“Who’s your favorite superhero?”
It’s a common question among both so-called geeks and their less diehard equivalents, and has never been asked more than in recent years, when the genre has finally successfully made its way into mainstream cinema. It’s not a particularly important inquiry, and it doesn’t really do much in the way of enlightening much about the chooser; “because he / she is cool” is the rationale you’re most likely going to be given if you press the question harder. Occasionally, however, there is one factor which tends to divide fans, and it has a lot to do with the most basic element of the genre: how much do we like a character’s superpowers or – as in this case – their lack of particularly fantastical abilities?
It’s one of those bizarrely divisive opinions, and one that it’s increasingly hard to get away from in a world where Batman and Iron Man are kings. These characters were not hit by waves of gamma radiation, or bit by radioactive spiders, or alien in origin. They are, in fact, quite human – completely fallible in all of the traditional senses, except for a few noteworthy skills which do not inherently differentiate them from any of their audience. Do we love Iron Man simply because he is a normal man (albeit one who was gifted with seemingly inexhaustible wealth and intellect)? Or do we find Bruce Wayne a less interesting hero because he is essentially buying his powers? This humanity may be appealing to those who prefer their drama with a little more nuance, but it may not always be particularly compelling to those who desire fantastic stories and escapism.
Of course, all of this has changed over the last ten years. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau took these fallible heroes and constructed legitimately compelling (and legitimately grounded) film worlds for them to exist in. Their status as “mere humans” was the fuel which has made them some of the most beloved comic book superheroes out there today. So, of course, it’s only natural that Tony Stark’s return to the big-screen would tackle this frailty head-on.
Directed by Shane Black (who reunites here with Robert Downey, Jr. from their KISS KISS BANG BANG days together), IRON MAN 3 is easily the most nuanced superhero film to have come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. It’s absolutely loaded with imagery and ideas about what kind of toll being a superhero would take on a completely ordinary man. This isn’t another story about the responsibility or isolation of heroism; it’s about the psychological cost. But more importantly, it’s about identity. Wisely, Black chooses to ignore the “hero as a symbol” metaphor – which was hammered into the ground by Nolan over the course of his Dark Knight Trilogy – and instead opts for something equally interesting but heretofore unexplored: the symbiotic relationship between the identities of the hero and their alter-ego.
Stark (who is once again played to delightful perfection by Downey, Jr.) spends most of the film struggling with his identity – both as Tony Stark and as Iron Man. In an opening flashback sequence, he traipses around a New Year’s Eve party with a name tag which reads “You Know Who I Am” – a phrase which is repeated several times by several characters throughout the film. It’s a declaration of self-confidence in one’s identity, and one which is stripped from Stark over the course of the film before being returned in the final frame. Black brings us back to this moment in 1999 for reasons outside of narrative function; he also uses it as a reminder to both remind us of how far Stark’s identity has shifted since we first met him as well as to show us a moment in time where his identity was wholly (and obnoxiously) secure.
This is where we pick back up with Stark in the present day, following the events of THE AVENGERS. And in a surprising turn, we find that his glorious triumph alongside his newfound, superhero brethren has not given his ego a stroking from which he might never recover. Rather, we find that Stark is a hopeless wreck: he’s suffering from insomnia, anxiety attacks and an intense vulnerability which has him trying desperately to fuse his own personal identity with the only one he feels can protect him – Iron Man. One of his very first scenes involves him injecting himself with nanotechnology, making him able to summon pieces of his suit just by willing it with his mind. This merging of tech and man is more than just a cool upgrade to his superpower arsenal – it’s a fusion of identities, a desperate attempt to leave behind the fragility of his own mortality and enhance it beyond its own capabilities. In a world where gods fall from the sky and scientists can transform into huge, green monsters, it’s easy to imagine somebody as narcissistic as Stark feeling both inferior and incredibly vulnerable – especially after his near-death experience at the climax of THE AVENGERS.
But Stark takes this process one step further. Soon, he’s developing tech which allows him to live inside of the Iron Man suit without ever leaving the safety of his lab. It’s a mildly agoraphobic tendency which is played for laughs, but reveals a troubling dependency on his superhero facade for protection. This is a man who is unable to reconcile the differences between himself and his alter-ego, an identity within which he is able to feel powerful, strong and fully capable. Outside of his suit, he finds himself growing weaker: upon experiencing his first anxiety attack, his instinct is to run right into the arms of his waiting suit, inside which he can be safe. And when he encounters a young boy named Harley, the kid doesn’t recognize Tony Stark – he only recognizes the suit. In a candid introduction, Harley and Stark talk about the disabled suit as if it were a third person in the room, calling it “he” and explaining its troubles. Stark is all but forgotten in this conversation – his own identity is second to the suit’s.
But the suit is more than just an alternate identity for Stark to adopt from time to time. In IRON MAN 3, the suit is a character: Stark and the suit sit side-by-side on a couch, looking at one another. The suit comes to life and attacks Pepper as she tries to wake him from a nightmare, reacting to his subconscious defence mechanism. He hauls it behind himself across frigid tundras like penance for a sin when it malfunctions. It is a physical presence throughout the entire film: close-ups of the helmet’s face are numerous, and its interaction with various characters are some of the most important in the movie. In Stark’s both literal and figurative isolation, Pepper’s face falls not against that of her boyfriend’s, but against the empty helmet and face of his alter-ego. And when he finally comes to terms with the strength of his own identity at the climax of the film, the face on that helmet burns away, leaving a place for Stark’s own to fill it.
And there’s more, too: when Guy Pearce’s delightfully eccentric Aldrich Killian shows up at the beginning of the film to attempt to woo Pepper away from Stark, he shows her a virtual map of his own brain, which they step inside and explore. It’s played as a romantic moment, and it’s obvious that Pepper appreciates this chance to delve into the mind of a possible suitor – something which she can’t really do with Stark, especially given his current psychological state. This sharing of pieces of one’s self is a through-line of the story, as both men gradually give more and more of their own alternate identities to her. Killian, who forces her involvement in the Extremis program which gives him superhuman abilities, treats her as a trophy – someone who he can force into the mould of his Extremis identity. Stark, on the other hand, gives away his own powerful identity to her in times of need: when their home is destroyed, he protects her using the suit, essentially giving her his body to keep her safe at the risk of his own well-being. Later, at the end of the film, Pepper seizes pieces of the suit herself in order to save him, affirming her choice to share in his alternate identity – something which Killian attempted to force on her.
It’s particularly noteworthy that Black makes the bold decision to focus most of the film on Tony Stark, rather than Iron Man. More than half of the film’s runtime keeps Stark outside of the suit, a move which requires him to get back in touch with the things that make him special when he’s not flying around in a hunk of metal. This, of course, brings us back to the argument at the beginning of the piece: is Tony Stark a hero without his gadgets, or did he simply buy his superpowers? It’s a question that’s as important to the audience as it is to the character, and Stark’s journey over the course of the film involves him learning to live without the safety net of the suit – and being a more impressive and effective hero because of it. His final decision to remove the reactor from his chest plate and finally eliminate the shrapnel in his body is less a refusal of one identity as it is the acceptance of another: we all know that Iron Man can be a hero, but it’s important that both we and the character also know that Tony Stark can be a hero, too.
What’s truly incredible about this film isn’t all of these delightfully nuanced convergences of fantastic, superhero semantics and grounded character development: it’s the fact that all of these things exist in a film which is downright hilarious and spectacularly entertaining. The action sequences here have been ramped up beyond anything we’ve seen in the MCU before (yes, even in THE AVENGERS), and there’s more laughs in the second hour of IRON MAN 3 than there was in the last two movies combined. In spite of how much time Downey, Jr. spends outside of the suit, Black still manages to pack in a ton of action – and make every single one of those sequences count.
The tone is pitch-perfect, and as hard as it it to believe, Black seems to understand this world even better than Favreau did. The depth of the script (which he co-wrote alongside Drew Pearce) is rivalled only by the remarkably shifting tone: at moments dark and introspective, the story is quick to take a huge left turn into the unexpected and the hilarious. Some of the plot developments are downright shocking for a major, summer blockbuster, and they’re an absolute credit to Black’s direction. He makes the franchise feel fresh and new again, and that should come as a sigh of relief to fans who have seen Iron Man four times in the past six years.
The performances are great, the action is compelling and the story is the best we’ve seen thus far in an MCU film.
Welcome to Phase Two.