Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe got off to a rocky start. With the massive success of The Avengers, all future installments had to follow it up and answer the question: What happens now? Marvel Studios was on top of the world, but it was unstable ground, a foundation that could easily crumble if the wrong decisions were made in the wake of their biggest accomplishment. Phase 2 is frustrating, because even with The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, which would end up being two of Marvel’s greatest, it is filled with wasted opportunities. Many great decisions were made in Marvel’s second act, but many bad ones were too.
One of the best and most artistic decisions Marvel Studios made with Phase 2 was the idea to really switch up the directors behind their films. They began to choose increasingly unique, visionary filmmakers who each had their own distinct style. Many of these directors were even untested, with most never having made a big-budget blockbuster before. Shane Black was chosen for Iron Man 3, the man behind the Lethal Weapon series, Last Action Hero, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. His personal filmmaking style is impossible to miss, and it’s dripping all over Iron Man 3 in the best possible way. It’s the only film in the MCU that is narrated throughout, it’s set at Christmas time, and it’s filled with witty dialogue, most of which is delivered by RDJ, who’s a master at it. Coming right after the flashy comic book colors of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 has significantly darker color grading, fitting to its darker subject matter.
Tony Stark is in a bad way. “Nothing’s been the same since New York.” Tony’s life is dominated and guided by trauma, and the alien invasion of New York is the worst instance of this yet. His close call with death and his inability to be able to stop an attack like this happening again rule his thoughts. He can’t sleep, choosing to spend every second of his time making new Iron Man suits to try and be as prepared as possible for the inevitable. His obsession causes him to distance himself from those closest to him, Pepper and Happy, and we see that he hasn’t been spending any time with them, to the point where he even remotely pilots a suit to talk to Pepper at home instead of being there himself. He also suffers from anxiety attacks at any mention of New York or the wormhole he flew through, another manifestation of his PTSD.
This is the best and most interesting aspect of Iron Man 3, and RDJ gives us some of the best dramatic acting he’s done in the role. It’s an honest and bold choice to take our leading man and make him small and so vulnerable immediately following his biggest victory. I’ve never seen any other action franchise touch on the subject. “Gods, aliens, other dimensions? I’m just a man in a can.” he confesses to Pepper. It stays true to Tony’s character, and we get to spend the majority of the film with him outside the suit. Who is Tony without the Iron Man suit? It’s the main question the film poses to the audience, and it’s a good one.
Tony claims that his suits are a part of him, that he and Iron Man are one. Pepper calls them distractions, and yes, Tony’s never ending tinkering with his suits of armor is a coping mechanism above all else. They’re a reaction to the trauma he’s experienced, which is exactly how the very first suit was made in that Afghan cave. Tony’s ever-present self-destructive tendencies come to a head when a new terrorist threat arrives, The Mandarin. Happy is hurt in a Mandarin attack and Tony, who’s paranoia and ego reach their peak, threatens the terrorist and gives him his home address. This obviously does not end well, and Tony has to face the fact that he bit off a bit more than he could chew, and what’s more, he put Pepper in harms way. “Threat is imminent, and I have to protect the one thing that I can’t live without. That’s you.”
Iron Man 3 is filled with a lot of themes and ideas that are interesting and exciting, but unfortunately, most never end up going anywhere. Tony’s anxiety and PTSD is a focal point of the first two acts of the film, but then it’s all dropped by act three and is never brought up again. His anxiety attacks are “cured(?)” with help from Harley, a young boy that Tony meets in Virginia, who tells him that he should try making something to calm himself down. But what Tony makes are more weapons to fight with, which is exactly what his suits are. Not exactly a new and different way of coping.
Aldrich Killian, our main villain, kidnaps the president and then talks to him about an oil spill where, thanks to the president, “not one fat cat saw a day in court”. It’s a bizarre line of dialogue. Killian isn’t even remotely some sort of ecoterrorist and his motivations for killing the president have nothing to do with how corrupt he and his administration may be. The Extremis soldiers are all former military, presumably injured in the field, who Killian gives a second chance, regrowing their limbs, making them super powerful, and giving them jobs working for him. The politics the film goes for surrounding the treatment of these veterans gets extremely muddled. Tony at one point tells the mother of one of these soldiers that her son was a victim, not a killer, and that he was used. He later tells Jarvis to eliminate all of them with “extreme prejudice”. The feel for Iron Man 3 was that it’s supposed to be a buddy cop movie with Tony and Rhodey, but the two don’t spend much time together in the film and split up immediately in the final battle. Plenty of great ideas, none of which the film commits to.
Maya Hansen, creator of the Extremis technology, remarks on how her creation was meant to better the world and ended up being bastardized by Killian and his company. “Before he built rockets for the Nazis, the idealistic Werner von Braun dreamed of space travel, he star gazed. Do you know what he said when the first V2 hit London? The rocket performed perfectly, it just landed on the wrong planet. See, we all begin wide-eyed, pure science. And then the ego steps in, the obsession. And you look up, and you’re a long way from shore.” What a great foundation for a character. She was originally supposed to be the main villain of the entire film, and it makes me long for a version of this film that could’ve been.
Maya was scrapped as the villain and replaced with Aldrich Killian, a character who wasn’t even in the film before. Why the change? The powers at be determined that a female villain wouldn’t sell any toys. Right, because kids were lining up around the block to get their hands on an Aldrich Killian action figure. It’s a foolish change for the lowest reason, and by writing in Killian, Maya Hansen’s role is diminished to a point where she’s almost entirely insignificant, and is unceremoniously killed off in the middle of the second act.
The Mandarin twist, where the menacing terrorist mastermind turns out to just be a drugged-out British actor, works for me. It works as a concept and half of the execution of it works well too. Ben Kingsley’s drastic turn remains one of the greatest bait and switches in cinema history, a truly shocking plot twist that remains one of the most hilarious moments I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater. The idea of a white evil businessman being the one pulling the strings and using the image of a terrorist to manipulate the world through fearmongering is a great one, and it’s in line with the themes of the previous Iron Man films.
Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin was so fun and menacing to the point where people were comparing it to Heath Ledger’s Joker. The problem isn’t that we didn’t get the villain we wanted (and a full-on adaptation of the Mandarin would veer dangerously close to racist caricature), but that he is then replaced by Killian, one of the least remarkable villains in the entire MCU roster. He just isn’t very compelling or interesting. He has a history with Tony where Tony left him on a roof one New Year’s Eve after promising to meet him there, but this personal grudge is barely touched on, certainly not between the two of them. Killian even says that he thanks Tony for it, as it allowed him to become the man he is. He has a weird romantic(?) inkling towards Pepper, kidnapping her and holding her as a trophy, but this also goes nowhere and isn’t even a source of real contention between him and Tony.
Iron Man 3 marks the first glaring instance of studio meddling that would end up hurting the film. I truly feel like the original idea of Maya as the villain would’ve made for a more interesting film. However, her character could’ve also ended up among the scattered ideas that are introduced and don’t go anywhere that this film is littered with. With all this said, Iron Man 3 is still a thrilling film and a somewhat satisfying conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy. The action is inspired, from Tony fighting with only one glove and one boot, to the appearance of the Iron Legion and seeing all of the different kinds of suits flying around, to Tony jumping around from suit to suit to fight Killian. It showcases how capable Tony is even without the suit, and ends on a cathartic note where he realizes that he doesn’t need them.
The image of Tony and Pepper embracing as all of the suits explode around them is an almost beautiful moment that shows just how far Tony has come. He finally removes the shrapnel from his chest and tosses his arc reactor that was keeping him alive into the ocean, whilst standing among the wreckage of his home. Tony is ready to do his best to move on from the trauma of his life and focus on what matters most to him. He’s done the best he can for the moment, and he knows that “You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys. One thing you can’t take away…I am Iron Man.” Tony is always and forever Iron Man, with or without the suit.
At the time of its making and release, Iron Man 3 marked the end of Robert Downey Jr.’s contract with Marvel, and it was uncertain if he would return. This film had to be made under the impression that it would be the last ride for Tony, and it’s a mostly satisfying end to the character’s arc and journey that he’s been on. Imagine how different the MCU would be today if this had, in fact, ended up being the final appearance of Tony Stark. His continuing presence in later films would muddle the emotionality of Iron Man 3’s ending a good bit to where it almost outright negates it, but they do try to comment on this in Civil War, and I don’t consider it a total waste.
Iron Man 3, while still being a massive hit at the box office, instantly became one of the most polarizing Marvel films amongst fans. Phase 2 was off to a rocky start, and Thor was next up to bat. That didn’t go so well either.
Connections to the MCU: Extremis would return on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Tony’s time spent with Harley is a nice little precursor to his future mentor / father-figure relationship with Peter Parker, and his anxiety and PTSD, while dropped from this film in the third act, would continue to drive all of his actions going forward.
Nitpicks: I have a lot of minor issues with this film. A common complaint in the Phase 2 films is that the other Avengers never show up to help each other out. I will excuse this for Thor: The Dark World (the events of it happen too quickly for anyone to come help) and The Winter Soldier (the events of it are secret throughout), but it is impossible to ignore in Iron Man 3. Tony threatens the Mandarin and gives him his address, the world sees his house blown up and Tony is presumed dead, and then this same terrorist successfully blows up Air Force One and kidnaps the president, and not even Captain America is called in? Also, regarding the Mandarin’s attack on Tony’s home, why didn’t the army send people to defend the place? How is it possible that Tony had no defense set up for the attack, when he knew it was coming? And he had the entire Iron Legion sitting down in the basement. Killian kidnaps Rhodey and then keeps him alive for no reason, and also breathes fire at him, a skill that may have been useful in his fight against Tony but he never uses again. Why does Pepper blasting an explosive at Killian end up killing him, but Tony self-destructing a suit with Killian inside of it doesn’t? And, my final nitpick, the emotional stakes would’ve been higher if they had killed Happy in the Mandarin attack instead of just injuring him.