, have been. And even throughout the movie, the various glitches and bugs and kinks are never properly worked out.
At the same time however, and this become abundantly clear during the final battle sequence, Black takes great trouble to show that Tony has evolved the concept of Iron Man far beyond the idea of one man in one suit of armor. If anything, War Machine now rebranded the Iron Patriot has appropriated that role. (On that note, Don Cheadle brings an intelligence and gravitas to his portrayal of a soldier trapped behind an oath of loyalty to “superiors” vastly inferior to himself. And in this regard, he is the perfect counterpoint to Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark. While its vices that trap Tony, it’s loyalty that traps Cheadle’s Lt. Col. Jim Rhodes). Instead, Tony Stark has evolved himself into a symbiotic relationship with his Artificial Intelligence, J.A.R.V.I.S. In a large sense, the various armors are incidental, and remarkably interchangeable.
So by the time Tony utters that line that is so fraught with both frailty and finality, “I can’t come home…”, we realize that we’ve already reached the crisis point some time ago. That this manic cycle of upgrades is deeply damaging, psychologically speaking. And that Happy, played with a kind of comedic exuberance by Favreau himself, had already seen Tony’s desperation for what it truly is when he spies on Pepper while video conferencing with Tony via tablet.
The scene just prior to Tony uttering what is easily one of the top three most memorable lines of the movie, where he drags the inoperable armor behind him in the snow like an Old West gunfighter dragging his dead horse’s saddle back into a frontier town sets the tone for a new kind of exploration of the geopolitical chess game that Tony has been playing since 2008’s Iron Man. Tony lands in the Midwest in Tennessee after having followed a trail of clues around the Mandarin’s attacks. It’s a few days before Christmas and the snow is thick. He drags the failed armor to a pay-phone and leaves a message for Pepper on the secure Stark Server. He utters the words “I can’t come home…” and then proceeds to plan his counterattack against the Mandarin while trapped in icy Tennessee with a non-functional armor.
What Black achieves with this narrative gambit is a vision of the geopolitical chess game retranslated into the American experience of geography. In recent times it’s become commonplace to refer to the two the cities and counties locked in the timezones that straddle the middle of this country (with maybe the exception of Illinois and Texas) as “the flyover states.” If anything, this exaggerates the fracture that emerged around the time of the 2004 election of Red State/Blue State. Even as late as last year’s election, it seemed that one part of the country was a “very different kind” of America. The values were different, seeming almost intractably so, the hopes and aspirations as well perhaps seemed different.
But it is Greil Marcus who reminds us, that what we’re seeing play out in today’s media is very much the hyperbolic exaggeration of forces and tensions that have always been at the heart of America. In his 1976-published Mystery Train he writes, “There have been great American artists who have worked beyond the public’s ability to understand them easily, but none who have condescended to the public—none who have not hoped, no matter how secretly, that their work would lift America to heaven, or drive a stake through its heart. This is a democratic desire (not completely unrelated to the all-time number one democratic desire for endless wealth and fame), and at its best it is an impulse to wholeness, an attempt not to deny diversity, or to hide from it, but to discover what it is that diverse people can authentically share. It is a desire of the artist to remake America on his or her own terms.”
A generation ago, Chris Carter struggled with exactly the same ideas in his landmark TV shows the X-Files and Millennium. Almost every episode helmed by Carter (and one could argue that this was in fact a necessary element in the shows’ mystique) would see protagonists Fox Mulder and Dana Scully and Frank Black having to cooperate with rural law enforcement across the Midwest. How do the postindustrialized Coasts interact with the rural and industrial Midwest?, became a question that drove both shows. But Carter offered such ruminations at a time of Clintonomics when America’s geopolitically standing was on the rise. What elevates Black’s Iron Man Three to the level of the sublime is capacity to wade through the expeditionary geopolitics of more-than-a-decade since 9/11 and somehow return us the internal questions of America that fuel our ventures into Afghanistan, into Iraq and generations earlier into Vietnam, Korea, Europe and Japan.
Black’s true insight lies with the fact that this story of post-9/11 return to the geopolitics of America can only be told through the lens of man struggling to free his genius from the lure of his vices, who has consequently made himself a target for a terror mastermind. This is the story of Tony’s downfall—a downfall as much a self-engineered reality as the work of a madman. But also a downfall that comes at the hands of assuming a greater and greater reliance on technology. And with the metal/hard rock soundtrack no longer playing to the prominence it did in earlier cinematic Iron Man outings, it is perhaps Bruce Springsteen’s “Human Touch” that plays most appropriately. “In the end what you don’t surrender, the world just strips away…”