Original Review: Heavy Boots of Lead (three and a half stars)
My original review of Iron Man 3 is mostly focused on how off-putting it was that an Iron Man story could endanger the president and not involve the other Avengers or SHIELD right after The Avengers. It was so obvious to me where Steve Rogers or Nick Fury or at least Black Widow would fit into a story with this big a scope. I didn’t know it at the time, but the movie I wanted was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now that I do have that, it’s easier to appreciate Iron Man 3 for what it is: the end of Tony Stark’s journey to become a super hero. Plus, it’s not like the movie isn’t extremely tied in with The Avengers.
When Captain America threatened Iron Man, “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?” Tony’s response was to describe the man he used to be; a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” Iron Man 3 won’t let him off the hook with glib answers like that, the movie legitimately demands Stark show us the super hero he has become. It gives him the chance to do that by emphasizing the two most iconic aspects of Tony’s identity: the Iron Man suit and the arc reactor embedded in his chest.
In the beginning of the movie, Tony is obsessed with working in his garage. We’ll find out later that he’s amassed a massive collection of super suits, but in the beginning he’s just presented as overworked and exhausted. The mere mention of New York can trigger an anxiety attack, and Tony seeks refuge in his literal armor. So for him to get over the trauma of nearly dying in a wormhole during an alien invasion, Tony needs to learn that he is more than just a pilot. So during the middle part of the movie, Tony’s armor loses its power and he’s forced to track the Mandarin, fight henchmen, and survive super-powered goons with his wits alone. And he does it.
But the lesson isn’t that Tony shouldn’t use the Iron Man armor, he actually should, he’s like way more helpful that way. No, the real lesson is that he does not need to use it. Remember in Spider-Man: Homecoming when he tells Peter Parker “if you’re nothing without the suit then you shouldn’t have it”? This is where Tony figures that out. The story drives that home by putting others in the armor, like Pepper and the president, and them struggling to accomplish simple tasks or, in the president’s case, becoming totally helpless. Tony is Iron Man. The armor just makes him better. Plus it’s pretty funny watching Tony run around with Rhodey in the final battle, clearly having no idea how to actually win a gunfight.
The other manifestation of Tony’s trauma is his arc reactor, a physical reminder of his vulnerability. The movie turns the fact that Tony has a permanent injury in his chest into a reminder of the danger he is in. Tony doesn’t know if the aliens that attacked New York will come back, or what the next big threat will be. He’s gone from taking on evil, but human, bad guys to a world full of super soldiers, gods, monsters, and other CGI creations. In the end, he’ll finally realize that all he can do is face danger when it shows itself. He’s a mechanic, he’ll build a solution when the time comes. And so, he finally lets surgeons remove the shrapnel from his chest, freeing him from that insecurity. Remember Newt’s philosophy from Fantastic Beasts, “worrying means you suffer twice.”
But, and this is the canon section, Tony doesn’t quite learn this lesson yet. Instead, Iron Man 3 sets up the direction that Tony will go in Age of Ultron, with him starting to use drone suits and becoming obsessed with being more than just one man. He destroys all his suits at the end of the movie, but clearly doesn’t give up the life, driving a wedge between him and Pepper, which we’ll hear about in Civil War. This is the last time Tony is the sole main character of a movie, and it’s kind of a shame some of the other big moments of his life end up happening off-screen. But I know me saying I wish there were even more MCU movies is not a popular sentiment.
MCU Power Rankings: I think Shane Black is a much less obvious choice for a movie like this than Jon Favreau, and the movie’s better for it. No one works better with RDJ. I’ll put this right above the original Iron Man.