Since 2008, Marvel has dominated both the superhero and modern blockbuster genre. The influence they have had for the past decade cannot be overstated. While many films would surpass it in both success and quality, 2008’s Iron Man ended up being a game changer of a film, even though it was overshadowed by The Dark Knight (2008) in the same year. By 2013, Marvel had become the top dog through the success of 2012’s The Avengers. How do you follow up? With the final standalone Iron Man film, Iron Man 3 (2013). It was released to critical acclaim and financial success, but fans gave it a more mixed reception, to the point where it is considered mediocre by some. Is this warranted, or was the success deserved.
Iron Man 3 (2013) follows after 2012’s The Avengers, with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) being in a poor state (even by Tony Stark standards). He has thrown himself into working on new Iron Man suits in a dangerously obsessive way, and is going through PTSD caused by the attack on New York. All of this is affecting his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) adding new tension to the relationship. A mysterious terrorist known as The Mandarin starts a series of bombings on the U.S., and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), a close companion, gets caught up in one. Angered, Tony challenges the terrorist, which leads to his mansion being bombed. Separated from his friends and allies, Tony now has to discover The Mandarin’s plan and foil it, with only his newest suit to do so with. Oh and the suit has no power, so he effectively doesn’t have a suit, at least until he can charge it.
To begin with, the film is pretty good on the technical side of things. The sound design and music are strong, and the visual effects still look solid. The cinematography is good as well. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s effective in its role. The Iron Man suits look good, and the main suit of the film, the Mark 42, never looks glaringly bad and the visual damage it takes throughout the film is a nice touch. Furthermore, the stunt work is really good, with the airplane rescue scene being a particular highlight. However, most of this is probably a given though. The effects and technical elements never seem to fail, or at least fail that badly in any MCU film. A strength of the MCU is its ability to be consistently good in its technical aspects, and this film is no exception.
The story of Iron Man 3 (2013) is the main point of contention for most when the film came out. When the film was released, internet culture was growing exponentially. Many online critics were getting massive followings of people who wanted to know what those critics thought (or wanted to watch them suffer through bad films). Some even started using online reviews as substitutes for seeing films, which I know was done because I do that too. One thing about internet criticism that has repeated throughout the years is analyzing films like one would look through a microscope. This has had many effects on how modern culture is viewed. For example, the Disney Renaissance films have been picked apart and now have once joke ideas like the Beauty and the Beast (1991) ‘Belle has Stockholm syndrome’ stuff which has in turn altered how Disney handles its movies now.
A growing YouTube channel, known as CinemaSins, is the poster child for this idea, listing issues that vary from valid criticisms, to nitpicks, and statements that are debunked by simply paying attention to the film. Iron Man 3 (2013) was no exception to this and probably had it more simply due to its high profile. This is why I think the film has gotten a bad reputation, with the plot taking the brunt of the criticism. With all that said…. I think the plot was well written.
The plot takes a lot of risks, from having Tony be separated from his suits for the majority of its runtime to giving and putting focus on Tony having PTSD, to even its most controversial element, but I feel that these choices are what makes the film work. The portrayal of PTSD and the effects it has on Tony is very compelling. His panic attacks are surprisingly realistic in how they just suddenly happen, and his paranoia of danger, shown through his obsession with making suits like he is Batman making plans to beat the Justice League, is a strong and logical character progression. This is further amplified by the strong performance of Robert Downey Jr., who nails Tony’s vulnerable side along with his usual snarky personality. Having the suits be out of commission or just not always on him makes the action scenes more intense and forces Tony to be resourceful, highlighting the skills that made him Iron Man to begin with. Furthermore, the Mark 42 suit being a buggy, dysfunctional mess makes the times he has a suit more interesting to watch, due to how vulnerable he is and makes his victories more impressive and earned.
The most controversial aspect of this film is the ‘Mandarin’ or in truth Ben Kingsely’s Trevor Slattery. The reveal that he was a sham is interesting in many ways, including the varied responses to it. In the film itself, I feel that it is a solid twist. The film was already pushing Guy Pierce’s Aldrich Killiam as a major antagonist so it was natural to keep the focus on the villain with more development and who has a major connection to Tony, rather than on the antagonist with little connection to Tony and who, despite appearing and being discussed a lot, we really knew nothing about aside from being a generic ‘hates America’ Middle Eastern terrorist who hates fortune cookies.
While Killiam is not anywhere close to the most compelling villain, he was effective at hitting Tony where it hurts, along with his plan being interesting and actually pretty interesting for what is basically a ‘get endless amounts of cash’ plan. Also the twist is executed pretty well, being well-hidden in the film itself and throwing the characters and audience off. Sure, having the actual Mandarin would have been nice and fun, that doesn’t mean what we got was bad. Because the Ten Rings appeared in Iron Man (2008), and due to Iron Man 3 (2013) not mentioning them, the chance for a comic-inspired Mandarin still existed, with him finally showing up in 2021’s Shang-Chi (although he won’t fight Iron Man, unless we get a What If…? Season 2). I understand that the twist won’t land for all and that the film is not perfect, but I feel the positives heavily outweigh the negatives.
Overall, Iron Man 3 (2013) is a really good film, a hidden gem in the MCU’s library. It has a compelling plot with interesting characters punctuated by a strong cast with a great lead, and all the film’s technicals hold up. This film really got lost due to other great Marvel films that followed and the internet backlash that surrounded it. I think the film didn't deserve the backlash it got, and is actually an enjoyable film if we stop over-analyzing everything to absurd levels.