Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 is something of an outlier in the MCU. Sandwiched between the two films that changed the shape of the entire franchise (Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier), it feels like a pause for breath or moment of reflection. There’s no Thanos, and no monstrous aliens raining destruction down on unsuspecting people. Here, the threats are more insidious because they are (as one character puts it) not superhero problems, but human ones.
Regardless, the ripples of what happened in Avengers are still being felt. This is not the same Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) we saw swaggering his way through the first two Iron Man films. The big battle in New York City left him a changed man, a man whose trauma has driven him to the point of needing his creations more than they need him.
With the Iron Man suits serve a double duty protecting both his body, and his vulnerable mental state, it’s obvious that Tony has poured so much energy into being Iron Man that he’s forgotten how to be Tony Stark. This nebulous grasp on identity is a bright, bold thread that runs the course of his character arc. “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off and what are you?” If Steve Rogers had asked that question in Iron Man 3, it’s unlikely the comeback would have been quite so snappy.
While Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and Happy (Jon Favreau) are all there to keep Tony grounded as they quietly fret amongst themselves over his mental state, it’s not until he’s forcibly separated from them—and the suits—that he can truly begin to build himself back up again. The timing couldn’t be more critical: the quietly menacing entity known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is taking over US airwaves with vague terrorist threats, and fire-breathing super soldiers are blowing up landmarks.
With the Iron Man suits serve a double duty protecting both his body, and his vulnerable mental state, it’s obvious that Tony has poured so much energy into being Iron Man that he’s forgotten how to be Tony Stark.
Then there’s Guy Pearce’s Aldritch Killian insinuating his company into the American war machine. Iron Man 3 came out at a time before the word incel entered the common lexicon, but Pearce’s Killian definitely has the flavor of the word in his performance. There’s a sense of petulant entitlement about him that serves as a path not taken for Tony Stark. Had circumstances been different, Tony could have become a man very much like Killian. They stand at opposite ends of a very particular spectrum. Sometimes there is nothing so dangerous as a nerd with a budget.
Visually and emotionally darker in tone than the bright, quippy MCU films at large, Iron Man 3’s biggest arc isn’t Aldritch Killian or The Mandarin and it isn’t the veterans turned super soldiers. This film is about Tony Stark’s journey through his own trauma, and no actor could tap into that pathos the way Robert Downey Jr. does. Jon Favreau knew what he was doing when he tapped Downey to play the billionaire playboy genius with a history of addictions and obsessive behaviors. Few actors have endured such a public spotlight on their substance abuse and recovery. When the movie catches up to present-day Tony Stark (after a brief flashback to New Years Eve 2000) we see that he has found a new drug, and that drug is Iron Man.
Forty-two versions of Iron Man, to be exact. Tony’s obsessive need to constantly tweak the suits, to be near them at all times, is its own form of madness that—spoiler alert—will not fully come to a head until Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s only too easy for the bad guys to knock out the pillars that are holding him up, one by one. Happy, his seaside home, his suits, and Pepper are all methodically taken away. Even Jarvis gets a break here, forcing Tony to rely on lonely middle schooler Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) as his sounding board. It’s a lot of fun to watch Tony Stark go back to basics, making homegrown grenades and tasers for sneaking into the Mandarin’s hideout. It serves as a good reminder for both the audience and Tony that he’s still the same man who engineered his way out of captivity with a car battery and some metal scraps. The assault on the Mandarin’s hideout goes off with nary a hitch, only to reveal that the big bad was nothing more than a bit of hand waving misdirection named Trevor Slattery, actor and all-around louse.
The misdirect—which seems to bank on America’s post-9/11 Islamophobia—is a good one, giving Ben Kingsley a chance to flex his comedic muscles and balancing the darker tone with a bit of well-earned levity. Everyone gets a chance to play against type here, with Pepper going full super soldier and Rhodey outing himself as a War Machine fanboy (not to mention Happy’s Downton Abbey addiction). Even the empty Iron Man suits get a chance to shine in the film’s dazzling third act before self-destructing. The only real bruises on this apple is letting great actors like Rebecca Hall and Miguel Ferrer go to waste.
Thankfully, Black and Drew Pearce’s script never gets so grim that we feel like we’re watching The Stark Night Rises. And there are some visually great moments, from the glowing Extremis soldiers (led by James Badge Dale and his ever-present smirk) to the legitimately thrilling “barrel of monkeys” rescue of thirteen people falling in mid-air, Iron Man 3 is a hell of a good ride, and marks a more nuanced turn for Tony Stark and the MCU.