(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Iron Man 3 brings a personal new style to the MCU, even as it stumbles in the homestretch.)

Marvel needed to prove exactly one thing after The Avengers, and that was the possibility of different kinds of stories. While Guardians of the Galaxy would go on to be the biggest post-Avengers (“Phase 2”) departure, it was Tony Stark’s first solo adventure after the Battle of New York that answered the question on everyone’s mind: “What comes next?” Would Marvel be able to come close to rivalling its superhero team-up spectacle?

Well, no. It most certainly wouldn’t, but it also didn’t have to. Iron Man 3 is nothing like its crossover predecessor. In fact, it barely has anything in common with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Iron Man 2, but what it does have, despite featuring another vaguely defined character arc, is a unique sense of identity.

Black to Basics

Despite the studio notes it adheres to, like having to swap out its female villain for a male one for reasons of toy sales, Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black film through-and-through. The writer-director’s creative DNA, which he’s been injecting into other people’s stories as early as 1987’s Lethal Weapon, is baked into the fabric of this Marvel threequel.

Outside the odd Dutch tilt in Thor and the self-contained silent drama in The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger was perhaps the only “Phase 1” film that stepped outside the superhero cookie cutter, visually speaking. You can thank Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer for that, but not every Marvel movie can fit the mold of an old-world period adventure. Even The Avengers, which delivered some of the finest superhero spectacle till date, didn’t kick into high gear in terms of visual storytelling until in the final battle, in which the major beats work because they translate character into action. For instance, the fluid long-take where The Avengers fight in tandem for the very first time, with each Avenger getting their moment to shine. The only other sequence where you can feel what’s going on without needing to be told by the characters was cut from the movie. For the most part, these films rely on straightforward dialogue to deliver emotional information. Which isn’t to call their directors’ talent into question – Kenneth Branagh is a Shakespeare virtuoso, and Joss Whedon proved his dramatic prowess in Avengers: Age of Ultron – but Iron Man 3 feels like the first time someone was handed one of these and allowed to let loose.

Iron Man 3’s distinct tonal consistency is also a function of the story it tells. Shane Black’s penchant for the Christmas setting seen throughout his filmography is 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.” In the case of Tony Stark, Christmas Eve comes about with him isolated in a remote Tennessee locale. He’s far flung from Happy and Pepper, the loved ones he put in harm’s way, and he has to figure his way out of this situation 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 his Iron Man persona. And while the film doesn’t quite follow through on these threads as well as it ought to, it’s in the visual articulations of these themes that the film finds its momentum.

Shane Black, along with cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Cloud Atlas) departs from the bright palette of The Avengers and delivers a far darker entry, visually and emotionally. The entire film feels frigid even before Stark gets stuck in the snow, with cold lighting defining the lighting of every space, the muted tones of its set design interrupted only by deep red explosions. It’s drab without being dour, with the characters seemingly having to fight their way out of shadows, as the camera observes rather than empathizing.

This observational quality is by design. Even as we see Pepper’s meeting with Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) through Happy’s eyes, he relays this information to Tony over the phone, at a significant distance. It’s as if Black is people-watching, and Tony is unable to connect. Crowds move through space and the frame itself moves through crowds as they investigate (or try to take advantage of, in the case of the media) the terror attack on Tony’s home. Tony, of course, is forcefully removed from his own narrative by this point, having been launched thousands of miles away. Physically, and emotionally, he could not be more distant.

Combined with the fluidity of both Black’s action as well as his dialogue (from a script co-written by Drew Pearce), Iron Man 3 bleeds a distinctly “cinematic” texture, with Robert Downey Jr. bringing the whole thing home with his dry wit as usual. But where the film does manage to extend beyond an exercise in observation – a necessary exercise so Iron Man can define himself in relation to other people – just so happens to be in the moments that are at once most potent, and most readily dropped: Tony Stark’s PTSD.

Nothing’s Been The Same Since New York

Shane Black was instrumental in Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback from his drug issues, with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. His past also had a hand in him being cast as Tony Stark; Iron Man was once known as Marvel Comics’ alcoholic superhero – 1979’s Demon in a Bottle was perhaps his most instrumental story arc. And while the character’s alcoholism never comes up in these movies, his addictions and obsessions come in forms that feel woven into the fabric of this universe. In this case, an addiction to building armour, exacerbated by his trauma.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi argues that Tony Stark’s symptoms in this film could, in fact, be interpreted as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s worth noting however, that she rightly offers no absolutes, stressing on just how much such diagnoses depend on the specifics of how one interprets trauma. Tony seems to display three key factors for diagnosis, from avoidance of potential trauma triggers which lead to his anxiety, to hyper-arousal (he’s been awake for 72 hours when we meet him in this film) to vivid recollection, via dreams and visions. More importantly, he meets the criteria of functional impairment with regards to his personal relationships, and Tony Stark is above all else, more vulnerable to PTSD than the average human being, owing to what Letamendi calls “re-deployment.”

Tony Stark has been experiencing trauma since the very first scene in Iron Man, whether it’s being bombed, having shrapnel lodged in his chest, or being kidnapped and tortured, and he’s been embroiled in violent conflict ever since. Thus, the Iron Man armours are as much an addiction as they are a symptom, like PTSD-afflicted soldiers sleeping with guns by their bedside (Tony calls to one of his armours in his sleep). There are now 42 versions of the Iron Man armour, each prepared for dozens of different contingencies, and the 42nd has even begun to replace Tony physically in his interactions with Pepper, as he operates it remotely from his workspace. Tony is frozen in the moment he went through the wormhole above New York City, and his symptoms are visualized kinetically. The creeping camera is traded in for quick zooms and uncomfortable close ups, a rapid visual shift that feels inescapable to the character.

The constant callbacks to the wormhole event as simply “New York” and Tony’s vengeful, self-destructive attitude towards vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) call to mind America’s own post-9/11 political tenor (to no real end, despite the potential for exploring wartime paranoia). However, it’s the need to move past the events of The Avengers that makes Iron Man 3 a particularly interesting sequel in the shared-universe context. As much as the film is about defining Iron Man outside of his suits, it’s also about beginning to define this larger narrative world outside its own most recognizable moment, going as far as to introduce antagonists independent of the previous films and their inevitable fallout.

The Extremis Soldiers simply exist, with no connections to Gamma Radiation or the Super Soldier Serum, and Killian had been on this path for a decade before The Avengers. It’s as if Stark has to move past the memory of his major crossover, toward something entirely new, just to make this movie happen. However, that meta-narrative seems to take far more precedence than Tony’s actual state of mind, a story thread that’s set up amply throughout the film’s first two thirds and then promptly forgotten.

Tony is in a bad way. He can’t sleep, owing to the wormhole nightmares. His anxiety is first triggered by a children’s drawing of him flying towards the source of his trauma, which leads to a public breakdown. He’s triggered by young Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) simply mentioning New York, and it even gets to a point where he has a mid-freeway episode for almost no reason at all, which he combats by building new weapons out of hardware scraps while his suit is out of commission. Building weaponry is still his crutch at this point, but it’s also the last time his anxiety or potential PTSD come up in the narrative.

What follows is certainly a passable display of the film trying to figure out who Tony is outside the suit. Fighting with only one Iron Man boot and glove is a hilarious action scene, but the film’s entire climax is muddled in almost every way, including and especially how it tries to define Tony Stark in relation to his new villain. Like Thor before it, it’s another example of a film being “almost there” when it comes to telling a coherent, character-driven story, but it’s misaligned in ways that feel uncanny. Which is a shame, because Iron Man 3 is loaded with potential.

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