I love conspiracy theories. They’re one of the greater things, in my correct opinion, that this world has to offer. Not the actually harmful ones proliferated by overzealous charlatans and bad-faith actors, but the fun and quirky kinds you find on pop culture threads. Are all the Pixar movies in the same universe? Does Jeff Goldblum play the same character in Jurassic Park and Independence Day? Literally — and I can’t emphasize this enough — how are we getting all these Avatar sequels?
But my latest query involves every film nerd’s favorite, not-at-all maligned topic: Marvel movies. More specifically, 2013’s Iron Man 3, which I believe is a film that hates nerds — and therefore, most tragically, me. Here’s a smart, scientific, and correct formula I came up with to explain:
IM3 (Iron Man 3) = N (A Nerd) — H (Happiness)
JR (Javier Reyes) = N
IM3 ≠ JR + H
In order to prove my equation about the Shane Black-directed flick, I will be presenting multiple pieces of evidence to the jury. By the end of it, hopefully, justice can be served.
Exhibit A: The Disgraceful, Asinine, and Outright Disastrous Performance by the Iron Man Armor(s)
There are two very important takes I have about Iron Man, as a character, in general. The first is that his nanotech, swiss-army-knife armor shown off in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame does not get enough credit for being absolutely sick.
The second take is that the armors in Iron Man 3 might as well have been made of paper mache. Coming off of an MVP-like performance in the first Avengers movie, one would expect to see some truly awe-inspiring moments from the new shiny, gold-plated Mark XLII suit. Instead, the new off-season acquisition is a bust, routinely malfunctioning in nearly any way you could imagine. I mean, the movie literally starts off with the thing falling apart after just one piece goes awry. There’s even a part when a simple truck going — and please understand I can’t emphasize this enough — moderately fast completely shatters the thing like the death animation in Lego games. Weak!
Adding insult to injury, the ending of the film features a clash between all of Tony’s various armors against a slew of enhanced-soldiers. Somehow, someway, 42 (!) different Iron Man armors don’t blow them out of the water, and instead quite a few of them get torn apart like Play-Doh. Team Iron’s performance here is nearly as disastrous as the Phoenix Suns in game 7 against the Mavericks.
Skeptics will say the point of these armors is they were all unfinished blueprints — simple side projects that Tony Stark uses as distractions — but we know what it actually is. It’s an assault on the most oppressed group in pop culture at large. It’s because Shane Black hates nerds and wants to — and in this case literally — tear apart what they love. It’s a declaration of war.
Exhibit B: The Ballad of the Mandarin
But perhaps the greatest piece of evidence one can levy towards Iron Man 3’s conspiracy to murder nerds is the most obvious one: the Mandarin. For those who don’t know, the Mandarin has a checkered history of being one of Iron Man’s greatest adversaries in the comics. He is tremendously skilled in martial arts and possesses several “rings of power” that grant him various god-like abilities. Such a famous foe, you’d think, would call for a grandiose film to match — and even moreso with Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley playing the role. Fans could not be more excited.
But little did they know that the real supervillain was Shane Black himself.
How does Iron Man 3 choose to go about this? It turns the Mandarin into a drunken stooge, acting as nothing more than a puppet actor for the guy from Memento to hide behind. No powers, no martial arts, nothing. It’s a direct shot at nerds everywhere. What better way to murder them than turn one of their signature villains into a clown? What’s next? If given the opportunity, I promise Mr. Shane Black wouldn’t stop there. Perhaps his next target would be the Eye of Sauron, turning it into nothing more than a weird looking donut in a bakery called Middle-Earth.
Exhibit C: The Fanboy
Still not convinced of the anti-nerd rhetoric spouted by Iron Man 3? Well, my fellow compatriots, gaze upon this blatant example of hatred. His name is Gary (Adam Pally).
About 90 minutes into the film, Stark meets Gary while trying to sneak into his van in order to perform some computer stuff, or whatever. In the scene, Gary is revealed to be a huge fan of his. So big, in fact, that he models his whole look after the guy, and even sports a tattoo of his face. The whole interaction between the two is extremely awkward and clearly makes Stark quite uncomfortable.
This relatively minor scene plays like a stereotypical knock on nerds and their infatuation with pop culture stories, characters, and celebrities. Regularly, such a silly scene could be dismissed. But in this instance, with notorious mass-murderer Shane Black at the helm, it’s further proof that Iron Man 3 is a conspiracy to, systematically, terminate nerds with extreme prejudice.
Exhibit D: The Ending
By the end of the film, Tony Stark is presented as an individual finally freed of the chains strapped onto him by the Iron Man suits (i.e. no longer a superhero). He initiates the “Clean Slate Protocol” that destroys all of his remaining suits, embracing his eventual-wife Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her requests for him to spend more time with her. He even undergoes surgery to remove the shrapnel stuck in his chest which, as far as I know, is something that he never quite achieves in the comics.
Aside from Pepper’s somewhat questionable disdain for Tony’s suits (I feel like after alien armies invaded New York City, I’d at least want to have, like, one super armor nearby), this entire ending is meant as a dismissal. Not an ending, but a dismissal. Just after the original Avengers movie becomes a mega-hit, Iron Man 3 feels like a movie that so desperately wants the entire ordeal to come to an end. You can see the joy in Pepper’s eyes as the suits explode — which I like to imagine was also how the sinister Shane Black felt when destroying something so many people enjoy.
It’s a sentiment that caters to the kind of people who decry the end of cinema; they go out claiming we don’t get enough “human” stories anymore, as if having superpowers, animation, sci-fi or fantasy elements disqualifies films from being such. No further evidence necessary, your honor.
But with all that said, this is the part of my ramblings where I concede that it all, much like the Mandarin, was a bit of a ruse. Hyperbole can, unfortunately, be kinda fun sometimes! As a lifelong nerd who considered Spider-Man their one true friend when real ones were hard to come by, I have very much found enjoyment with the many, many stories told in the MCU universe. But even still, much of the animosity towards these movies — and general nerd culture — has a certain validity to it.
While I do object to the idea that each comic book film is exactly the same — that somehow Thor battling the goddess of death is the same as Peter Parker trying to figure out how to ask a girl to homecoming — they have certainly had an adverse effect on the film industry. More than ever, intellectual property seems to dominate our entertainment (we’re literally getting Lightyear in a few weeks), and new ideas don’t quite get the same amount of opportunities they once did.
There’s a genuine lack of auteurship with MCU movies; different stories and characters are present, but rarely feel like they’re given a space that is truly unique for them to inhabit. We could get, like, twelve Everything Everywhere All At Onces for the budget of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And perhaps most damningly, it’s created a habit in our entertainment-watching experience to settle for the singles up the middle — right past the second basemen’s diving attempt — for fear of striking out, while aiming for a home run that the outfielder can only stare at in total astonishment.
Iron Man 3 is an unbelievably weird movie. Even the promotion of it was weird, with the original trailer implying we were headed towards some dark, tragedy-laced drama. Instead, we got Ben Kingsley pounding back beers and cheering for scores in a soccer game. It probably thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is, but remains one of the MCU’s most irreverent movies. It was weird then and even weirder now, but also with the adage of being just a tiny bit prophetic. As Tony Stark himself says in the movie:
“You start with something pure. Something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises. We create our own demons.”
So yeah, I’m convinced Iron Man 3 hates nerds. But these days, that doesn’t seem like a totally bad thing.