Empty Calories – Problems with Narrative in Cinema and Television – Part 3

Part 3 – Iron Man 3 or Why Character Motivation is Important

 

The third film in the Iron Man trilogy, Iron Man 3, is perhaps the most egregious in terms of the narrative convenience over-riding any attempt at nuance or agreeing with the facts and themes as established in the diegesis.  Given the numerous plot holes and narrative inconsistencies, it is also the hardest to re-create a semblance of consistency in without rewriting vast swathes of the narrative.  However, the major sections of the film establish that Tony is experiencing PTSD following the events of invasion of New York in Avengers.  He is obsessively creating new suits of armour with increasingly specialist functions and abilities.  Aldrich Killian, meanwhile, is a research scientist who suffers from villain-itis and the need to enact a completely ludicrous, over-the-top, sure to fail, overly complicated, scheme which makes no sense, has massive holes, and the goals of which could easily have been achieved by setting a lab up in a different country.  But sure, creating a fake terrorist group to threaten the president so that you could then capture War Machine in order to kidnap the President, execute him on TV so that the Vice President could become president and change a law so that you could run experiments on humans… it is a plan.   Not a good one.  But it is a plan.  Alternatively, he could have set up a lab in a country that didn’t have those laws, or not allowed the subjects of the experiment to freely wander around without supervision, or, especially as he is apparently a murdering psychopath, simply killed the subjects of the experiment so that he could move on to the next batch.

 

Ignoring the genuine mess of the plot and the gaping plot holes, there are three main points that could be altered to create a more seamless, more heroic, film that would fit with Tony’s character arc as developed by the first two Iron Man films, and the repercussions of the Avengers film.

Iron Man 3

The first concerns the treatment of the Extremis soldiers.  This is perhaps the most egregious example in Iron Man 3 in terms of forgetting or ignoring what was established at the beginning of the film in favour of a simplistic, overly reductive, action set piece, and, consequently, unintentionally casts Tony as a psychopath.  The film is at pains to show Tony uncovering the mystery of the Extremis soldiers and shows them to be victims of Killian’s experiments.  Let me repeat that, they are victims.  Wounded veterans.  Killian takes wounded military veterans and experiments on them leading to them exploding uncontrollably when they cannot ‘regulate’.  There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that the Extremis procedure leads to mental instability, personality changes, violent fits, or anything of that sort.  So the film presents these wounded armed forces veterans undergoing an experimental procedure to regrow limbs, in effect, they have been promised a ‘cure’ for their battle wounds, and not informed about the consequences.  This is a classic example of an evil scientist taking advantage of good, honourable soldiers, and using them as guinea pigs.  They are victims of Killian’s unethical experiments with an unfinished and unproven procedure, and who have no control over what happens to them.   Yet, for no apparent reason and without any explanation, these victims suddenly become psychopathic, murdering, mindless, aggressive, evil foot soldiers for Killian in the third act whom Tony, Rhodey, and the Jarvis controlled suits are allowed to execute without any moral qualms.  Nothing in the film even hints at why we should change from regarding them as unknowing victims and pawns of Killian’s unethical and unscrupulous experiments that take advantage of them, to seeing them as psychopathic, disposable, foot soldiers, who can be killed by soulless AI controlled murder machines, with only a light hearted quip, and no remorse, on the part of our ostensible hero.

 

Oddly enough, this point is once again easily correctable with an exceptionally minor change to the script.  If the film had established those soldiers undergoing the procedure as being ‘bad’ from the start, this would not be as significant a hurdle that needed to be overcome.  The action set piece at the end would not need rewritten in order to ‘save’ the victims, but could, at least according to Hollywood logic, carry on with simply executing bad guys without any moral qualms.  Instead of these being wounded veterans who presumably (for all the audience knows) have sterling service records and were wounded in the course of protecting America, especially as this is implied when Tony meets the mother of one of the ex-soldiers, they could have been the dregs of the Armed services.  Soldiers who were part of a secret, unethical, kill squad, or soldiers who had been imprisoned for war crimes, or any number of corrupt military or paramilitary types to whom Killian makes an offer exchanging superpowers in exchange for service.  They didn’t have to be wounded veterans with whom the audience would expectedly build sympathy for.  By simply revealing these Extremis soldiers to have been evil or villainous from the start the audience is not left wondering why they are suddenly all evil.

 

Alternatively, if the discussion of Extremis included dialogue that suggested a side-effect of the treatment was some sort of psychosis or change to the personality of those treated (making them aggressive, violent, and irrational), then they could still be seen as both victims, and as a danger that needed to be addressed.  As with Vanko in Iron Man 2, and Stane in Iron Man, there are several minor ways the representation could have been tweaked, with minimal interference with the scenes and story structure as established, that would have established a rationale for the villains, addressed Tony’s character arc, and supported a more consistent thematic story.  If they had been altered by the treatment, then we again could have had the heroes feeling resigned that there was no way to save them.  This would make Killian’s villainy all the more apparent as he turned good soldiers into evil monsters.  Tony and Rhodey could lament that there was nothing more they could do, and this would frame them as heroes having to make the tough choice.  Again, this was a chance to elevate their heroism instead of making it simply about killing mindless, nameless, featureless, CGI monsters with little or no emotional impact.

 

The treatment of the Extremis soldiers is made more egregious by the short, throwaway reference made in the concluding scenes of the film to ‘curing’ Pepper Potts a few days later.  As a result, this film portrays innocent military veterans, who have been experimented on and then turning villainous for no reason, being executed, when all it took for Tony to develop a cure for their condition was a couple of days thinking about it and caring enough about one of the victims.  A resequencing of the events could have seen Tony’s army of suits fitted with tranquiliser darts filled with the miraculous ‘cure’ for Extremis, thus the fight sequence could still have occurred, but this time, the victims of Killian’s experiments could have been saved.  By adding that all it took to cure Pepper was a few days, we, the audience, are immediately confronted with the thought that these soldiers died needlessly and in the name of expedience and Tony’s selfishness.  If Pepper’s ‘cure’ had been put off, and the audience were told that Tony had found a way to stabilise it and was searching for a cure, that would have been an easier pill to swallow.  As it stands, you only get cured if you are a friend or loved one of a hero.

 

While killing villains instead of incapacitating or capturing them and making them face justice has become a staple of action films, and we have all become somewhat numb to the ethical problems of slaughtering ‘enemies’, and the fact that action heroes exhibit all the tendencies of psychopaths and are rewarded from it, this film actually includes a moment that emphasises this problematic tendency.  The last significant plot point of the film that raises significant ethical questions, and again contradicts the character arc of Tony’s journey, concerns how he dispatches the guards at the Mandarin’s compound.

 

Bereft of his suit, technology, and superior weaponry, Tony knuckles down and improvises a set of weapons in order to take down the Mandarin (and by that we assume kill) in revenge for destroying his house and injuring his girlfriend.  Admittedly his reasoning could have been to protect America, but the film plays heavily on Tony’s inaction until his own personal property is destroyed and the vendetta becomes personal to him.  So once again the film inadvertently highlights that Tony is not a hero, and it is only revenge that motivates him to get involved, thus emphasising his selfishness and narcissism.  Again, sidestepping plot holes here, Tony improvises a series of weapons and then infiltrates the Mandarin’s compound.

 

At this juncture there has been no indication that the guards protecting the Mandarin’s compound are evil.  They are in causal dress, not uniforms or military tactical gear, and Tony has uncovered no information that these men are terrorists or evil, or, in fact, are involved in the Mandarin’s plans.  In fact, one of the guards, in what we assume is meant to be a moment of levity, surrenders and runs away as he doesn’t like working for the Mandarin and thinks they are ‘weird’.  Admittedly, none of the other guards get a chance to do this as Tony murders them all.  Long gone is any reference to Tony forsaking weapons and seeking to defend the world, to cover it in a suit of armour.  There is portrayed as straightforward vengeance, although the film would have you believe that this is justified and heroic.

 

Just to emphasise this point, one of the guards surrenders and runs away when given a chance because he is not a terrorist, he just works as private security for a presumably rich but very strange client, and has no idea what that client does.  If one of the guards feels that way, would not others?  Consistently we are encouraged to see the narrative solely from Tony’s perspective.  This focalisation ignores the fact that each of the other characters, even Nameless Surrender Guard, also have a perspective.  For all the audience knows, this could be a simple private security firm, that has done nothing wrong, and thinks that they are protecting a slightly odd cult leader, or wealthy foreigner.  Nothing presented in the film suggests that these initial guards are terrorists or willing participants in Killian’s plans.  Yet, Tony kills several of them with impunity, it is never mentioned that he faced charges for murder, or was even investigated for this.   At best this gives the impression that Tony is now careless as to whether or not someone is a bad guy, at worst it reaffirms that Tony is, in fact, a sociopath.

 

A very simple remedy to this problem would have been to have the guards dressed in tactical combat gear and removing the moment in which one of them surrenders.  That, at least, would have given the illusion that they were paramilitary or active combatants. That they were probably committed to the ‘cause’, and that Tony could be justified in shooting first and asking questions later.  Alternatively, a simple bit of dialogue between the guards as Tony is creeping up on them could have revealed that they were all part of the Mandarin plot and worked directly for Killian.  A further alternative would have been when Jarvis is giving Tony the location of the base it could have mentioned that the base has a number of heavily armed guards, and that they match some of the individuals that attacked the house.  While none of these alterations directly change the fact that Tony murders a number of people in cold blood while on an assassination mission, it at least provides a moral fig leaf to hide the worst of the sociopathic tendencies from the audience.

 

This was an effort to try to use minimal correction to remove issues specifically related to character motivation, thematic consistency, and to preserve character development and character arcs without rewriting the entire films.  To correct plot holes and all the narrative contrivances would require much more significant changes and would radically alter the films and storylines, and would be, in effect, creating entirely new films.  From these very minor changes, and admittedly they are not perfect and do not address a number of the plot holes and narrative contrivances found in the films, you can see how the theme, tone, and subtext of the films was ignored, and how character motivation and psychological realism were contradicted or dismissed, in favour of spectacle, action set pieces, and the need for simplistic black and white characterisation.  In effect, the film makers appear to have assumed that audiences would not be smart enough to spot the flaws in the narratives because they were dazzled by pretty special effects, and that audiences do not care about the ethics of their heroes.  It is easy to blame this on bad writing, but given that Executive Producers, Producers, Directors, Writers, and even certain Actors, can have a significant impact on scripts and story arcs, it is impossible to know if any of these issues were raised and over-ruled, or who made the decision to have characters behave in certain ways.  We don’t know if explanatory scenes were left on the cutting room floor because the editor or the director needed to trim time and didn’t realise that those moments were the ones that filled out the narrative beyond empty spectacle, or ethically compromised visions of their heroes.  We don’t know if there were rewrites due to actors being unavailable due to scheduling.  We don’t know if any number of external or internal production factors dictated changes.  What we do know is that the narratives as produced missed opportunities to correct simple errors leaving the films less than they could have been, more confused than they could have been, and far less rewarding to watch.

 

 

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