It seems weird to say this given the manner in which they both entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Robert Downey Jr. as an acclaimed acting genius, and Chris Hemsworth as accented beefcake. But having now re-watched both of them play PTSD very recently, in Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Endgame in full 4K, I think Hemsworth’s metaphorical student may have become the master. Though it’s certainly fair to note that Downey set the bar Hemsworth had to clear.
If Iron Man 2 was the most DC-like of the MCU movies, Iron Man 3 is the most like a more standard ’80s action movie. That’s to be expected, given its director/co-writer Shane Black is the master of that. At times this feels like the best possible MacGyver film ever. But Black also gave us Lethal Weapon, with full-on PTSD Mel Gibson, and here he he puts Tony Stark into that role. As he’s the only core survivor of the first Avengers movie with neither super-powers nor formal military training, this feels logical. You’d think he’d have it worse from the first film’s extended cave captivity than his much quicker triumph over aliens. Trauma, however, is seldom rational.
First things first: the 4K upgrade looks superb. Of Marvel Studios’ August 2019 upgrades, it’s the only one that looks absolutely better across the board. No accidental facelifts here: you can see every pore on the faces of even beauties like Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce. The worst that can be said is that occasionally an Extremis CG effect stands out as CG around the edges, but even that’s only for someone like me who is looking to nit-pick in a review.
Iron Man 3 is an anomaly in the MCU canon in that it’s basically a standalone. None of its events affect the greater plot directly in any way. (Harley showing up in Endgame is an Easter egg, not a plot point.) I’d honestly forgotten it ends with Tony no longer needing the ARC reactor to live, since it sure seemed in the last couple movies like he did need it.
Now we know that Shang-Chi will reference the Mandarin, but I sincerely doubt Black intended that to be the case. The way he treats the character as a disposable, red-herring joke annoyed canon-stickler fans. In theory, that kind of bold creative call also paved the way for James Gunn to fundamentally transform Yondu, or Taika Waititi to make the legend of Ragnarok into a comedy. The MCU is better for those risks, while the sequels that follow more conventional templates (think Thor: the Dark World) are nobody’s favorite. The fact that Ben Kingsley’s American accent is so terrible — a rare flaw in a master thespian — makes the joke even better.
Funnily enough, the one thing about Iron Man 3 that affects the MCU’s larger plot most is a Blu-ray extra. Yes, this disc (disc set, now) comes with the “Agent Carter” short which served as a backdoor pilot to that two-season show on ABC. It’s exactly what you expect — Carter battles institutional sexism while saving the day, and gets promoted by Howard Stark. But it does the job. And Stark went on to become Preacher. There are no new extras on the disc.
Black creates and directs action sequences here the same way he would if they didn’t involve superheroes at all. Set up geography and expectations, get us to expect one thing to save the day, have it fail, then swerve. So many Marvel action sequences are powers-specific that it’s fascinating to see exactly how things can go differently here. Black establishes early on that Tony misdirects with unoccupied suits, then still fools us later in the movie after handing us every clue we need. Where many superhero spectacles shower the screen with money asking us to look at real magic, Black is still using old-fashioned sleight-of-hand conjuring tricks, and eliciting the same kinds of smiles. Iron Man 3, like the other Iron Man solo adventures, also resolutely takes place in the real world. Bill Maher and Joan Rivers comment on the action, while Downton Abbey plays on hospital TV.
But back to the Thor comparisons. At the time Iron Man 3 came out, dedicating a movie to a hero’s PTSD was bold and novel. Downey taps into his experience with withdrawal and addiction to convey the anxiety and OCD response. But whether it’s Tony or Downey, there’s still a vanity to all of this; a refusal to look bad, even if the behavior makes a bad look. Hemsworth kicked it up a notch by being willing to not just depict anxiety weight gain, but also an ability to break down and look emotionally pathetic. Some audiences laugh at him as a distancing mechanism — we recognize that guy, and don’t want to be him right now. Whereas with Downey/Tony, I think there’s always part of us that would like to be him, any time.
A bald, scheming Vice President (the late Miguel Ferrer) feels so very 2013 now. The notion of both patsies (fake Mandarin) and heroes (War Machine/Iron Patriot) sold as personality cults by powerful interests looking to sell more weapons and haphazardly destroy lives remains topical. (When will Rhodey stop letting obviously bad arms dealers upgrade his suit?) While we could point to a particular president of the ’80s who was an actor, nearly every world leader since has competed for their job like it’s a celebrity contest. As the real heroes and villains behind the scenes deal with actual body counts.
It’s all pretty dark for Disney when you think about it. So I’m glad this still exists.