Fireworks in Lieu of Character 

Tony Stark shedding his armour at the end of the film makes sense on paper. The Iron Man concept has become an anchor, and Stark’s ultimate test ought to be whether or not he’s able function without it. Yet the film’s third act, an action-laden set-piece featured heavily in the trailers, sees him entirely reliant on his technology once more.

Summoning dozens of Iron Man suits is cool. Each one having a different design is cool, despite primarily existing to sell toys. The remote centralization of these unmanned drones is… well, it’s dangerous, but it looks cool, and the image of Stark jumping from suit to suit is cool as well. Ultimately though, empty suits fighting anonymous henchmen is still an empty spectacle, and it happens to be at odds with Stark’s journey in the film.

Stark’s reliance on his technology is never put to the test; if anything, the finale only supports his obsession. His addiction to his suits is as much a psychological phenomenon that defines his character, as it is a dramatic want or desire in the mechanics of the story. Destroying his outlet (or symptom) neither helps him confront the roots of his trauma, nor adequately pays off the conflict between both needing his suits, and needing to destroy them in order to exist completely. As fun as Iron Man 3 may be, discarding its P.T.S.D. thread this way is narratively disingenuous.

The Road Ahead

By this point in the franchise, Robert Downey Jr. had become Marvel’s not-so-secret weapon, and Iron Man 3 features some of the best dramatic work of his career. He’s allowed to dig deep into what makes Stark tick (and what prevents him from ticking), working in tandem with Black’s signature sarcasm-as-shield while balancing it with unshielded moments of vulnerability. Even when the spinning plates prove too many for the story, Downey Jr. balances them with finesse, which is part of why the film feels coherent despite dropping the ball thematically.

In the film’s closing narration, Stark utters two key phrases: “I’m a changed man” and “I am Iron Man.” The former mirrors a mal-formed character moment in Thor — the God of Thunder says, “I’ve changed,” though it isn’t clear how — while the latter is an intentional callback to the first Iron Man. These sentiments are distinctly at odds with one another, and their conflict is never reckoned with until later in the series.

Stark hasn’t given up being Iron Man, mind you; it would be unrealistic to expect him to, in a series so lucrative, even though it would’ve made for a stronger character arc; as video essayist Patrick Willems points out, Marvel’s “Phase 2” is where the series begins exhibiting the illusion of change. The removal of the reactor in Stark’s chest indicates that he no longer cocoons himself in armour, but the “change” in question doesn’t come from no longer needing his suits. Nothing is truly different about Tony Stark between the beginning and the end of the film; at some point, his disorder simply fades. His decision to destroy his suits seems to come from wanting to no longer need them, for Potts’ sake. However, the recognition that change can or ought to happen is vastly different from actual change. The latter is where stories end. The former is usually where they begin.

It’s an unsatisfying narrative conclusion to a story about the personal effects of trauma. But like its predecessors, Iron Man 3 also inadvertently sets into motion specific narrative faults that are eventually taken advantage of, in ways that alter the series’ approach to Tony Stark. If there’s one thing Marvel is good at, it’s taking flaws in narrative framing and retroactively weaving them into the text; the political short-sightedness of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 went on to become Stark’s political blinders; the inadequate character change in Iron Man 3 became a defining trait.

Iron Man 3 felt like the third time the reset button had been pushed on Tony Stark. His mistakes remained unconfronted, and his story merely had the appearance of progress. But by turning this dramatic shortcoming into an inter-textual narrative, the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned another weakness into a new foundation. From this point on, Stark’s backbone was his penchant for combating mistakes with even more mistakes, creating a long-running narrative between films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and even Spider-Man: Homecoming, culminating in Stark’s ultimate failure in Avengers: Infinity War.

Marvel’s shared-universe has succeeded because of its long-term story. Not one of Infinity Stones and Quantum Realms and other cosmic plots, but one rooted in characters like Tony Stark. The MCU’s heroes are why the series works, despite its myriad of other flaws. If anything, Marvel’s sleight-of-hand makes those flaws seem like they were the plan all along.


Expanded from an article published April 10 2018.

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