Iron Man 3 does not pretend to be profound.
Oh, it's a fine movie—fun and funny and thrilling and full of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise and all that. Moreover, it allowed me a pretty cool pair of 3-D glasses. A fellow reviewer said that he was going to use his for his next welding project.
|My Iron Man 3 glasses, as modeled by my daughter's stuffed dog, Mr. Reeces|
But while the original Iron Man and its (admittedly disappointing) sequel had some reasonably obvious messages of purpose and redemption, this chapter felt a little depth-challenged—a pure popcorn muncher on the surface. Sure, I understand that superhero movies aren't necessarily (ahem) suited to Russian novel-level musings about life and death and whatnot. But Christopher Nolan's Batman movies spoiled me—and the Iron Man 3 trailers got me primed for something grittier and deeper than we've seen lately from the Marvel movie universe.
(An aside: Can you imagine what sort of movie this would've been had Terrence Malick directed it? I imagine Iron Man walking through wheat fields. The armor surrounds me, binds me, imprisons me, he'd say, staring at a sky smeared with irredescent clouds. Please, restart my faulty ARC reactor. Make me whole again.)
But there's an element here worth, I think, a bit of space. And it centers on the fact that Tony Stark spends so much time outside his suit.
Now, I touched on that topic in my Plugged In review (you can read it here, if you like), but to recap a bit: The bad 'un du jour here is The Mandarin, a nefarious Bin Laden-like bully who promises to engulf the United States in a storm of terror. And when Tony Stark (Iron Man) calls The Mandarin out on national media, the villain blows Stark's Malibu casa into tiny cornflakes-size pieces.
Now, this is critical, because Stark's power is mostly derived from all his metal suits, all of which he builds in his state-of-the-art workshop. The attack sends his favorite suits, his workshop and most of the rest of his worldly possessions down to the briny deep—and Iron Man himself, for that matter. Stark survives, but just barely. And his suit is much the worse for wear. It gets him to Tennessee but conks out right after. Even Jarvis, Stark’s ever-present computerized helpmate, goes silent. And while Stark thinks the suit can be fixed and recharged, he's largely suitless and gadgetless for a good chunk of the movie. The guy goes from having everything to having nothing in one quick helicopter attack.
We're all familiar with the whole "rags to riches" narrative—something like you'd find in Victorian-era books by Charles Dickens or whatnot, where a slave or street urchin or down-and-outer reverses his luck through talent and gumption to success, fame and fortune. But Christianity (a faith that’s positively revels in paradox) features far more in riches to rags stories (that often still have, again paradoxically, happy endings). Take a look at Joseph, who started out rich, then was sold into slavery, got rich again, then was thrown in jail, then finally rose to political power where he saved his whole formerly estranged family. Or there's King David, who after a pretty good run as king of Israel, was usurped by his own son and forced to flee. He eventually reclaimed the throne, but learned a lesson or two from his experience. Everyone from Adam to Paul experienced a material fall of some sort. And indeed, you could cast Judea's Babylonian exile as a riches-to-rags honing. God often seems to be a proponent of the whole "no pain, no gain" school of thought: When we get too comfortable and self-assured, we find ourselves in a period of sometimes extreme discomfort, where we rediscover meaning and realign our priorities.
Dickens wrote a riches-to-rags-to-salvation story of his own, by the way: A Christmas Carol. In it, Ebenezer Scrooge begins the story rich and bitter. But through a night full of scourging, suffering and self-revelation—when he's shown his past impoverished state and comes to grips with his own present moral bankruptcy—he awakes to find himself a reformed man, rich in every sense of the word.
This is particularly interesting, considering that Iron Man 3's makers had A Christmas Carol in mind when they produced the thing, which explain why the summer's first blockbuster was set at Christmastime. Stark must deal with the "demons of his past," as he calls them, struggle with today's trials and recast the future in a more positive light.
But there's more at work here that feels even more spiritual. See, Stark isn't just stripped of his metal wonder suit as a sort of psychological boot camp: He must humble himself in order to be saved.
We all know that Stark, as Iron Man, is a superhero. Superheroes save people. And he does his share of saving here, too. But without his bulletproof suit, Stark is vulnerable. He's in the need of saving—and in this movie, he is saved, repeatedly. By his girlfriend. By his best friend. By some kid he meets in Tennessee.
And that, in a roundabout way, is a deeply Christian message as well. The faith tells us that we can't rely on our own powers (supercharged armor or no) for salvation. We can't save ourselves. We are in need of saving.
Now, I’m pretty sure the movie’s makers didn’t intend to slap in a spiritual metaphor. It doesn’t really feel like that kind of movie. Still, it is interesting. And a little profound, whatever the movie’s actual intentions might’ve been.