Iron Man Three is the single most misunderstood and unfairly maligned (among core fans, anyway) movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s why they’re wrong.
The reasons why it’s not universally loved are understandable. It’s a strange-looking, oddly-placed entry in the chronological canon, acting as a conclusion – but not a farewell – to a character who takes a key role in at least two subsequent films. It’s got a lore-breaking twist in the middle of its plot that reshapes the foe from the traditional Mandarin (in a style many may have viewed as flippant), a somewhat cluttered final battle sequence, and items like Extremis & Iron Patriot that didn’t remain relevant.
This isn’t really a defense of the film so much as it is a treatise on character. If you hate Iron Man Three, or certain moments within it, there’s a good chance you’re missing something critical about the complex pathology of Tony Stark as conveyed in the MCU.
To understand why, the first thing I recommend is revisiting the movie completely on its own. Clear from your head what you know from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and the Marvel-specific stuff. This movie kills a lot of birds with the same stone. You’ve likely forgotten the jokes but you’ll know the Mandarin twist, the clean slate ending, and the fact that Stark spends most of the movie out of the suit. That gives you fresher eyes to examine the full picture and observe the narrative seams in motion. Iron Man Three’s biggest problem is that it’s such an unwieldly film; the exact purpose of each moment is difficult to grasp, so the complete picture could unravel from a single editing flop. It works here because this is not a linear tale so much as a character mosaic.
The secret to its narrative isn’t *what* specifically happens (the story propulsion doesn’t come from big, hard-hitting moments like the “death” of Phil Coulson in The Avengers), but the *how* of it all.
Some may sum up the thesis of the film as holding that the man makes the Iron Man suit, not the other way around. That isn’t wrong, but it misses two other essential points hammered home by the ending.
Iron Man isn’t just a suit that the man makes.
To only view Iron Man in terms of his trademark suits of armor is to make the same mistake Tony Stark himself was making in the film. It’s the “special-effects-without-a-story” approach that George Lucas derided thirty years prior.
To make this point, Shane Black opts for a half MacGyver, half Jackie Chan approach to the action scenes, and flexes the film to get Stark into them. Notice how the action consists of Stark interacting with his tools and environment. The suit he’s wearing when set upon at home is a prototype Stark has to rewire manually to make shoot. Later he starts off handcuffed and unarmed against two opponents with guns and the ability to melt metal. Within minutes he’s fashioning weapons and explosives out of household objects, and even using his opponents’ own Extremis powers against them. Then he infiltrates a compound with electrified oven gloves and Christmas ornaments he’s turned into flashbangs. Then he fights his way out with only a metal arm and leg. For the final action scene, when all the suits are in the picture, they’re in the background piloted by JARVIS.
This all may seem just like part of Iron Man Three’s unique flavor of spectacle, but Black lets the style carry some of that thematic heft as he’s zipping through the plot, just as he did when he wrote the jumper scene from Lethal Weapon. They reveal the man underneath for what his power really is. Iron Man is Tony Stark as an inventor, a troubleshooter, a mechanic; his power is his resourcefulness no longer constrained by the suit. Thus we get an ending that redefines the parameters of his heroism – one where he chucks his arc reactor and picks up a screwdriver before saying the final words: “I am Iron Man.”
We saw hints of this in The Avengers, when Stark used his suit to install a new transmission line underwater, and then to dislodge the debris from the helicarrier engine and push it to speed. The suit is a tool – an outward extension of Stark’s own greatness. But it’s in Iron Man Three where Stark himself learns this, giving Iron Man the opportunity to become so much more.
Speaking of Stark himself coming to understand his own heroic virtue, that raises the second point.
Tony Stark’s guilt and worst habits are abstract forms of his ego, which is his own worst enemy.
Whereas the first two films took character inspiration from the prime years of Howard Hughes and set him on the path of becoming a hero, the third film’s portrayal resembles Hughes’s latter years in mental decline by having Stark obsess over keeping himself on top and treating other people horribly in the process.
Stark transgresses himself in a way that locks him into a cycle of constant modeling and tinkering. What matters in the film is not that he’s having anxiety attacks or breakdowns from post-traumatic stress. It’s that those are just noticeable symptoms reflecting his ego’s inability to come to grips with the fact that the universe is bigger than he prepared for. Aside from how little sleep he’s getting, what’s worse is that he’s gotten so “good” at all this tinkering that the suits now automate themselves, which only makes him feel worse about what his use is. He isn’t just making Iron Man suits in preparation for every possible contingency; he’s externalizing his fears through metallic versions of himself that he can tinker with to perfection and rely on like a crutch. At the beginning of Iron Man Three, the suit is now an interloper in his relationship, and he has no idea how to “fix” that. And when the bad guys blow up his house and cast him out on his own, he clings to the suit like the walls of a cocoon.
When you understand the character this way – on the film’s own terms – I imagine the idea of him going up against an old flashy classical villain that he can simply defeat with the right suit would amount to missing the point.
Previous villains have reflected darker shades of Tony and Howard Stark’s business and lifestyles. Aldrich Killian began as a reflection of who Stark would be if he was just another awkward brainiac, and became a better version of who Stark was in his pre-cave dwelling days. His source of superpower – Extremis – attempts to upgrade the human brain and repair the body to effectively make someone invincible. This is exactly what Stark is pursuing as he chases his own tail.
And in trying his own hand at post-wormhole war profiteering, Killian is bastardizing the pure and beautiful idea that Maya Hansen’s Extremis began as, not unlike what Stark himself is doing to the Iron Man.
This is considerably more advanced and complex than the rudimentary metaphor of Iron Man 2’s chest palladium from his arc reactor to be solved in the most comic-book-y way ever. Iron Man Three took what had previously empowered Iron Man to its logical extreme to make a point about what’s truly important in a great man’s life. The clean slate ending isn’t written or executed to say goodbye to Iron Man (see point #1 again); it’s the Christmas redemption – the act of coming home and actually treating it like a home rather than an iron fortress. The open-heart surgery to remove the shrapnel is just that – opening his heart and learning to be a person again.
The film may have made it all a bit too logical and “perfect” to relay that exact emotion, especially given how much it tried to joke its way through it. I understand also why some think the ending may be interpreted as quitting since the entire movie paints him as a guy who clearly needs a break – a common theme of Shane Black’s screenplay bibliography. Yet he’s as much a guy who can’t retire because he’s Iron Man, and now knows how to be that in a healthier way without the redundancies or constraints of the suit.
If you need further proof of this broader ethos, you need only look at where Stark was taken in Ultron and Civil War, which the themes reverberate into. Stark places himself at the top of his own designs for the Avengers and the world, and keeps creating problems for everyone else as a result of it. His will to keep and control everything which had made a mess of his own life now makes a mess of the Avengers as a unit and a family, and will soon likely be making a mess of Spider-Man’s life as well.
For such an antagonist to so many others we cheer for, it’s amazing that Tony Stark is still a hero. Iron Man Three showed us why.