For better or worse, trilogies have come to mean something to us. A movie series isn’t complete until the third entry closes out the story and imparts grand meaning to its predecessors. The third movie is Babe Ruth, pointing to the outfield rafters. If that doesn’t sound hard enough, Marvel also has to deal with the juggernaut of The Avengers smashing the apparatus of conventional sequels, let alone trilogies. Iron Man 3 had to reinvent the wheel: walk an incredibly thin tight rope of closing out the series, but leaving the character intact for further MCU movies, while finding a way to be relevant in a world where The Avengers has happened.
In the last movie, when Tony Stark redirected a nuclear bomb into a wormhole to space to save the island of Manhattan, we saw in a brief few seconds a portrait of a man deciding to die. Unlike his other brushes with death, this time Stark had no trick up his sleeve to save himself. It is only by pure luck that he managed to survive at all. This movie starts with a perfect display of the bumbling narration that showcases director Shane Black’s sense of humor, delivering Stark’s message “we create our own demons”. A flashback to 1999 shows us not just the kind of dialogue that makes this the funniest Iron Man movie, it also shows us Tony is talking about the movie’s villain, Aldrich Killian as played by Guy Pearce, and how he was set down the path of becoming a villain after being professionally humiliated by Stark. Back in the present, the events of The Avengers have left Tony unbalanced, spending his time tinkering and building countless suits of armor instead of sleeping or socializing. The plot gets kicked into gear when Tony publicly threatens to kill The Mandarin, a terrorist leader in the vein of Bin Laden played by Ben Kingsley, and gets a missile attack on his home in response. Tony gets his ass kicked all the way across the country, leaving him without access to any of his toys. He cools out in Tennessee, is a dick to a 10 year old kid who is helping him, and zeroes in on The Mandarin in Miami where he finds out that The Mandarin isn’t a real person, but a construct of the paramilitary think tank run by Aldrich Killian, who is also commanding an army of people with an ill defined plethora of fire-based powers. This twist angered a lot of viewers, but I appreciated having my expectations subverted. Shane Black is quite fond of this technique, employing it to deliver drama as well as comedy, shown in the they way our heroes fumble attempts to be cool in dangerous situations, or in the quirky variations of the stereotypical 80s henchmen. After a final fight in which automated Iron Man suits show up in an amount that can only be described as a “swarm”, Tony declares himself a changed man by blowing up all his suits and has the shrapnel embedded in his chest removed. The outlandishness of the villains and the places the plot twists us to are a promise to the viewers that we will never return to the grounded roots of the first movie. I have to concede that in a world where New York City just fought off a full scale alien invasion with the help of a Norse god and giant green monster, going back to fighting terrorists in caves seems a bit dull, yet I can’t help feeling mournful for those possibilities left unexplored.
But the really interesting part of this movie is happening below the surface. In The Avengers, before Tony decided to lay his life on the sacrificial altar, Captain America told him “you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.” Stark then experiences his first taste of selfless heroics and it nearly cost him his life. Not only does he have to grapple with that truth, but he also has to deal with the trauma he suffered when he learned that he cannot actually guarantee his survival. He spends his time building suits, and when they all show up during the finale of this movie, we get to witness how deep his obsessing has gotten. What is presented as an exhilarating moment is actually a sad one when you consider that every suit that shows up is another failure to address his anxiety of the unknown. Instead he chose to keep his nose buried in busy work while assuring himself that THIS suit he is working on at the moment WILL be the one that will finally keep him safe and protect what he cares about. His fears are realized during the big fight when his girlfriend Pepper falls to her apparent death. Tony builds to safeguard himself behind manifestations of his ingenuity, perpetually hiding from his problems, but no amount of building will ever build up the man inside the suit. Through a plot convenience, Pepper actually survives and saves him from being killed. Tony has to learn that he alone is not enough to defeat all his problems, he must accept he is vulnerable if he is to allow himself to improve and admit when he needs help. When he blows up all the suits, he is declaring freedom from his anxiety and takes the extra step of having the life threatening shrapnel removed from his chest, eliminating the need for the glowy lights under his shirt and his excuse to remain a broken person. “We create our own demons” seems to be referring to Killian, but if you consider it within the subtext, Tony could be talking about the mental illness he created through the way he tries to ignore or outsmart his problems instead of working on them. Unfortunately, none of this is really presented to the audience, you have to dig if you want to find this meaning. It’s made even more unfortunate since the filmmakers use Tony’s fear of appearing vulnerable as the reason he can’t call the Avengers for help, and with this struggle buried from the surface, there is no apparent justification why the Avengers don’t show up.
Captain America was right about Tony when he said that he was not a hero. Up to this point in the series, we have only seen Tony acting out of flagrant self interest. While the first Iron Man showed us a man wanting to reinvent himself and atone for his past mistakes, this movie shows us Tony was never ready to take big risks or act selflessly until the end. It is a real shame that this movie seemed too afraid to discuss the issues of mental illness and trauma it brought up in any meaningful way. The gravity of those issues could have intertwined with the narrative and shown us a deeper, more meaningful picture of Tony Stark. This movie has layers only because it mostly refuses to engage with its own subtext. Despite those failings, I still like this movie. Aside from being charming, funny, and exciting, it deepens a character we have come to care about. Even on the surface level Tony has grown and changed. As he stands at the edge of the cliffside that used to be his front door and throws the arc reactor that used to keep him alive into the Pacific Ocean, he declares himself a changed man. “My armor, it was never really a distraction or a hobby; it was a cocoon”. In that sense, it does make an end to the trilogy meaningful enough to render the previous sequel unnecessary. Tony Stark has fundamentally changed, and we can only guess where he goes from here. 3/5
Coming up next: Thor: The Dark World (2013)