Iron Man 3 in-depth thematic analysis with spoilers: Part 1 – Meaning
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Why Iron Man 3 is a thematic masterpiece...
[This three-part article contains many spoilers for the plot of Iron Man 3 (which is a great film, by the way). If you haven't seen it, I recommend that you go and do so, and then come back and read the article, which will explore themes of Meaning, Identity, and Relationality as expressed in Iron Man 3.]
Part 1 – Meaning
Though many blockbusters are entertaining, and often underrated in terms of story substance, probably because said themes tend to be expressed in a simple, universal way, and thus can easily be overlooked or dismissed by those looking for something more 'sophisticated', it's not that often that one inspires and challenges the audience to change their life for the better. Iron Man 3 is such a film. No, it doesn't challenge the audience to be better at ironing.
But rather, Iron Man 3 is about fortune cookies. Or, more specifically, the things we rely on too much – call them addictions or obsessions or distractions or crutches or cocoons or idols or whatever – and so inevitably let us down. The film is ultimately about the character of Tony Stark / Iron Man, and how he navigates and learns from this, but it's also universal.
The key line is the Mandarin's metaphor (well, it's uttered by Ben Kingsley as 'the Mandarin' – more on that later) that fortune cookies are “hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” This is the key to understanding the film. (Well, on a level beyond 'Iron Man fights bad guys, and says funny things, and things go boom. Awesome!' Which is a perfectly valid level to appreciate a film on. It's just not the only level. It's even more fun to appreciate a film on the level of 'Iron Man fights bad guys, and says funny things, and things go boom, and there's a thematic coherency to the metaphors for the human condition. Awesome!') It's the thematic arc reactor that powers the entire rest of the film. (Except the writers don't throw it in the sea at the end, unless you count the arguably naïve redefinition of Tony Stark's hobby / obsession / fortune cookie as a cocoon, a word with positive connotations, at least eventually. (Because a caterpillar goes into a cocoon and then eventually emerges as a butterfly.) But let's not quibble. (Let's dissect and analyse the film in ridiculous depth, but without quibbling.))
As entertaining as Iron Man 3 is on a surface level, it's arguably even more satisfying in how well the themes fit together. Call it the film's thematic coherency / thematic consistency / more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts-ness (which is totally a word).
Around the arc reactor of the idea of fortune cookies, the various metaphors fly and then click together in perfect harmony to form a coherent statement, just like one of Tony's more sophisticated Iron Man suits in the film. (But the face plate doesn't hit you in the face; except in terms of being a challenge to us all. It hits us in the brain-face.) The screenplay, thematically at least, is as streamlined as an Iron Man suit, and thus the themes soar in a similar way. The writers call the various elements together in perfect coordination, like the Iron Man suits coming together at the end (a really cool moment, by the way).
Yes, it's a film so well-written, it even provides metaphors for itself. Now that's meta(-textual).
Shane Black & Drew Pearce (and the ampersand is apropos, because while it's often possible to identify who probably wrote which quips, thematically the writing clicks together like the different pieces of an Iron Man suit) were an inspired choice to write the screenplay. Their careers up to this point have been largely about deconstructing iconography, which the film does, literally. An icon is an object of worship, or something that represents an object of worship, and the film illustrates how various things (fortune cookies) fail to live up to the expectations placed on them. On a visual level, for instance, the film starts with Iron Man suits blowing up (and, satisfyingly, also finishes similarly, but with Tony Stark having arc-ed to the point where he destroys them, not just toying around with them, but as a deliberate choice (and gesture), because he doesn't need to rely on them anymore. There's also the memorable action scene (featured prominently in the trailers) where Tony Stark's mansion is destroyed by helicopter attack; a very direct representation of wealth crumbling.
The screenplay by Shane Black & Drew Pearce is typically self-aware, but not in a hollow way. Rather, the knowing humour is overall self-deprecating rather than self-satisfied, and tempered with a sober-minded acknowledgement of the parallels with the documented struggles of star Robert Downey Jr. (who was himself a drug-addicted actor for many years) and co-writer/director Shane Black (who underwent a career-stalling breakdown). But as with Tony Stark, they each then made a comeback, and thus are now able not only to bring us entertaining blockbusters, but also in some way share the benefit of the lessons learned from their experience.
Also, the thematic consistency of the screenplay, with the central theme being represented in many different ways by many different characters, shows us that in some way, we are all Tony Stark. As the actor Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity, Castle) says (talking about TV, but no doubt it applies to film as well), people like to feel like they're a little bit smarter than the characters onscreen. However, in this case, maybe we're not smarter after all. We probably often tend to rely on limited things a bit too much to solve all our problems. Maybe we need to learn the lesson, just like Tony Stark. Except probably in a much less dramatic way.
Yes, it's a challenge, but then as Mary Poppins might sing, 'A spoonful of explosions helps the news that fortune cookies are “hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth” go down...' If Mary Poppins were a Marvel movie fan. Which she obviously would be, because Marvel movies are great. And Mary Poppins has an umbrella that can fly, and a handbag which has everything in. She's obviously a superhero. Admittedly, the Batman / Iron Man kind who uses cool technology instead of superpowers. But with more singing.
There are many examples that could be drawn out of the script to illustrate the theme of fortune cookies, rendering a comprehensive analysis completely unfeasible (or even a fortune cookie in itself), so let's just take a look at a few of them. (Okay, I'm aware that this three-part article is arguably more in-depth than most people would expect. To paraphrase from The Avengers, "You and I define 'comprehensive' quite differently...")
There's a scene where Rhodey, as Iron Patriot, breaks into what turns out to be a garment factory full of women in burkhas making clothes, who then rush out past him. He then tells them: “You're free! ...If you weren't free already...or whatever...” This is an amusing line, subverting the cheesy jingoism that results from making patriotism (or, in this case specifically, Iron Patriot) a fortune cookie. However, it also (perhaps not specifically to do with this scene, except in terms of the final woman in a burkha turning out to be an Extremis soldier, who then starts fighting Rhodey) illustrates the illusory nature of the 'freedom' offered by any fortune cookie. Extremis (or whatever else is in question) may allow more possibilities, particularly if you have aspirations to be a flamey super-soldier (no, not the Chris Evans type, to conflate two of the Marvel superhero characters he's played, The Human Torch and Captain America), but it comes at the price of an often-fatal reliance on it.
[The next paragraph contains spoilers for the Matrix trilogy.]
In a memorable moment featured in the trailer, 'The Mandarin' (Ben Kingsley) hammily declares: “Some people call me a terrrrrorist...I prefer to consider myself a teacher...” He rolls his 'r's dramatically, like Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith from the Matrix trilogy [spoilers for which follow], who's incidentally another character with multiple identities in some form. (“The great thing about being me...is there's so many of me...”) Smith also seeks purpose, like the characters in Iron Man 3 relying on their various fortune cookies, but ultimately becomes disillusioned and nihilistic, facing off against Neo at the end of The Matrix Revolutions. When Smith frustratedly asks, “Why, Mister Anderson? Why, oh why, do you persist?”, Neo gives the quintessential existentialist answer, “Because I choose to.” However, Iron Man 3 arguably functions in some way as a critique of existentialism, insofar as it shows how putting too much trust in things that one has given subjective meaning ultimately falls short and lets one down in the end.
In fact, Ben Kingsley's character is a teacher, though not in the way that (the theatrical depiction of) the Mandarin considers himself. He teaches by example, in the sense that he acts (literally acts) as a cautionary tale.
Next up: the controversial Mandarin reveal, Lord of the Rings metaphors, and more, in Part 2 – Identity...
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