WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for Iron Man 3. Do not read unless you have seen the film.
Iron Man is my favorite superhero.
On film, at least. Of this I have no doubt. Watching Shane Black’s terrific Iron Man 3 brought this into sharp perspective for me, for although I love what Marvel Studios has done with Thor and Captain America, and adore Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, and hold a special place in my heart for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, I cannot pretend I love any of those characters nearly as fiercely as I adore Tony Stark. What Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, and now Shane Black have done with this character goes beyond delivering a great performance, or creating a simultaneously fun and introspective atmosphere for him to exist in. It is more than just crafting spectacular action sequences to let him dazzle us with superheroics, or giving him strong supporting characters to quip with. This all plays into the larger equation, but the sum is so much greater than the parts. Over five years and four movies, Downey Jr. and the Marvel creative team have created what feels like a real, living human, a figure so richly defined, detailed, and palpable that it is often hard to remember he exists only within the realm of celluloid.
How else could Shane Black so perfectly tailor every single element of Iron Man 3, a sprawling studio blockbuster of mammoth proportions, to expertly advance Tony’s intensely human arc of identity and insecurity? ‘Complex characterization’ is not a strong enough term to describe what he and Downey Jr. accomplish here. This is an insightful and engaging psychological analysis of an impossibly rich and fascinating central character, and may be the current pinnacle of the superhero film as character piece, surpassing even Nolan’s Dark Knight films in terms of cutting to the heart of what makes the title figure tick, and vibrantly defining what audiences love about him in the process.
Iron Man 3 is also tremendously funny, of course, and endlessly intriguing, and bombastically exciting as only the greatest comic-book blockbusters can be. Having viewed it twice now, I am convinced this is a watermark for the genre – the second Marvel has delivered in twelve short months – and the only proof I ever need to defend that, cinematically speaking, Iron Man is not only the best Avenger, but the most emotionally rewarding costumed hero of them all.
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Much of this is due to the presence of co-writer/director Shane Black, who brings a fresh and invigorating perspective to the Iron Man universe. Jon Favreau deserves every ounce of praise one can give him for the work he did on the first two films, not just in casting the exquisite ensemble, but cracking how to best represent a ‘comic-book’ spirit in live-action without sacrificing an ounce of psychological complexity or emotional realism. Those are the fundamentals of Tony Stark/Iron Man as a character, and are the reason he has been so widely embraced on film.
With Shane Black on board, they remain the foundation of this franchise. But Black builds out from that foundation differently than Favreau did, and at this point in Tony’s story – especially after the game-changer that was The Avengers – it feels extremely natural, and highly rewarding, to have a fresh pair of eyes on the material.
Black employs his own set of stylistic tics and obsessions – fans of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in particular will recognize the Christmas setting, flashback opening that informs both the narrative and thematic arc to come, witty and unconventional narration with a clever framing device (which even extends into the usually non-director specific post-credits tag), and a mystery plot the hero must piece together amongst many absurd twists and turns – but what really interests me here is how he employs his own particular thematic lens to analyze Tony Stark. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang deals with how the face we present to the world – or try and sometimes fail to present – is so often at odds with the identity we feel inside, and how struggling to come to terms with this dissociation is both an arduous and rewarding process.
These are the ideas behind Iron Man 3 as well, albeit taken to the Nth degree. Of all the films Marvel has produced thus far, Iron Man 3 feels structurally and thematically tightest, for Black has tailor-fit every single aspect of this story to directly parallel or inform Tony’s personal arc. The Mandarin fake-out – an absolutely wonderful surprise that the Disney marketing team gleefully helped establish by putting Ben Kingsley front and center in advertisements – isn’t just a hat trick, but a major thematic turning point. By building up a seemingly ‘iconic’ villain, and then knocking him down only to leave Aldrich Killian standing as the true opponent, the film underlines how easy it is to manipulate through image and project an identity predicated on lies.
This notion of intentional dissociation is an important one for Tony Stark to encounter, for he himself is tortured by deep-seated insecurity stemming from his own dissociative impulses. One of the major visual motifs of Iron Man 3 is that of Tony’s suits acting independently from his body. When we get to the climactic action sequence and there are dozens of suits flying and fighting on their own, it is not just a dazzling VFX conceit, but a natural extension of the film’s basic thematic fabric. Tony Stark is insecure at this point in his life, and unable to tell where the suit stops and the man begins. Early on, especially in his interactions with Pepper, he treats his suit as an extension of himself, essentially deprioritizing his own flesh-and-blood body in favor of the metallic creations he believes defines him. And yet once his ego gets the better of him and he invites the Mandarin to destroy his home – and most of his equipment – he is left in a remote Tennessee town with only his physical body to rely upon – the start of a journey that will lead him to understand, internalize, and ultimately overcome his crisis of identity.
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It all goes back to what Tony proclaimed at the end of the first movie: “I am Iron Man.” What do these words mean? Did Tony even consider the full weight of what he said in that moment? Since Shane Black did not create or influence this scene, he can look at it with the fresh eyes of a spectator, and come to a different conclusion than may have been forged at the time. An immature Tony Stark says this not as a sign of unitary identity, but to highlight how he has ‘become’ something else. And leads to the most important thematic question of Iron Man 3: Are Tony Stark and Iron Man truly one and the same, or is Iron Man just a persona, a façade he adopts to confront the difficulties of the real world? Does this image he projects through his heroics reflect the man underneath?
It makes total and complete sense to ask these questions in the wake of The Avengers; in fact, it feels like the only major avenue Tony has left to go, after dealing with his immorality in the first Iron Man and addictive, self-destructive behavior in the second. Iron Man 3 is a largely standalone film, bereft of the cameos and winking nods that sometimes overwhelmed Marvel’s Phase One features, but the events of New York matter very much here, for what Tony experienced fighting the Chitauri would, naturally, shake his understanding of his own dual identity. For most of the other Avengers, Thor and Captain America especially, there is no other ‘self’ they retreat to when the battle is done. Thor is always Thor, and even when Captain America is Steve Rogers, his strength, stamina, and personality remain the same. And even though Bruce Banner has to transform to become the Hulk, it is a transformation of his flesh that comes from within.
But Tony Stark is only ‘super’ when he puts on the suit, right? He tells the world he is Iron Man, and tries to project a unified image wherein they are one and the same, but is he so confident of this reading? Of all the Avengers, he is the one who came closest to death, and he is the one who, upon going back to daily life, will naturally feel the most dwarfed by everything he experienced, because he is not a God, nor a Hulk, nor does he have superpowers like Cap.
Thus, by the time Iron Man 3 opens, Tony is deep in the throws of post-traumatic stress, and tinkering constantly with the sense of dissociation he feels, creating suit after suit after suit, many of which are built to exist separate from his own body. Unconsciously, he is exploring the foundation of his own Iron Man persona.
And Robert Downey Jr., it should be said, is absolutely spectacular illustrating all this. There will always be a revelatory aspect to his performance in the first Iron Man that makes it a landmark, but in some ways, I am even more impressed with his work here. Anxiety attacks and PTSD are tough concepts to project in any circumstance, especially while retaining a wit and humor inherent to the character, but Downey pulls it off with aplomb. He is as funny, charming, and innately likable as ever, but when called upon to deliver the big dramatic beats – like his first-act speech to Pepper (“I’m a piping hot mess”), or the different anxiety attacks he experiences (I am especially moved at how he illustrates the one that hits him with no particular trigger while driving, which feels very true to life) – he absolutely kills it. This is one of the great and iconic pop culture presences of our time, and here, it becomes one of the great dramatic performances of the year. Robert Downey Jr. deserves an Oscar, at one point or another, for embodying Tony Stark, and this seems like as good an opportunity as any to recognize the genius of his work.
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But I digress. What this all comes back to, again and again, is a conflict of identity, and as previously noted, every element of the story is precisely tailored to further this particular arc. Killian and his plot are not just an empty excuse for action – although the extremis powers make for far more compelling foes than seen in the first two films – nor a cursory element to drive the film along while character development happens off to the side (which is how Iron Man 2 was structured). Instead, it is through this particular threat, and the investigation that ensues, that Tony discovers himself. It is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where the hero is stripped to his barest and forced to rebuild himself from the ground up, but where that film was slightly hampered by excess and narrative shortcuts, Iron Man 3 presents its climatic arc in a more coherent and cohesive fashion. Tony is the center of the story, at all times, and the things he uncovers about the villains directly inform what he discovers about himself.
The Mandarin is false. It is a complete and total façade, something calculated and falsified to distract and manipulate the masses. Aldrich Killian is an inherently ‘dissociative’ presence, because he acts through other ‘selves.’ And the nature of his extremis power is that of reshaping human flesh and physiology to his own will – in short, crafting the image he wants the world to see.
Putting these pieces together not only points Tony back towards his own internal issues issues (he is, after all, partially responsible for Killian’s evil plot existing in the first place – this notion of circularity pervades the film), but underlines just what it is that makes him special. Part of his ‘downfall’ early on in the film comes from overconfidence in his technology. He thinks the many, many suits he has created will protect him, but they can only do so much, and are easily destroyed. They are material. He is not. And it is his human immateriality – not just his intellect, but his underlying humanity – that allows him to stop Killian’s plot. The Iron Man technology lends him the brute force necessary to face Killian and his team physically, but the suits are just a natural extension of Tony’s capacity for problem solving. They would not matter one iota if Tony were unable to solve this mystery on his own terms, using the only thing he can ultimately rely on in all scenarios: Himself.
And so we return to that fateful proclamation: “I am Iron Man.” Tony repeats it as the last words of this film, but they mean something different now. He is not giving away his secret identity this time (and it is important to distinguish how, when he says it this time, he is doing it privately and internally, rather than at a press conference), but making a statement of identity. Tony Stark is Iron Man, and Iron Man is Tony Stark, inseparable and eternal. Iron Man is not a suit, or an image, but a meaningful, concrete identity within this one complex man.
A man who no longer needs to have metal in his chest to feel at one with his identity. Tony’s decision to remove the shrapnel from his heart and throw his miniature arc reactor into the sea can be seen, in a sense, as ‘coming out of nowhere,’ as it does not extend from any literal foreshadowing in the narrative. But it feels completely germane to the emotional arc of the story, for if Tony’s journey in this climactic chapter is about discovering who he is beyond the suits, and what makes him Iron Man even with all his technology stripped away, I think it feels emotionally dead-on to have him definitively separate his body from his machinery. It is not a rejection of the Iron Man persona for Tony to throw his miniature arc reactor into the sea, but the firmest acceptance yet that the mechanical heart does not make him a hero. Tony Stark, flesh and blood, is Iron Man, always, 100% of the time, and the only reason to keep the machinery physically within himself is if he insecure about this fact. The dissociative elements of Iron Man 3 are based in feelings of profound insecurity, and if Tony has truly surpassed such anxieties at the end of the film, then I absolutely believe he would remove the arc reactor. Doing so is a symbol of strength, a recognition that while he once held tight to these internal injuries, refusing to let go or define himself beyond his self-perceived limits, he is a more complete individual now, one who is comfortable and assured of his identity and self-image.
I could not love it as an ending any more if I tried. I am so hugely impressed at Shane Black’s ability to build upon everything that has happened to Tony Stark thus far to bring him to a place of true and meaningful healing, without ever threatening to rob the character of what makes him so entertaining or compelling. Getting an iconic protagonist like this to a point where his arc is defined and fulfilled is an extremely rare task to pull off in blockbuster filmmaking, and I actually feel Black does better by Stark here than Nolan did by Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises. Tony is in no way perfect by the end, but he is ‘whole,’ and fully understanding of the strengths and weaknesses that make him who he is. This sense of profound character resolution is all too rare in blockbuster filmmaking, and what Iron Man 3 accomplishes with its lead character is as clear and beautiful an example of ‘sticking the landing’ as I can think of in any major superhero franchise.
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The film is admittedly light on some of the supporting cast – Pepper Potts and Col. James Rhodes are marginalized for most of the second act – but this again feels appropriate to me. It all goes back around to Tony, alone in that cave from the first film, internalizing his own solitude to make himself better, and it feels proper for Iron Man 3 to mirror this. Many major franchises overstuff themselves trying to accommodate every character arc to capacity, but here, the focus is wisely on Tony, and when Pepper or Rhodes are featured, their presence counts, and it counts in a big way. This is by far the best Rhodes has ever been used – Don Cheadle is just having insane amount of fun in the part – and I not only love the places they take Pepper as an individual, but how mature and authentic her relationship with Tony feels. This is not an overbaked blockbuster romance of unbridled passion, but an adult partnership that has its ups and downs, and is ultimately defined by a deep and meaningful connection that both parties want to work towards strengthening, rather than taking for granted. It is part of why Tony Stark feels more human than most superheroes; he is an adult, and he has adult problems, as do his friends. And Gwyneth Paltrow, it goes without saying, is every bit Downey Jr.’s equal whenever they share the screen.
I have only scratched the surface of what makes Iron Man 3 great. The thematic material is what fascinates me most, but Shane Black does absolutely everything right this time around, and his staging of action sequences – the best cinematic superheroics this side of The Avengers – deserves particular mention. It is not just the wonderful visual effects or satisfying sense of pace and timing, but the way Black always features action in ways that underline character. There is no empty spectacle in Iron Man 3, nothing that acts only as an excuse to excite the audience. Instead, every action beat and major set-piece is something the characters have to do to move forward, and as they do so, we learn things about them, or see them reach points of emotional fulfillment.
It all goes back to what a tightly, expertly constructed film this is, one that exists without an ounce of wasted space. I can understand how some audience members may feel underwhelmed by the film’s structure – this is very different than the Favreau films or even other Marvel movies, more an intellectual James Bond-style adventure than a slam-bang superhero epic – but I feel Black’s choices suit this character perfectly, and I like seeing a comic-book film that is so precisely constructed, taking the time necessary to put everything in place, dole out the mystery, and ultimately bring us to an utterly rousing conclusion.
There has been talk of this being the final Iron Man film, what with Robert Downey Jr.’s Marvel contract running out, and while I dreaded such a possibility going in to the film, I now feel it would be perfectly acceptable if this were the last time we saw this incarnation of the character. Nothing about the film prohibits there from being further adventures in the future, and I am sure that, if we see them, they shall be extremely satisfying as well. But good endings are so hard to come by, no matter the genre or medium, and I cannot imagine Marvel ever crafting a better send-off to the character than this. If Robert Downey Jr. does leave the role for now, and Iron Man is retired for a while in favor of other heroes, then these performance and these four films truly will go down in history as legendary, because they delivered a tightly arced and almost entirely effective chronicle of a wildly compelling central figure.
And in the end, that is what this all comes back to: Tony Stark. If there was ever any doubt for me before, Iron Man 3 eradicated it. Iron Man is my favorite superhero. This is the best superhero series that has ever been produced. These films are more entertaining, exciting, and dramatically rewarding than any of their peers, and unless there exists in the world another combination of actor and character as perfectly, beautifully matched as Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark, and another group of creative craftsman this sharp, I believe that will remain the case for a very long time to come.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous