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To state it outright, Shane Black‘s 2013 film “Iron Man 3” is one of the best films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a film not about overpowering villains or the strength of forward-assault military tactics, but about wit and character. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) spent a great deal of the film outside of his armor, mentally damaged by the trauma of fighting aliens during “The Avengers” (2012), requiring him to use his brains to solve a new crisis. He also uses his Iron Man suit to stage a daring mid-air rescue in a display of heroism frustratingly lacking from a series about superheroes.
Additionally, the film added a clever twist to its villain, a terrorist calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). While initially presented as an aggressive, violent criminal, it was eventually revealed that the Mandarin was in fact a dumb, drug-addled actor, hired by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) to merely pose as a villain. The Kingsley character was, in fact, a mere boob who was happy to stay employed. That’s far more interesting than any omnipotent god alien and his genocidal shenanigans.
The plot of “Iron Man 3,” in case one needs a refresher, hinges on the presence of Jenna Ortega. The film begins with Killian developing a strange new biological miracle cure — Extremis — than can regrow a person’s missing limbs. An unintended side effect, though, is that it also causes its recipients to heat up and explode. Tony investigates and finds that a rash of recent terrorist bombings claimed by the Mandarin are, in fact, the explosive results of secret Extremis experiments. Killian, it will be revealed, was using the fake villain as a patsy to kidnap and kill the president (William Sadler).
The Vice President’s Daughter
Why does Killian want to kill the president? Well, once the president is dead, the surviving vice president (Miguel Ferrer), would rise to power and become Killian’s secret lackey. Killian would essentially control the U.S. Government, or at least have ultimate sway over its executive branch. And why would the Vice President sell out the president to a fire-breathing biotech-bro? Because his young daughter is missing a leg and he would presumably like to grow it back using the Extremis treatment. However, the VP clearly doesn’t know that his daughter would also get heat-up-and-explode powers as part of the bargain.
Yes, that is a young Jenna Ortega — the star of “X,” “Scream,” and “Wednesday” — as the Vice President’s daughter. Ortega was about 10 years old at the time of filming. She has no notable dialogue, and only appears in close-up in one scene, but her presence provides a great deal of the movie’s plot. Without her, the vice president wouldn’t have the motivation to betray the president, Killian wouldn’t have the means to take over the government, and the Mandarin would not have been hired to play a villain. Pair that with Tony Stark’s brusque rebuke of Killian in an early-film flashback, and you have the makings of a proper supervillain.
Let’s look over Killian’s rap sheet. His motivation: resentment over being brushed off by Tony Stark, even though he has developed a brilliant (but flawed) miracle cure. His means: a puppet dictator and the use of Extremis’ side effects to create explosive lackeys. His opportunity: Jenna Ortega and her missing leg.
The Astonishing Simplicity
Although “Iron Man 3” was a $200 million production, and features a twisty, complicated plot that’s difficult to synopsize (I didn’t even mention Rebecca Hall‘s character, nor her role in solving the mystery, nor Tony’s secret army of remote-controlled Iron Man suits), it’s amazing how simple it feels when compared to what the MCU would become. Little of “Iron Man 3” would lead to additional “major events” in the MCU timeline, and the film was ultimately about how its title hero learned to be a better person by surviving on his wits and keeping the people dear to him out of danger. At the film’s conclusion, Tony Stark’s heart is surgically repaired — it previously had shrapnel in it — and his lab is destroyed. In a final monologue, he announces that, even without the hero trappings, he’s still Iron Man. Had the character been retired for good at that moment, it would have been dramatically perfect.
Instead, he became addicted to superhero violence. He once hated weapons of mass destruction, but would eventually become one. At the end of “Avengers: Endgame,” Tony Stark sacrifices his own life merely to murder thousands of enemy soldiers on a battlefield. He had access to a magical widget that could essentially grant him any wish, and he — presumably cleverly — chose to use it as a weapon. What a tragic end for a once-noble character.
But in “Iron Man 3,” all the motivations were very human. Tony wanted to heal, Killian wanted power, and the vice president only wanted Jenna Ortega to have two legs. Ortega was only a cameo, but her presence informed a down-to-earth superhero movie that remains one of its series best.
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