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Iron Man 3: A Different Kind of Suit


All the main characters in director/screenwriter Shane Black’s brave and exciting Iron Man 3 wear a suit. By his own admission, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is “cocooned” in his. He retreats inside the Iron Man suit, now up to an almost unfathomably expensive Mark 42, because it is the only place he feels safe. Those around Stark, be they on the side of right or wrong, wear their own suit. The suit hides their true self and it is only by removing this disguise that they can reveal it. Iron Man 3 mocks the notion of re-invention; Stark can build all the iron suits he wants, they will save him from just about any foe. But take the mask off and he is just as soft, weak and fallible as those he strives to save.

Stark is unlike Superman or The Dark Knight; for those heroes the suit is their true persona. Superman hides among us as Clark Kent, but mankind’s saviour (as expressed by the ‘S’ on his chest) is actually his destiny. Bruce Wayne is so lost inside his alter-ego Batman that he hides in plain sight. The Dark Knight is Bruce Wayne, not vice-versa. Stark on the other hand is not defined by the suit; it is a mask that ironically connects him to a world he never really felt part of before. Throughout Iron Man 3, Stark is verging on a nervous breakdown. He relies on the suit to save him, but when it is stripped away by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) he is forced to face his demons and, both physically and mentally, fix himself. He once again becomes what he is – a mechanic. Remember it is not the suit keeping Stark alive, it is the magnetic chest plate over his heart; the original suit was only intended as a one-time deal to escape his terrorist captors in the desert (Iron Man, 2008).

Iron Man 3_Ben Kingsley cloak mid_Image credit Walt Disney Pictures

Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. Kingsley has been vocally complimentary of costume designer Louise Frogley’s work on Iron Man 3. With The Mandarin they created a character within a character; a theatrical man who lives a lie yet must be absolutely believable to us, the audience, and in the context of the story.

Even out of the Iron Man suit, Stark hides. He is the loudest at any meeting, the life and soul of any party, and yet most of the time he hides behind a pair of sunglasses. Rock stars wear sunglasses indoors and Tony Stark is definitely one of those. But note how he almost winces when Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) removes his oversized pair in Iron Man 3. It is the initial panic of having to show his true face. As with most big personalities he is all bluster. Stark can outthink and outtalk most people on the planet, though you might not bet on him in a staring contest. During his ‘date night’ with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) he forgoes the sunglasses and instead relies on a remote version of the Iron Man suit controlled by his mind. It even leaps to his defence during a nightmare almost harming Pepper in the process. This is the tipping point for Stark; now he must protect Pepper from himself.

Pepper is the calm exterior of Tony Stark. She is erudite, rational and charming whereas he is outspoken, irrational and, to most people, downright irritating. Yet she is not who she professes to be either, not really. Initially untouchable in white suit featuring a striking Bodycon jacket, Pepper is dragged into Stark’s battle with The Mandarin and stripped of her clothes before being reborn as an action heroine in a black sports bra. “That was really violent” she exclaims after saving mankind. Yes, and she was surprisingly good at it. Deep down Pepper had the heart to be a hero, if not the equipment. This is not a sex issue but one of technology. Early on Pepper gets to wear Tony’s Iron Man suit enabling her to save Maya. Then she is pumped full of the regenerating Extremis serum which saves Tony’s life and her own. Despite several opportunities to die she refuses to give in. While Pepper paints on a smile for the world in her clean white suit, kicking ass in her underwear she can reveal her true repressed self.

Iron Man 3_Geyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce suit mid_Image credit Walt Disney Pictures

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian. Pepper’s skirt suit is her first signature look for the story before her rebirth in a sports bra. She sheds her former calm, gentle exterior, pulling what could be termed as a ‘Linda Hamilton’ in Terminator 2 (1991). Pepper has always been repressed angry, but the finale of Iron Man 3 finally gives her means to express it.

If Pepper is merely angry, no-one is more volatile in the story than Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). His journey begins as a geeky scientist wearing a t-shirt, lounge jacket and serial killer spectacles at a Millennium New Year’s Eve party. Killian fawns over velvet suit clad Tony Stark, worshipping him as an idol, hoping enthusiasm will get him noticed. Snubbed, Killian then vanishes for fourteen years before popping up again in a plaid suit, black shirt and red diagonal check tie. Wearing a loud suit is the present day equivalent of the moustache twirling lunatic. As events escalade, Killian becomes ever smarmier, parading around in silk shirts and linen suits pretending he is not crazy. His suits are a disguise, nothing more. Killian wants to act the part of rich science genius villain, so he looks the part. For the finale this flimsy armour is burned from his body revealing a cluster of tribal chest tattoos. Now we see the real Killian, a rebellious geek turned mad scientist turned monster, i.e. the classic comic book archetype.

As an outlet for his insanity, Killian creates The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a formidable terrorist in green embellished cloak and camouflage pants sporting ten ‘mystical’ rings and a long strokable beard – the literal moustache twirling lunatic. However because he does not exist, The Mandarin is nothing more than a mask, the same as Stark and his Iron Man suits. Underneath, The Mandarin is a second rate actor, apparently once “the toast of Croydon”, whose real skill is gulping tins of beer and stinking up toilets. Then again he did fool the entire world, including Tony Stark. The Mandarin costume is an obvious allusion to Iron Man 3’s notion of hiding. A figurehead is more important than reality, mainly because most of the time we never discover the difference. Most figures of infamy go to their graves either unknown or misunderstood. As with Tony Stark all that matters is the public face. If the public believe Stark is the perfect hero then that’s what he is. If he public believe The Mandarin is the hissable villain then, until the film’s very amusing reveal, that’s what he is.

Iron Man 3_Iron Patriot suit, Don Cheadle mid_Image credit Walt Disney Pictures

Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes wearing his suit as the Iron Patriot (formally War Machine)*. Rhodes’ armour is unmarked and intact compared to Stark’s own Iron Man suit, which in its 42nd incarnation has become as tattered and broken as the man who wears it. *Note: Rhodes is not actually in the suit here but it does belong to him.

At this point in the Tony Stark story he is already considered washed up. Fighting aliens and flying though a wormhole weighs heavy on the man because he cannot rationalise what he has seen. This is why James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) becomes the public face of Iron Man in his pristine Iron Patriot suit – originally called War Machine but this “didn’t test well” so was altered to something less aggressive sounding. The thing is though, Rhodes is aggressive. He enjoys fame and tearing up the skies in red, white and blue, but it is all window dressing. Rhodes would prefer that the suit was never invented at all, although as it has been he is going to be the one to wear it. Real Rhodes comes alive when he has to remove the suit. At this point he is already living two lies, first as War Machine and then sanitised as the Iron Patriot. Free of this baggage he leads Tony Stark into battle wearing a green Fred Perry polo shirt. This is Captain Rhodes, a flesh and blood soldier who out of the suit makes the less than combat confident Tony Stark appear like a bystander.

Every character in Iron Man 3 has an important role, which is testament to Shane Black and Drew Pearce’s skill as screenwriters. While the Iron Man suits might save the day, they are nothing without the warm-up act. Suits, iron or otherwise, are a form of masquerade in the film; once removed they reveal greatness, the purest evil, or in the case of The Mandarin, a joke. It is there in black and white, ‘Tony Stark will return’, but how and in what possible incarnation is left up to our imagination. However it is unlikely to be as breathtakingly original as Iron Man 3, which wears its very real guise as the perfect superhero movie.

Iron Man 3 is released on 26th April.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


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