By the time Marvel Studios developed Iron Man 3, they had a peculiar problem on their hands. Long gone were the days of Hollywood-watchers openly doubting Jon Favreau’s vision for bringing Iron Man to the screen, especially with Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. But after six titanic blockbusters that successively redefined the modern superhero movie, where was Iron Man 3 supposed to go? The first movie of Marvel’s cinematic Phase 2, it couldn’t exactly outdo its immediate predecessor, the Avengers, in sheer fireworks. So Marvel decided to focus less on the Iron and more on the Man in what might be the most contentious Marvel movie yet produced. But for those who enjoy it, it’s one of the most unexpected, and rewarding, installments of the MCU universe.
The story picks up after the events of the Avengers, where Iron Man played a pivotal role in saving New York from destruction but nearly died in the process. Suffering from PTSD, Tony Stark neglects his company, and his love interest Pepper Potts, while obsessively building suit after suit of armor. When a terrorist known as the Mandarin takes responsibility for a mysterious string of terrorist bombings, Stark finds something to focus on, and challenges the bad guys to open combat. But the unfocused Stark bites off more than he can chew, and after narrowly avoiding being blown up in his own home, he finds himself marooned in Tennessee with a kaput suit of armor, and a mystery to unravel: the presence of a super-soldier protocol called Extremis that was developed by a former admirer of Stark’s, and which might be a whole lot more than it’s cracked up to be. If the Mandarin and the threat posed by Extremis is to be stopped, Tony Stark must realize that the armor he wears isn’t what makes him Iron Man. It’s the things he does while wearing it—in whole, in part, or even not at all.
Iron Man 3 marks a pretty serious departure from its various predecessors and establishes a more complicated tone for much of the Phase 2 Marvel movies. For a lot of fans, the change might have been a little too much, too fast: Shane Black took over as chief writer and director, injecting a strain of black humor and rapid-fire banter that puts Tony Stark more in the role of a beleaguered smartass who’s run his course more than an emotionally invincible master of the universe. And in a way, it suddenly deconstructs the very thing that made the Marvel movies such reliable fun for so long: their faithful translation of the energy and dazzling spectacle of how a superhero comic book feels from the page to the screen, unhindered by technical limitations or by writers, directors and producers who never really understood what made comic fans love superheroes in the first place.
So to be fair, the focus here on Tony Stark as a guy without his armor—both external and internal—is a bit of a curveball, but what a curveball it is. This is a story about a hero whose suit of armor doesn’t just grant him his superpowers, it has become both a source of torment and an emotional crutch. Iron Man might have plenty of enemies, but the bigger problem is that Tony Stark is pushing away his friends, from Pepper Potts to James Rhodes to Happy Hogan. The story kicks things off with Iron Man’s enemies destroying half of what he has, and ends with Tony Stark destroying the other half himself.
For all of the suffering Tony goes through in this installment, the irony is that he has his foes to thank for it, because the path of ruination, recovery, rebirth and reinvention he walks is one he was unable to start by himself. The bad guys in Iron Man 3 are eventually defeated by Iron Man and his allies, but their undoing was really set in motion by themselves, who in trying to destroy Tony Stark gave him what he needed to become not just a better hero, but a better man.
The Stark we see brushing people off to their face is not the same guy who could have accepted the help of a bullied little kid and come to rely on him as a partner in a time of crisis. The moment of truth here proves it, too. Deep into the movie, the tables turn on Tony, and he realizes that the people he so callously mistreated from his old arms dealing days have returned to wreak their vengeance upon him. He has laid the seeds for his own destruction, and the only reason why he can survive it is because he can accept responsibility for himself and what he has done. We have already seen a softening of Stark’s shell and the hints of what kinds of demons drove him to become the kind of guy he was before the turn of events that turned him into Iron Man. That’s a worthwhile evolution of our title character, and we will see a lot more of the same in other Marvel movies to follow. Just as Iron Man kicked this whole thing off, so too does Iron Man 3 kick off a darker, deeper phase of it all.
Sure, Tony will build another house and replenish his arsenal of armored suits. And sure, he doesn’t need that arc reactor in his chest any longer. And sure, he manages to survive an extended adventure outside of his comfort zone. But all of this doesn’t hide the fact that Iron Man 3 begins with a hero who is badly broken, and the repair job he does on himself won’t fix everything. That’s the thing about life as a hero. You either don’t survive it at all, or you don’t survive it intact. There is no third option. And as Iron Man, Tony Stark understands that better than anyone.