At the end of The Avengers, we watched Tony Stark prove Captain America wrong—after getting torn down for being unwilling to make sacrifices for others, Iron Man sped through a black hole to save the Earth from certain destruction. Unfortunately, what Stark told Captain Rogers during the course of the film was true, at least from his perspective; he’s not a soldier.
So how does someone who is not a soldier recover from having a soldier’s experience, which is essentially what Tony has been doing since he got hit by wayward shrapnel in Afghanistan? That is what Iron Man 3 attempts to answer—and what it finds is what precisely separates Tony Stark from all other superheroes of his ilk.
Spoilers for Iron Man 3 follow. Our spoiler-free review can be found here.
Writer and director Shane Black has worked with Robert Downey, Jr. before on the film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and one should start by making mention of the similarities between the films, including the same brand of wit, some wonderfully layman action sequences—Tony fighting out of the suit is a gift that keeps giving as we discover just how many holes there are in his knowledge of combat awareness and technique—and the bracketing voiceover narration. Tony is recounting the tale for us (or so it seems), and we follow because he is clearly trying to impart something of importance.
What he is trying to impart is the manner through which Tony Stark rediscovers himself. Starting out life as the brat, the bad boy, the genius kid surrounded by toys of his own invention and piles of money, Stark’s life was turned upside down by his experience in that terrorist camp in the first Iron Man film. We see how the knowledge of what his weaponry does changes him, and moreover how his new vulnerability leads to an intense need to protect himself. In many ways, that is all the Iron Man armor signifies, despite the revenging ends he uses it for; it is protection from the world, a way of making himself impervious after discovering just how fragile his life is.
And so, following the events in The Avengers, we see that Tony is shaken yet again. Now the symptoms are manifesting themselves in ways that he truly cannot control—panic attacks, insomnia, night terrors. It is the psychological damage that most superheroes are denied on film, the type of damage they are more likely to receive than any grave physical injury. It is affecting his newly minted relationship with Pepper already, and that’s worse, because Tony has never had a real relationship before and is already horrible at it... as the giant custom stuffed bunny for Pepper shows us. We can at least give him credit for improving; unlike Iron Man 2, he lets her know that he’s in a bad way rather than keeping secrets.
But not fast enough because his house is soon in the Pacific Ocean and he’s on the run. If anyone should have a kid sidekick it’s Tony Stark, and they waste no time giving him one. Stark happily shows all the paternal instinct of a cheese grater—we know he didn’t have much to model after in Howard Stark. His interactions with strangers are charming to say the very least, and more importantly, these moments strip Tony down to the very base of his character, a genius engineer with the heaping eccentricities to match.
Rhodey is finally given a more active role, and if it was fun to watch him and Tony take each other apart in Iron Man 2, it’s even more fun to watch him play the hero, too. Happy’s injury at the start of the film acting as Tony’s trigger plays into another aspect of Stark’s oddly reclusive life; the people he holds close to him are literally everything to him because he never lets the rest of the world that far in. Without his crew he loses touchstones, and while he can usually get by on his wit and fame, it is clearly more of a hardship on his end.
But the shock of the story is the Mandarin, of course.
I would argue that the villains make or break these films—while they are typically enjoyable regardless, the best Marvel movies so far have been smart about their big bads. Trailers made the Mandarin seem like Bane 2.0, and the introduction to the character within the film comes off unapologetically racist (which the comics version is), full of caricatures that don’t mesh. Something feels off the whole time; even Tony himself remarks on the theatricality of it until we are given the punchline—Ben Kingsley is not the Mandarin at all. He is a vagabond actor playing a part, and too high to notice what a messy part it is. It is a shrewd political message in an age where the fear of terrorism is still preying on us every day. Someone should have noticed that something was wrong with the Mandarin, with what he was saying and how he was presenting himself, but the real Mandarin was playing on fear, allowing it to do all of the work for him.
For fans of the comics, the Extremis part of the storyline might play in a manner that some might not expect. While it seems a shame to not allow Tony to adopt Extremis for himself, there are elements from that upgrade that the film depicts as independent creations on his part, such as how he interfaces with JARVIS through an internal system and how he calls the suits to him via tech contained in nano-injections. The agents that have use of Extremis make for the worst kind of villain flunkies, the sort that can actually pose a threat. It takes an entire legion of Iron Men to fight them off in the final battle and it still ends horribly for Tony. Or, it would have if not for Pepper.
A standing ovation for Pepper Potts, ladies and gentleman, who proved without fuss or fanfare that a woman could use the Iron Man armor like it was nothing, could defend and protect others under pressure, and could certainly perform the definitive heroic action of the film, saving Tony’s life and destroying the Mandarin. Wait, it looked like I just typed out that the superhero’s girlfriend ganked the film’s supervillain... Oh. I did. Yes, I did. And I will never stop grinning about it. We find that Pepper has grown just as much as Tony—she has adjusted to their life with the same ease she shows in those impossible stilettos she wears, and will meet every challenge he throws in her direction with her titanium abs.
Pepper, where is your Rescue movie?
We end by erasing the board and starting some new equations. By being absolved of the responsibility to take out the true Mandarin, Tony is released from his terrors—he didn’t have to face it alone and he didn’t lose the one thing he couldn’t live without. He will always be Iron Man, but he can be that without the armor now... you could almost say it’s a state of mind. He figures out a way to fix Pepper, and more importantly, he figures out a way to fix himself. He gets that shrapnel out of his chest, and suddenly Tony Stark no longer has need of his “little circle of light.” It’s as sad as it is uplifting, the end of an era. But in the style of James Bond, the words “Tony Stark Will Return” flash on the screen after the post-credits sequence. So we know his story isn’t over yet, even if it is another actor picking up the mantle after Avengers 2.
Stan Lee has said that the original intention behind Tony Stark’s wound in the Iron Man comics was to give him a literal broken heart. What Iron Man 3 tells us is that this is no longer a working metaphor—Tony’s heart has mended, and what he becomes now and forevermore is what he was always meant to be, a complete person on his own terms, free to change the world for the better. But let’s not forget the root of who that person is—
—Your Pal, The Mechanic.