Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
The lead-up to Iron Man 3’s (2013) release was filled with unfounded rumors online, fueled by behind-the-scenes contract negotiations and previews for toys and action figures. Fans were worried that this film would be Tony Stark actor Robert Downey Jr’s final role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since this movie was the one immediately following the astonishingly successful The Avengers (2012) and was thus kicking off Marvel Studios’ “Phase Two,” some people believed it would feature Iron Man traveling to space as a potential set-up for the upcoming and untested Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Others speculated that the film would feature a special appearance by the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Like any good Christmas present, Iron Man 3 was filled with surprises and, surprisingly given the quantity of buzz and speculation, none of them were seen coming.
The film opens with a flashback to a 1999 conference in Bern, Switzerland where a very drunk Tony Stark makes a few new enemies. It’s a surprisingly effective way to begin the movie by showcasing just how much the Tony Stark character has evolved over the years. Mr. Stark is about to have his life turned upside down culminating in the “sacrifice play” which closes The Avengers just like the upcoming Millennium and the September 11th attacks that would change all of our lives. The distance between 1999 Tony and 2013 Tony isn’t so stark that the character is unrecognizable but it’s the difference between a deeply flawed narcissist who is self-destructive and a deeply flawed narcissist who is trying to change for the better.
Stark’s first speed bump on this journey of self-improvement is his newly developed panic attacks, which are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and unpreparedness following his near-death experience during The Battle of New York. In an attempt to cope with his budding post-traumatic stress disorder, Stark has thrown himself into his work and constructed dozens of new prosthetic armors in an attempt to account for every possible eventuality. This newfound obsession has begun pushing away his friends in a familiar cycle for viewers of the previous Iron Man films. Attempts at healing his relationships and mending his scars are interrupted by provocations and attacks by a new, deadly, international terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). The film’s biggest surprise, of course, is that Mandarin, Iron Man’s mystical archnemesis in the comics, is merely an illusion created for the Military-Industrial Complex by tech rival Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the A.I.M. CEO who was snubbed by Tony that fateful night in Switzerland.
That evening Tony Stark met with and helped future A.I.M. researcher Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) develop her ‘extremis’ project which is a kind of serum that genetically enhances individuals, allowing them to regrow limbs, but has the nasty side-effect of making them addicted to the serum and the human guinea-pigs run the risk of overheating explosively, turning them into human bombs. Tony is drawn into the Mandarin conspiracy when he begins tracking a series of suspicious explosions across the country. After his mansion is attacked and destroyed in broad daylight by the Mandarin’s goons, Tony finds himself in Rose Hill, Tennessee where he teams up with a young boy to solve a mystery and save the day.
In any other movie this would be the doom-spell to an otherwise enthralling picture but Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black joint and the director brings the laughs and the punches with all of his quintessential charm. The whole film is set against the backdrop of Christmastime. This is not obvious when the majority of action is set in Malibu and Miami but when Stark wakes up in a cold sweat in snowy Rose Hill it becomes clearer. The only clue before then was a giant rabbit doll Tony purchased in an ill-advised attempt to buy his way back into ‘Pepper’ Potts’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) favor. Holiday movies come in packs of twelve for ten cents. The Hallmark Channel is absolutely packed with schmaltzy low-budget Christmas adventures; even Netflix has gotten in on the game. If there’s one time of year you’d expect to be free from Christmas movies, it’s the summer blockbuster season. Yet Iron Man 3 is surprisingly at home among the other unconventional Christmas films. It’s a little action-heavy but it pits it’s unambiguously good hero against an unambiguously evil villain. It’s also a little more interested in families and human relationships that your average blockbuster. Of course, that topic can be a little difficult to address with an eccentric bachelor like Marvel’s highest-grossing superhero.
Tony Stark is one of the people least-prepared to becoming a father figure. His struggle to interact appropriately with Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) are hilarious and delightful and the younger actor shines as one of the few not annoying children in motion-picture blockbusters. After the two nerds bond over their mutual struggles and even fight off supervillains together, the film itself moves on completely from their dynamic, eschewing the kind of saccharine sentimentality that would overwhelm a lesser movie entirely. Tony Stark even goes so far as to snidely abandon the child to his face although Stark leaves his damaged and slowly re-powering armor in the boy’s charge. While on the road to Miami, however, Stark is stricken with another panic attack which causes him to seek the comfort and protection of his armor. Tony calls Harley but the armor is not yet ready. With their mentor-mentee relationship collapsing, Harley suggests that Tony calm himself down and focus on engineering his way to a solution.
After splurging in a hardware store, Stark does just that and constructs a number of gadgets which he uses to break into the Mandarin’s Miami mansion. In typical Shane Black fashion the whole thing comes crashing down when Tony discovers that Mandarin is a role being portrayed by heroin-addicted small-time British actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley). Tony is captured and tortured. He is forced to watch helplessly as his girlfriend, Pepper, is injected with the extremis virus. His pal James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has his newfangled Iron Patriot armor stolen. Maya is shot dead by Killian for refusing to participate in this madness any longer. Tony’s inevitable heroic escape from the dungeon is lubricated with a bunch of comedy and is followed with an amazing action set-piece that takes place on Air Force One which hides yet another surprise, which is all the more impressive since the scene itself featured in all of the trailers for the movie. As the passengers fall out of the plane they are all rescued by Iron Man with a barrel of monkeys strategy. The final trick is that Tony Stark was never inside of the armor but merely piloting it remotely. These movies are directly inspired by decades-old comic-book storylines and have even been featured in cartoons and video games. These works of pop-culture are heavily scrutinized by fans and for this film to nevertheless contain surprises made for a wonderful viewing experience.
The film’s final conflict is a big action-heavy festival of explosions as Tony stark remotely summons his full arsenal of armors with the help of his Artificial Intelligence companion J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany) in order to defeat the small army of extremis-empowered goons to rescue Pepper and the US President (William Sadler). Tony actually fails to rescue anybody as Rhodey is the one who saves the President and Potts defeats Killian herself. Instead, Tony focuses on defeating his demons and cements his commitment to his relationships by ordering J.A.R.V.I.S. to detonate all of the armor suits. Furthering this theme are the monologues by Tony Stark which bookend the film. Faced with mortal danger, the eccentric billionaire inventor surrounded himself with a powerful shell which, although it protected him, ultimately shut him off from the world. His borderline insane desire to protect himself would lead him to try and fail to protect the entire planet with Ultron in 2015 and culminate in a disastrous conflict with Captain America over the ethics of responsibility and oversight. Iron Man 3 asked Tony to reconcile his relationship with the Iron Man persona. Tony’s solution to this problem is to have long-awaited heart surgery to clear the shrapnel from his veins and to toss his old arc reactor into the ocean while declaring to the audience “I am Iron Man.” By bucking the trend of secret identities, the Iron Man films have been able to put Tony’s psychological issues at the forefront. His various arcs from films throughout the MCU don’t all fit together perfectly but the progress made in Iron Man 3, and in a post-credits therapy session with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), paved the way for Tony Stark’s relationship with another young boy genius Peter Parker (Tom Holland). After recklessly putting the teen in danger during Captain America: Civil War (2016) the lessons Tony Stark gives Peter in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) come directly from Iron Man 3: “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”
(Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios)