As the fishes above attest, this is not going to be a grand apology for an overlooked masterpiece. I am merely offering a few modest words on a film’s modest merits.
In the rush of Marvel movies released since its premiere in 2013, Shane Black’s Iron Man Three has largely been forgotten – a victim of misleading marketing, perhaps, though it may also be the nature of the Marvel universe that each entry displaces the memory of the last in the viewer’s mind. In any case, Iron Man Three deserves more credit than its slight reputation would suggest.
The jokey, ironic, intermittently sincere sensibility of director Shane Black (known for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, the R-rated cousins of Iron Man Three) is not too far removed from Marvel’s house style, but it is distinct enough to offer unique pleasures. It’s meaner, with a bit more of a bite: a welcome change of pace, considering how toothless these movies often feel. Like the original Iron Man, it is pleasingly down-to-earth: the titular metal suit is taken out of the action for a good stretch of the runtime, so the hero is a real human being, pitted against other human beings. (This hardly sounds like a rarity, but Iron Man is forever fighting other iron men.) The quips, banter, and fisticuffs feel a tad wittier, a tad sharper, than is usually the case. As a mystery, it’s executed with graceful efficiency: the plot starts off all over the place, but brings its seemingly disparate elements together quite smoothly. It’s agreeably farcical in tone, though not without real peril and real stakes, because beneath all the plot twists and superficial charms, the whole thing is focused on a recognizably human character with a recognizably human struggle.
The character is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and the struggle is his fear of vulnerability. Iron Man Three wastes no time placing us in Tony’s headspace via opening voiceover narration and Eiffel 65’s song Blue (Ba Da Bee):Yo listen up, here’s a story / About a little guy that lives in a blue world / And all day and all night and everything he sees is just blue / Like him, inside and outside
The song tells us about a man who sees the world in his own image – a man who sees the outside world as blue because he is blue inside. In the same way, Iron Man Three is one big jaunt through Tony Stark’s narcissistic, self-absorbed world. We enter the story through Tony’s eyes – through his internal perspective – and the external events of the story reorder themselves around him accordingly. “We create our own demons,” he tells us, and though he fixates anxiously on literal aliens from outer space – the epitome of the unknown Other – every problem in the story is ultimately traced back to Tony’s vices. He is the story’s hero and its villain.
This duality manifests in the tug of war between Tony’s normal ego and his alter ego, Iron Man. As the film opens, he is rigging up a new version of the suit: one he can control with his mind. When the experiment goes awry, Tony faces down the hovering Iron Man mask – quite literally, his other face – and says defiantly, “I’m not scared of you.” The idea that Iron Man is Tony’s subconscious self is underlined by a scene where he summons it in his sleep, frightening Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tony’s attempt to assimilate his two personas – to master Iron Man instead of being mastered by it – will be one of the film’s central threads. This duality is reflected in the two characters Tony meets on his cross-country journey. The first is a child (Ty Simpkins) who loves Iron Man but has no idea who Tony Stark is. The other is an obsessive fan who adores Tony Stark so much he has refashioned himself in his idol’s image.
Iron Man embodies Tony’s deep-seated compulsion to protect himself from the outside world by hiding inside a literal suit of armor. As Iron Man, he is invincible, so Black separates him from the suit as much as possible (which is good for character and good for drama). When Tony is not retreating from the world, he is trying to control it. We learn that he has designed Iron Man suits to counter almost every conceivable threat; he describes himself as “the mechanic.” The role of a mechanic, of course, is to fix things, and throughout Iron Man Three, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and every film that follows, he will keep trying to fix everything for everyone. In the latter film, he tells Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), “I see a suit of armor around the world” – a direct extension of his struggles in the former. Tony Stark is the quintessential modern man, a fragile, frightened egotist trying to bend the cosmos to his will with the wonders of technology. In a form of grandiose, self-centered altruism, he always thinks the weight of the world is on his shoulders.
The film’s major plot twist – that the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearsome Middle Eastern bogeyman terrorizing the United States with frightening video reels, is a front for the true villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) – dovetails perfectly with this focus on Tony Stark, given how thoroughly the film positions Killian as Tony’s dark reflection. His think tank, AIM, is – like Stark Industries – built on military contracts. Tony spends several of his onscreen appearances obsessing over his father; Killian keeps going on about his own “old man.” He embraces his own alter ego with the climactic declaration, “I am the Mandarin” – a thinly veiled parallel to Tony’s infamous catchphrase, “I am Iron Man.” Most pointedly, Killian offers a distorted mirror image of Tony’s thirst for control: “I’ll have the West’s most powerful leader in one hand and the world’s most feared terrorist in the other. I’ll own the war on terror.”
Iron Man Three boils down to a tug of war between these two massive egos, each trying to shape the world – and one woman – in their own image. When his house is attacked, Tony mentally commands his Iron Man suit to enclose Pepper; later, when Killian captures her, he injects her with his Extremis serum, giving her the same fiery powers he has. Though Tony is trying to protect Pepper out of sincere love, his selfishness drives him to try and strip her of her agency. He calls her “the one thing I can’t live without” (emphasis mine), while Killian refers to her as his “trophy.”
The film starts to go off the rails in its last twenty minutes, but even when it’s silly or boring to watch, it makes thematic sense. The conflict between Tony and Killian is writ large in the battle between an army of Iron Men and an army of Mandarins, and the day is saved when Pepper reclaims her agency, puncturing Tony’s bubble of narcissistic delusions and killing his dark side in the process.
Scenes of Iron Man suits going up in flames bookend the film, as Tony’s self-protective defense mechanisms are exploded. As the film closes, he proclaims, “I am Iron Man,” reconciling the duality of man and machine, but these grand gestures of self-actualization register as shallow, bogus – a spoof on how “self-improvement” narratives so often just wind up being self-serving. (A humorous postscript drives the point home by revealing that Tony has been unloading his personal woes on hapless Bruce Banner, who has been enlisted as a sort of ad hoc therapist.)
I am forever annoyed with how inconsequential Marvel movies are, but this one seems to own – at least one some level – just how inconsequential it is. I suppose I resonate with that cynicism; it’s more honest than pretending the cliffhanger of Infinity War matters. The Marvel franchise is the world’s biggest-budgeted television show, so the status quo must be reset every week. Because nothing ever really changes, no one can ever really grow. Yet within this structure, the best Marvel movies – like The Sopranos, one of the greatest television shows ever made – take that lack of change for their subject. This is why Age of Ultron is the best Marvel movie: it transcends the cyclical nature of the Marvel universe by accepting it. “Trouble,” per Nick Fury, “Always comes around,” and Iron Man Three manages to find a kernel of emotional insight in its hero’s circular travails. Good stories are built on growth and change, but in real life, growth and change are often glacial. The more we see how far we’ve come, the more we realize how far we have to go, and it is often precisely when we stop to congratulate ourselves that we realize how little progress we’ve made. Christ offers a respite from this impossible cycle of self-improvement and self-delusion by teaching us that we do not have to fix ourselves – but alas, Tony Stark doesn’t know that.