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05/07/2013 08:54 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

What's the Meaning of Iron Man 3 ? (Warning: Big Spoilers)

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"Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. Lesson Number One: Heroes. There is no such thing."

The Mandarin
Iron Man 3

So, what is the message of Iron Man 3? That's a question with a multi-faceted answer. Even if it only refers to the political message.

Be advised that there are major spoilers ahead, so proceed, or not, on your own hook.

These days, it's hard to say for sure when one can "spoil" a film or television show. That's especially the case given what seems to be a distressing new release pattern for big event movies, i.e., launching them in international markets before they are released in North America.

Even though I didn't see Iron Man 3 till this past weekend, I already knew the essential plot. That's because the movie was playing around the world and there is this thing called the Internet.

So, in theory, it's impossible to spoil this movie now, especially since it just had the second largest opening weekend at the domestic box office in history, with its whopping $174.1 million in North America second only to The Avengers. But there are still huge numbers of people who have not seen the movie who probably will see it, as it's on its way to being one of the biggest movies of all time.

And in this age of time-shifted entertainment available in unprecedented profusion, in which people often choose to catch up with defunct TV series years after the fact via disc or streaming video, it is possible to spoil programming almost in perpetuity. Except for things like "I know it was you, Fredo, you broke my heart" and "Luke, I am your father" which have to transcend the culture of complaint.

There. While all that is true and relevant, it is also the limit of what a skilled speed-reader can pick up at a glance. So there can be no complaining about spoilers from here on in.

Iron Man 3 provides popcorn with a twist. A big political twist. Its threatening uber-terrorist Other, the very theatrical Mandarin, is a fake. A front, for a military-industrial complex player with an agenda to cover up trouble with his glitchy tech, create a lot more chaos in the world, and take advantage of that chaos for profit.


The figure of the Mandarin combines a variety of elements of threatening otherness with some oddly familiar themes.

In case the point is missed, the Mandarin gets name-checked in the movie along with Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gaddafi as big-time boogie men.

The Mandarin was created initially by military technologist Aldrich Killian to make his company's accidents -- bio-enhanced wounded warriors detonating by accident -- look like planned terrorist attacks.

Then it turned into an even greater cover for the nefarious Killian, who is first introduced at the end of the '90s as a socially awkward post-hippie scientist type left waiting on a Swiss rooftop on New Year's Eve by the jerk part of our charming jerk, Tony Stark.

From that ignominious place, Killian becomes a sort of Bond villain, up to very diabolical doings in the shadowy corporado think tank world.

Of course, this being Hollywood, the intent is a little, ah, vague.

On the one hand, you can look at the Mandarin and say, ah-hah, false flag attacks by a part of the military-industrial complex. Killian's corporate think tank, AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics), is funded by the military and the "Extremis" biotech he is developing turns vets into dangerous weapons.

In one of the film's more ghoulish twists, the folks who undergo the Extremis biological modifications into super-soldiers are themselves grievously wounded veterans of our post-9/11 wars.

On the other hand, you can look at Killian -- who boasts his own Mandarin-style tattoos and tells the president he's having him strung up on an oil drilling platform in commemoration of a big crime against the environment by fat cat oilmen the president let off the hook -- and say that Killian himself is the lefty revolutionary.


The As-Sahab media wing of Al Qaeda released a video featuring Humam al-Balawi, who launched a deadly suicide bombing on a CIA base in Afghanistan, filmed just before the 2010 attack.

Indeed, he declares himself to be the real Mandarin. The great lesson of recent years, he tells Tony in one of his updated Bond villain speeches, is a lesson he says applies to Stark himself, that anonymity is the way to go.

Not a lesson likely to be absorbed by our Mr. Stark, whose arc has taken him from the decided anti-hero introduced in the first Iron Man film, a surprising and surprisingly affecting triumph in 2008, to deeply troubled figure in the overly cluttered -- by the necessary but very distracting machinations of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," TM/DMZ -- and mildly disappointing Iron Man 2 to, by the end of The Avengers, a full-on self-sacrificing hero.

Now he's freaked out, by what happened in New York, and especially by what happened in that wormhole over New York, from which he may not have expected to return.

It's anything but a spoiler at this point to note that Robert Downey, Jr. is perfect as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Downey, an entire mini-series of a story in himself, who I remembered loving in his brilliant Oscar-nominated turn as Chaplin and finding goofily amusing with his The Last Party documentary on the 1992 presidential campaign, was a decidedly off-beat choice to play what is a decidedly off-beat figure for popular adoration, a Cold War merchant of death comic book character.

Downey and the director of the first two films, Jon Favreau, who still plays buddy Happy Hogan in this movie, altered the trajectory of the character, of course. Without hitting the audience over the head, Stark's business as uber-weapons producer was presented for consideration and found very much wanting, at least in its untrammeled form.

Are Downey and Marvel and new director-writer Shane Black now up to saying that the war on terror is a complete con?

I'm sure not.

Are they saying that the fear of terrorism can be wildly manipulated for nefarious purposes?

That seems obvious.


Tony Stark delivers the ultimate dare to the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. He also gets in a telling gibe at the culture of driven paparazzi and fans.

Shane Black brought a lot to the table in this film. He's one of the acknowledged past masters of the action flick, which I've come to think of as the male equivalent of the rom-com.

Black was a crystallizer of the action movie with his famous spec scripts for the Lethal Weapon franchise, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the now very familiar action buddy format.

And he was a deconstructor of the action movie with The Last Action Hero, a controversial vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger during his '90s reign as arguably the biggest movie star in the world.

Before that, he was a member of the Arnold special forces crew in Predator, which I feel certain will stand forever in history as the only film to feature not one but two future governors of major American states.

How is Iron Man 3 as a movie? Very good, and often excellent. I saw it in a packed auditorium of very happy film-goers. The picture is funny and clever and knowing.

I loved that the movie was more Downey outside the suit, loved the action in the attack on his house, and was very happy with all the tangy dialogue. Of course, I loved the Mandarin political twist, with Sir Ben Kingsley perfect both as the ever so slightly too theatrical terrorist leader and the fumblingly stoned yet aware Brit actor. Guy Pearce made an excellent hippie-turned-Bond villain, Gwyneth Paltrow (hated by some for reasons I'm very happy to be largely unaware of) was very good, the excellent Don Cheadle was a lot looser and better than in the second Iron Man, Jack Bauer's arguably best partner on 24, James Badge Dale, made a formidable henchman, and the largely unfamiliar Rebecca Hall was affecting and effective as a scientist and former Stark playmate. The extended goings-on with the kid in Tennessee, played by Ty Simpkins, could have been a treacly disaster but were instead pretty brilliant in their mix of sour and sweet. And Downey's turn as a faintly Bondian detective in the boonies was amusing.

The first two-thirds was near perfect. Oddly I thought it started blurring some when it got into the big closing set pieces from the Air Force One sequence on. Though my reaction undoubtedly has something to do with having seen about nine million action sequences in my life.

Joe Bob says check it out.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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