May 6 2013 9:00am

Your Pal, The Mechanic: How Iron Man 3 Stripped Tony Stark of His Armor For Good

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.

Emily Asher-Perrin was able to write this in a cave. With a box of scraps. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

1. Kasiki
Very good points on the movie. It was definately different from phase 1 in its tone and story. While the movies in phase 1 generally fell into fun summer action movies with a solid plot, this one was definitly more serious. The only question i had during the movie is what is SHEILD doing right now? It seems that there should have been some sort of interaction, even if it is tony telling them off, or something because it became clear the threat was big enough for SHEILD to do something.
Igor Toffie
2. toffie
Perhaps SHEILD's abscence will be explained with AIM keeping them distracted or something. Other movies (Thor, Captain) will have a much harder time keeping SHEILD/Avengers out of the story. And while on topic of Avengers - this movie had much better implementation of "now it's personal" when Happy gets injured, than the "his name was Coulson" very stretched motivation.

This movie was great fun, had lots of story, humor, action and personality. And there seems to be a lot of hate on Mandarin twist, instead of realising what a twist they've made and kept the story fresh and contained within the Marvel movie universe...or maybe Mandarin (Kingsley) is a mastermind behind it all *dramatic music*
Chris Bridges
3. cabridges
You mentioned my favorite bit, and something few (if any) action moveis have ever done: the big deal guy action star was saved by a woman. Twice. Including the final put-down-the-bad-guy kickass slam. It worked beautifully for the movie, the story and for Tony and Pepper's story arcs and was the best way to end things. And damn few male action movie actors would have ever allowed it to happen. Nicely done. Sad that it happens so seldomly.
Chris Nelly
4. Aeryl
I assume, with the introduction of Robert Redford in Winter Soldier, is that there are some personnel shakeups at SHIELD that preclude them from getting involved in any of the Phase 2 stories.

No love for the post credits scene?

I enjoyed the hell out of it, unfortunately I got spoiled, so I knew Pepper didn't die when she fell from the crane, but everything else had my heart pounding. Keeping Tony out of the suit for most the movie was a stroke of genius. You got to see his genius come to the front, as he had to improvise weapons and at how terrible he was at those kinds of tactics.

How the Mandarin is played was smart as well, though I just wish Killian and Maya's motivations went beyond gilted.
Chris Nelly
5. Aeryl
Does this happen with the comics? Where everyone wonders "Where the Avengers at?" when they are on their solo stories?

Cuz I never once wondered why SHIELD or the Avengers were, but I guess I'm the only one? I knew they weren't going to be in the movie, and I didn't feel like I needed that explained. I'm happy enough they are acknowledging what happened in the story, and that there are repercussions.
6. Bittersweet Fountain
@Aeryl, when I'm reading comics it doesn't bother me, but in the movies for some reason it does. But I think Iron Man 3 skirts the issue with the fact that most everyone thinks Tony is dead. So I could see SHIELD or Cap showing up at the rubbles of his house (or heck, SHIELD being the ones to clean the rubble hoping to find a suit), but how would they know to follow or help Tony? They, like everyone else, would assume he was dead.
7. damegotor
People tend to forget Tony now has the recipe for the Extremis. He cured Pepper, and for sure he now has the refined version of it (without the heating). In the comics, when his Arc Reactor came off, he used Extremis to power up himself and his suits.
8. AnthonyX
"....and the introduction to the character within the film comes off unapologetically racist..."

Confused by that line. How was this racist?
Chris Nelly
9. Aeryl
The Mandarin's introduction was all about playing into blatant stereotypes about terrorists.
10. Kasiki
@7 damegotor

It isn't that we forget, it is that it is of little to no importance in the movie. It will be in the next Avengers movie. That is still a few years away. Either that story line, or an Ironman 4 (phase 3) will go into some detail about what he has done with the tech. Has he altered Pepper into Resue? Will Stark finally be the one to upgrade War Machine...i mean Iron Patriot. BTW the exchanges over that name change were a nice touch in the movie.
John Carter
11. jcfrommars9
SHIELD and Captain America weren't involved because as Rhodey said about the Mandarin, it was U.S. Government business. They didn't want them let alone Tony Stark getting mixed up in the affair because the Pentagon wanted to show they can stand strong on their own without the help of superheroes.
12. Hatgirl
I adored that The President, a man, was put in the classic damsel-in-distress role. And when Rhodey clasped him to his chest in the classic Superman-saving-Lois style, I mentally high-fived Kevin Black.
Alan Brown
13. AlanBrown
What an entertaining, well-put-together, and very satisfying movie this was. I thought the emotional aspects with the panic attacks was very well done, and quite convincing. The aerial rescue was breathtaking. The Mandarin twist was brilliant. The role Pepper played was great. The part with the kid worked well. So many good moments, and capped by an ending that fit the movie like the cherry on an ice cream sundae.
If Marvel keeps making movies like this, I will be a happy man!
james loyd
15. gaijin
Three things:

"…unfortunately I got spoiled, so I knew Pepper didn't die when she fell from the crane…"
I really wasn't worried about Pepper surviving. When she fell I just thought "Um, Extremis? Other people infected with it have been surviving things at least that deadly through this whole movie."

I thought The Madarin was supposed to be a terrorist anomaly instead of a terrorist stereotype. How exactly, IS he "unapologetically racist"? The name? Chinese origin, but explained in the movie. Motive? Real terrorists are usually very clear about their motives, but not this guy. Even though Tony assumed his base of operations would be in the middle east, I'm not sure why. The Mandarin's clothes, sets, and accent were a hodgepodge of cultures. The hint of Muslim/middle eastern influence is no stronger than the Ming the Merciless robes, death metal video sets, or Heath Ledger Joker-ish vocal cadence. In fact, the ONLY time any religion is mentioned in conjunction with The Mandarin is when his delivery is compared to a "Baptist preacher." If anything, Tony held racist (or culturally biased) assumptions about a relatively ambiguous villain.

My biggest disappointment/irritation with the whole film was that they never explained why the Mandarin/Trevor had a Captain America shield and Avengers A tattooed on the back of his neck. It was pretty clear in the trailer even before screen captures started showing up everywhere, but I don't remember it being visible in the movie.

Was it just a red herring or will it show up in a deleted scene later?
Chris Nelly
16. Aeryl
The Mandarin was presented as a terrorist while conforming to many stereotypes about terrorists. The imagery surrounding him was hodgepodge, but the hairstyle and clothing screamed "Bin Laden rip off". The whole point of the Mandarin is that he fit the stereotypes of a terrorist. The portrayal was intended as a racist cariacature. It was Tony who observed that it was just a mush of several seperate sterotypes.
17. Alekesam
I was actually okay with the Mandarin twist. Before the movie even started filming, Shane Black said no Mandarin because as a character he's a racist caricature. The interesting thing about this (to me) is that while the Mandarin is a racist caricature, Black took that and ran with it to the endzone and then turned it on it's head for an extra point by making the true Mandarin be Guy Pierce and making a commentary on how people view people through these stereotypes as well as those that perpetuate and make them to their own gain. Brilliant.
18. EMo15
I thought the movie was good but I don't think it lived up to the first two, and especially didn't meet my expectation for the finale of the Iron Man series. I just started a new blog reviewing movies, and wrote a little more about it, so go check it out at , and let me know your thoughts on the movie!
John C. Bunnell
19. JohnCBunnell
On the whole, I liked the movie's treatment of Tony but not its treatment of the Mandarin/Kingsley.

First, it seems to me that the script makes actor Trevor Slattery somewhat unbelievably stupid -- I don't quite see how you take a "role" like this without realizing fairly quickly that your bosses actually are playing with real bombs.

Also, while Killian's creation of the faux Mandarin is clever in itself, the vast superstructure in which Tony finds Slattery seems implausible and unnecessarily risky. Killian, you'd think, would be smart enough to keep Slattery under closer guard and provide more double blinds so that Tony or SHIELD, should they come looking, would find compounds full of hot death (pun definitely intended) but not the Slattery-shaped McGuffin they're looking for.

Then there are the problems with casting Kingsley in this role. I'd argue that he's wasted in it; there's no real depth or nuance in the Slattery character, whom the script leaves high and dry once the twist is revealed. (This isn't entirely unreasonable in story terms; going solely by internal logic, Slattery isn't a particularly important character. But it's unfortunate for viewers who, not unreasonably, are expecting a meatier portrayal from Kingsley than they get.)

And then there's the weird resonance -- at least for me -- that arises from using Kingsley in this particular part. Because the whole "he's not real, he's an actor" twist has been done before...and in a Ben Kingsley movie, at that. The Mandarin twist in IM3 is exactly the twist that drives Without A Clue, starring Kingsley and Michael Caine. Admittedly IM3 is the inside-out-and-backwards version; in Clue, the hero ("Sherlock Holmes") is the hired actor, and Kingsley (as Watson) is the mastermind rather than the masquerader. But the parallels are fascinating, and IM3 suffers by comparison because Clue does so very well at mining the twist's dramatic potential.
20. Bradley Handley
Ah here's the thing yes tony did blow up all of his suits.......thats where your wrong what about the iron patriot suit he wouldnt blow that up with rhodey inside unless he got sick of him and decided fuck it its christmas KILL THAT BITCH
21. JSM
Bunny Theory:
How bout this: Tony at the point of time has a scientist friend called
Hank Pym, as as they both collaborate for some freaky experiment
involving molecular manipulation, Tony got an idea how to impress his
girlfriend, and the Bunny was born.. so its an eater egg for the Ant Man/Giant Man..
22. Jon P
How Iron man 3 Stripped Tony Stark of His Armor For Good, its amazing .For fans of the comics, the Extremis part of the storyline might play in a manner that may not expect. While it seems not a shame. Tony to adopt Extremis for himself.iron man ,iron man fans, iron man collectables
23. Chris J
Um... did you forget that she defeated the villain in the first movie? But the bottom line is she did it at Tony's instruction, and in 3, with Tony's creations. Whoop! Tony rules.

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