This post discusses plot points from Iron Man 3 in extensive detail.
“A famous man once said we all create our own demons,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) says at the beginning of Iron Man 3. The backlash theory of terrorist attacks on the United States and its interests has become somewhat popular in culture in recent years, most notably in Showtime’s drama Homeland, in which the death of a child in a drone strike inspires an American prisoner of war to become a suicide bomber. But Iron Man‘s extensive critique of the war on terror—a major subject of the film, along with eighties movie tropes, domestic harmony, and fan culture—takes a different and more radical tack, suggesting that the threat of violence by terrorist actors may be real, but the War on Terror is an invention that both terrorists and terrorized participate in.
Iron Man 3 begins in 1999, on a New Year’s Eve where Tony Stark’s conduct has two fatal consequences. First, he rejects a pitch from Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant but hopeless nerd whose use of a cane, unkempt self-presentation, and transparent eagerness, offend Tony’s sense of cool. “She’ll take both,” Tony tells Killian, who offers up his business cards to Tony and to Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a biologist who Tony is taking back to her room for the evening. “One to throw away, and one not to call.” In a bit of high school cruelty, Tony tells Killian he’ll meet him on the roof of the hotel, and then maroons him there, making an enemy. Killian will return fourteen years later with suits and big ideas, and the intent to go after, at least, Tony’s now-girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Second, he talks science with Maya, who is pioneering a radical new technology that allows plants to regenerate themselves, but that is encountering some problems, and then sleeps with her. The first is a rather more intimate act then the second, especially after Tony leaves Maya with part, but not all, of a solution to the flaw in her project, and then becomes the person who doesn’t call.
Both of them reappear in Tony’s life fourteen years later for reasons that appear to be unrelated to larger events. After Loki’s attack on New York, Tony is personally traumatized. But the United States is distracted by what seems like it ought to be considered a comparatively minor threat: the appearance of a human terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and likes to deliver pretentious lectures through hacked television signals and internet connections before bombing targets like a military church. There’s a general sense of insecurity. “The human element of human resources is our greatest point of vulnerability,” Tony’s former driver Happy (Jon Favreau), now running security at Stark Industries, tells Pepper. “We should start phasing it out immediately.” And the United States’ primary response has been the aggressive deployment of Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who in his own Tony-designed suit, is jetting around the world like the fantasy of how a drone should work, preventing American troops from harm, but still providing human judgement in targeting and decisions to fire.
Rhodes’ character, mostly a sidekick in previous movies, is the subject of some of Iron Man 3’s most clever material about the War on Terror. Between the second movie and the third, Rhodes has been subject to a rebranding. “War Machine was a little too aggressive,” Rhodes explains to Tony over beers. “This sends a better message.” And he recognizes that the use of him to hunt down the Mandarin is in part a response to the general security environment inspired by the New York attacks. “They need to look strong,” he says. The movie has some fun with that rebranding when Tony, in the course of investigating the Mandarin’s bombing techniques, takes a side trip to the Midwest to check out what appears to be the site of a suicide bombing by a combat veteran, and hooks up with a clever little boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who shares Tony’s interest in tinkering. “If I was building Iron Man and War Machine—” Harley tells Tony excitedly. “It’s Iron Patriot now,” Tony corrects him. “That’s way cooler,” Harley chirps. “No, it’s not,” Tony tells him, irritated that he’s taken in by the government’s messaging.
Making Rhodes the key to the war against the Mandarin also makes him a symbol in other ways. “Nothing, not your army, not your red, white, and blue attack dog, can save you,” the Mandarin brags in one of his videos, boasting of his ability to evade the U.S. government’s most formidable weapon against him. And Iron Man 3 plays with what Rhodes can do that a drone could not, though it doesn’t say so explicitly. When he’s sent to a location in Pakistan where the Mandarin’s latest broadcast is thought to have originated from, Rhodes finds a group of frightened men who deny any connection to the mysterious terrorist and declines to shoot, avoiding the kind of civilian casualties that might have resulted if the decision to fire was made simply based on the number of bodies visible on a satellite and the determination that those bodies were male. Later, he’s sent to a sweatshop full of women in hijabs. “Unless the Mandarin’s next attack on the U.S. involves cheaply made software, I think you messed up again,” he tells his superiors, exasperated, before addressing the women directly. “You’re free. If you weren’t before. Iron Patriot on the job. You’re welcome.” In the concluding sequence of the film, Iron Man 3 offers up another fantasy of drone technology when Tony summons up his suits from his vault to do battle. These are true drones, unoccupied by humans, operating at a physical remove from their operator—Tony explains that he can’t give one to Rhodes to wear as a suit because “They’re only coded to me,” preserving that fine-grained level of control, but expanding his reach. “Take ’em to church,” Tony tells his minions, unleashing them against his enemies.
Who those enemies actually are is the movie’s great joke, and the subject of its major critique of the War on Terror, and unfortunately, Iron Man 3‘s significant weakness. Much of the movie is spent trying to locate his real identity. “South American tactics,” Tony muses. “Talks like a Baptist preacher. Lots of theater going on here.” It’s a virtue of the movie that it is firmly rooted in the idea that there can be many motivations for terrorism, rather than defaulting to blame either Islam itself or bastardized interpretations of it. The Mandarin talks about American attacks on Native Americans, shoots an oil executive during a live broadcast, and muses “True story about fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound Chinese. But they’re actually American…They’re cheap, hollow, and leave a bad taste in your mouth.”
That incoherence turns out to be a reason. The Mandarin, Tony discovers, is an old man in a luxurious compound, surrounded by women, issuing broadcasts to the world. Specifically, he’s “Trevor, Trevor Slattery,” as he puts it when Tony confronts him. “Don’t hurt the face. I’m an actor. I’m ‘The Mandarin.’ It’s not real. I had a little problem with substances. And I ended up doing things, no two ways about it, in the streets that a man shouldn’t do…And they gave me these things. This house…a lovely speed boat.” Unlike Osama bin Laden, who shared Trevor’s physical circumstances, but had an actual murderous ideology, Trevor is a bad actor with a gig.
But someone is carrying out the Mandarin bombings for real, and that’s where Iron Man 3 runs into trouble. The real killer is Aldrich Killian, and his motivations, as they’re initially explained, are promising. He’s developing Maya Hansen’s technology, and amping up the War on Terror will “create supply and demand” for his latest product, a drug he’s selling to Pepper as an intellectual enhancement, but that really promises to regrow limbs. His bombs aren’t actually bombs at all: they’re combat veterans who lost limbs, and who have been rendered unstable by high doses of Killian’s drug. It’s one thing for a movie to argue that soldiers have been abandoned by their government, and that it’s a shame and a crime—The Rock actually does that fairly effectively. But Iron Man 3 doesn’t really engage with the prospect that soldiers who have lost limbs fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan might harbor legitimate grievances, especially since military insurance actually does a relatively good job of covering prosthetics for amputees. Instead, the movie relies on a roster of unstable amputees who are either so desperate for treatment they don’t care where it comes from, or are willing to turn against their government in exchange for it. Some of the people Killian treats turn into suicide bombers, while others turn into magically regenerating super-minions whose vulnerabilities seem to appear and disappear depending on when it’s convenient for the plot that they do so. It’s both unattractive treatment of people with disabilities and outright bad villain design.
And it’s not clear whether Killian’s motivations are profit-oriented, or a revenge of the nerds. He tells Peper that he’s spent ” years dodging the president’s ban on ‘immoral’ biotech research,” to develop Maya’s technology. He seems to believe that eco-terrorism would gin up the war on terror, as when he tells one victim that he’ll blame him for failing to prosecute corporate wrongdoers in a major oil spill because “I just needed a reason to kill you that would play well on TV.” And to a certain extent, his transformation and turn to terrorism seems solely like an act of retribution against Tony for slighting him. “Well, here we are. On the roof,” he tells Tony as they prepare for a climactic showdown. The War on Terror may be chasing the wrong guy, Iron Man 3 ends up suggesting, but the movie can’t get away from the idea that bad guys are out there and defeating them requires an enormous military mobilization.
Where it might have had a sharp critique to make is in the idea that the United States is focusing on the Mandarin, whether he’s Trevor or Killian, at the expense of the real threat: the possibility of a repeat of the attack on New York, which was infinitely more destructive than the Mandarin’s bombings. The movie frames anxiety about such an attack in terms of Tony’s personal tsuris. “Nothing’s been the same since New York,” Tony confesses to Pepper. “You experience things and they’re over and you still can’t explain them. Gods, aliens. I’m just a man in a can.” He has a panic attack when a child asks him about New York in a bar, and Harley pesters him about it as well—perhaps children are more perceptive than adults, who want to limit their fears to the believable. “Do you have a plastic bag to breathe in? Do you have medication? Do you need to be on it,” Harley asks Tony as he gets more and more upset. “Are you going completely mental?” But Iron Man 3 doesn’t really have the space or inclination to ask whether the federal government has the wrong priorities—or maybe that’s just territory that belongs to Joss Whedon.
“Ever since that dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kind of had its day,” Killian tells Tony, once he’s been uncovered, explaining the flashiness of Trevor’s performance. Iron Man 3‘s virtue is the extent to which it proves him wrong. Its weakness is the extent to which he’s right, and to which mainstream pop culture can question the assumptions of the War on Terror only so far.