NOTE: This piece assumes public foreknowledge of Iron Man Three to include everything depicted in both trailers which can be viewed/downloaded at the Official Site. Minor spoilers ahead. Get up to speed with yesterday’s Part One.
In the end what you don’t surrender, the world just strips away. Maybe Bruce Springsteen’s soulful turn on “Human Touch”, really is a good metaphor for the Iron Man Trilogy. And don’t be mistaken, the way Iron Man Three wraps the essential fractionated dilemmas of Tony Stark, the way incoming director Shane Black helms Tony’s character arc to a conclusion (however temporary it might turn out to be), these three Iron Man movies really do stand as a cinematic trilogy. But if Springsteen’s “Human Touch” stands as a kind of thematic soundtrack for the Iron Man Trilogy, one that’s still valid at the opening of Three, it does seem to run out of steam as the filmic stakes grow ever higher in the trilogy’s final installment. There are however, an eerie set of parallels between where Tony Stark begins in Iron Man and ends in Iron Man Three and where Springsteen begins in 1992’s Human Touch (breaking away from the E Street Band for the first time) and where he ends just three years later in 1995 where he temporarily reunites with the Band for Greatest Hits.
There’s an entire journey between “Human Touch’s” “In the end what you don’t surrender” and the Greatest Hits track “Blood Brothers’” “Now the hardness of this world, slowly grinds your dreams away.” 1992’s Human Touch was almost universal hailed as brighter and lighter than the Springsteen audiences had seen until then. It was a bold move by Springsteen, breaking away from the band that he had enjoyed so deep and meaningful a creative symbiosis with. And yet for all the potency and assertiveness of the “Human Touch” lyrics, it conceals a fraught willingness to forfeit any grasp on the world. The “Human Touch” lyric is the image of a man who believes he can have it all, and yet, somehow still falls prey to the world and finds himself at first needing to and eventually unable to negotiate his way free from it. The portrait of a man in luxurious decline, “Human Touch” lacks that inner, psychic iron-in-the-blood of the River’s “Independence Day” when a Springsteen who will not be budged sings “They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched ‘em do to you.”
Finally free and clear of the E Street Band (if you choose to believe that that collaboration was nothing more than Springsteen biding his time until he could get free and clear), Springsteen reveals himself as uncertain, unsure and essentially having lost the larger part of that vitality and that power that seemingly came from his collaboration with the E Street Band. And yet, just three years later, an entirely different picture emerges. Not quite the power of “Independence Day”, but that same strength tempered by time. “Now the hardness of this world slowly grinds your dreams away,” Springsteen belts out on “Blood Brothers.” In stark contrast to “Human Touch” this is once again a vision of someone who is subject to this world, but not entirely without the power to set terms.
And as it goes with Springsteen in that eerily productive period of the early-mid 90s when he struggled to find his own voice amid the collaborative voice he’d found with the E Street Band, so it goes with Tony Stark over the course of Iron Man Three. And Black achieves this character explication to such a fine degree that we’re driven back in our memories to see if we can recall the point where earlier in the Trilogy, Tony Stark first hit bottom. But of course we can’t. The entire point about Black’s creative vision is that building the that Mark 1 Iron Man armor in a cave in Afghanistan wasn’t the emotional and psychic rescue that it had at first seemed to be. Building that armor in 2008’s Iron Man was Tony still spiraling downwards.
When we do meet Tony for the first time in Three, the Iron Man armor is already a kind of trap. The infinite cycle of upgrading and retuning and adaptive specialization seems infinitely regressive, and seems to put him at a greater distance to his girlfriend Pepper Potts. It’s not so much that Black begins Three with powerful sentiment of Tony willing to quote “someone famous” saying “We all create our own demons” set to the equally powerful visual of the various Iron Man armors, on display encased in pristine glass, explode one after the other in constant succession. More to the point, it’s that Tony at the beginning of Three is still unable (or perhaps merely unwilling) to believe that the demons you create will always come back to haunt you.
The question of creating demons really is Black at his most sublime, a moment where he begins to approach cinematic genius. The question of how exactly Tony “creates” the demons he faces over the course of Iron Man Three is still wide open, and by extension, so is the question of how exactly Tony claims ownership of the geopolitical threats these demons come to pose.
In almost every work of crime tragedy from Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus through Coppola’s the Godfather Parts I and II through Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino, the nature of the demon creation is absolutely explicit. Faustus meddles in black magic as much out of a sense of ennui as anything. Al Pacino ruthlessly murders every head of every family to create a power vacuum only he can fill, but also enough hatred to fuel a generation of revenge against his family. Ray Liotta wants too much for someone who isn’t actually Sicilian, and Joe Pesci runs amok in a way that forces draws too much heat and threatens the bosses’ means to get at the money flowing through Vegas. But Tony Stark? How exactly does he create A.I.M.? By what sin of commission or sin of omission does this demon come into being?
It’s the moment very early on when Tony utters in a glibness that feints at surprise “Of course I didn’t think those demons would ever come back to haunt me. I mean, why would they?” that we’re drawn into one of the finest games cinematic brinkmanship between director and audience. Intuitively, our response would be to chastise that view presented by Tony. “Of course, demons come back to haunt us. They always do.” But don’t be drawn in. The question of why the past would come back to haunt us is at the core (emotional and intellectual) of Iron Man Three and it is Tony, and for that matter, Shane Black at their most honest, philosophically.
“In the end what you don’t surrender…” In the end it’s the fact that Tony remains blissfully unaware of and adamantly unprepared for even the possibility of the idea that the past can return, that effects the rescue of his psyche that simply building the Iron Man armor never could. It’s that guilt and that self-recrimination that comes from assuming ownership of demons, Black says in a beautifully complex, subtly layered way, that really is no different from mire of externalizing technology and entering into a cycle of perpetual upgrades and infinite specializations. Tony at the very beginning of his retelling of the tale having the intellectual courage to question his ownership of A.I.M. of that bad night with Maya Hansen, of the Mandarin himself, is the act by which he frees himself.
Ultimately, it is this tension between the fraught need to own the act of creating demons and the fortitude to question whether or not one really can effect such an ownership that elevates Iron Man Three beyond its genre. By the end of Iron Man Three the trilogy as a whole really is the equal of not only Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy, but more literary works like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Dick’s the Man in the High Castle.