Iron Man 3 Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit all 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Iron Man 3 brings a personal style to the MCU, even as it stumbles in the homestretch.)

After six films culminating in an unprecedented crossover, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had arrived. The Avengers set a new standard for summer blockbusters, though the concern going forward (for skeptics, and presumably for studio execs) was one of diminishing returns. Iron Man’s first solo outing after the battle of New York was tasked with bringing audiences back for more, while also establishing Marvel’s ability to tell new kinds of stories. In effect, it had to dramatize moving on from the world of The Avengers, while taking place entirely within it.

Simply put, the question Iron Man 3 had to answer was, “What comes next?” Would Marvel come close to rivaling the spectacle of its first team-up? Well, no. Then again, perhaps it didn’t have to. Iron Man 3 is nothing like The Avengers. In fact, it barely has anything in common with Iron Man and Iron Man 2, though what it does have — despite yet another vaguely defined character arc — is something only a handful of Marvel movies can boast.

It has a unique sense of identity.

Black to Basics

Outside the odd oblique tilt in Thor (and some self-contained, silent drama in The Incredible Hulk), Captain America: The First Avenger was arguably the only “Phase 1” film to sidestep the genre’s visual trappings. You can thank Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer for that, but not every Marvel movie has the luxury of a period-adventure sandbox.

Even The Avengers, which delivered some of the finest blockbuster spectacle this decade, didn’t make particularly great use of visual storytelling until its final battle. Its major third-act beats worked because they translated character into action; for instance, the fluid long-take where the Avengers fight in tandem for the first time. One of its only non-action scenes, where subtext was expressed visually — Captain America’s silent stroll through an unfamiliar world — was cut from the film.

For the most part, Marvel movies rely on straightforward dialogue to deliver emotional information. Iron Man 3 however, feels like the first entry in the series where the filmmakers were granted visual leeway. For once, the end result was not, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz puts it, a “movie-flavored product.”

Despite the studio notes it was forced to adhere to (like swapping its female villain for a male one to sell more toys)Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black film through-and-through. Its tonal consistency is entirely a function of its story. Black often sets his films around Christmas because he feels the holiday “represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives.” When Christmas arrives for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he’s alone in a remote Tennessee locale, far flung from Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the loved ones he put in danger.

Stark’s story began with him building armour to escape a remote cave. Here, for the first time in the series, he’s forced to find a way out of his isolation without the help of his suits. The stage is set for Stark to reflect on his decisions, and on his post-Avengers identity as it relates to the Iron Man persona. The film doesn’t quite stick the landing when it comes to these themes, but it finds an exciting momentum in the way it articulates them.

Black and cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Cloud Atlas) depart from the bright palette of The Avengers to deliver a darker entry, both visually and emotionally. The entire film feels frigid even before Stark gets stuck in the snow. Cold lighting defines the texture of each space, and the muted tones of the productions design are interrupted only by deep-red explosions. The film is drab without being dour, and the characters constantly have to fight their way out of shadows.

In several scenes, the camera observes instead of empathizing. We see Pepper Potts’ meeting with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) through Happy Hogan’s eyes, as he sits in the distance, relaying the information to Stark over the phone. Black, like Hogan, is people-watching, and the visual framing constantly prevents Stark from connecting with those around him. After Stark’s home is attacked, he’s forcefully ejected from his own narrative and launched thousands of miles away. Physically, and emotionally, he could not be more distant.

The fluid cinematography, combined with the fluidity of Black’s action and dialogue (the script was co-written by Drew Pearce) gives Iron Man 3 a distinctly “cinematic” texture — that is to say, one heavily reliant on non-dialogue audio and visuals to convey meaning — the kind few Marvel films can claim. Downey Jr. underscores the affair with his dry wit as usual, and his emotional separation becomes necessary so that Iron Man can (re)define himself in relation to other people.

Despite the distancing quality of the group scenes, the film extends beyond observational exercise at just the right moments. Its point-of-view shifts jarringly when Stark’s P.T.S.D. comes to the fore. The frame closes in on him with furor, until all we can see, or feel, is panic. Iron Man 3 is at its most potent when exploring the psychological effects of The Avengers on Stark, though unfortunately, there also comes a point when this vital story thread is haphazardly brushed aside.  

Nothing’s Been the Same Since New York

Tony Stark was once known as Marvel’s alcoholic superhero — Demon in a Bottle (1979) is his most instrumental story — and while the character’s alcoholism never finds its way into the films, Stark’s addict nature manifests in different forms. In Iron Man 3, his addiction is to building protective armour, and it’s exacerbated by trauma.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi argues that Stark’s symptoms could, in fact, be interpreted as Post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D. He seems to display four key factors for diagnosis:

  • Avoidance of potential trauma triggers that lead to anxiety.
  • Hyper-arousal (he’s been awake for 72 hours when the film begins).
  • Vivid recollection via dreams and visions.
  • Functional impairment with regards to personal relationships.

More pertinently, Tony Stark is also more vulnerable to P.T.S.D. than the average human being, owing to what Letamendi calls “re-deployment.” Stark has been experiencing and re-experiencing trauma since the very first scene in Iron Man. His car was bombed, he had shrapnel lodged in his chest, he was kidnapped and tortured, and he spent the rest of the series embroiled in violent conflict. The Iron Man armour is as much an addiction as it is a symptom, not unlike P.T.S.D.-afflicted soldiers sleeping with guns by their bedside (Stark even calls to one of his suits in his sleep).

There are now 42 versions of the Iron Man armour, each created for different contingencies. The 42nd, which Stark operates remotely from his workspace, has even begun to replace him in his interactions with Potts. He’s frozen in the moment he flew through the wormhole above New York City, and his technology has consumed him,

The film dramatizes Stark’s symptoms with aplomb. The leering, distant camera is traded in for rapid zooms and uncomfortable close ups when his anxiety rears its head. The visual shifts feel inescapable; the lens becomes another wall closing in on Stark as we, the audience, poke and prod into his psyche, intruding on both his personal space and his most traumatic memories.

Stark’s experiences in The Avengers are collectively referred to as “New York.” This, coupled with his vengeful, self-destructive attitude towards vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) calls to mind America’s own post-9/11 political tenor — albeit to no real end, despite the potential for exploring wartime paranoia.

However, Stark’s specific road to recovery makes Iron Man 3 a noteworthy sequel. In the context of Marvel’s shared-universe, his arc in this film involves letting go of his own origin story, and his journey to doing so means moving past the events of The Avengers. As much as Iron Man 3 is about defining Iron Man outside of his suits, it’s also about defining this larger narrative outside its most recognizable moments.

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