To be honest, I’m torn when it comes to Iron Man 3. On the one hand it offers an excellent character study of Tony Stark, follows up on plots and themes from both The Avengers and the previous Iron Man movies, and introduces concepts and tech which appear in Iron Man’s next two appearances. On the other hand, it’s the third Iron Man movie with a corrupt businessman as the villain. There are a lot of good things that we can say about this movie, but it is not without its flaws—but, then, what movie is without flaws?
The Avengers ends with Tony Stark having all-but sacrificed himself taking a nuke through the wormhole and to the other side of the universe where he used it to destroy the Chitauri “mother ship.” The alien invasion was stopped, the world was saved, and the Avengers were on the map. Everything is good, right? Well, it’s good for everyone except Tony himself. The events of The Avengers have left Tony utterly traumatized; he clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is not sleeping as much as he should, and when he does he has nightmares of New York. Simple things like breaking a crayon or even the mention of New York are enough to send him into a severe panic attack. He acts impulsively after Happy gets injured by calling out the Mandarin and giving away his home address.
Tony’s PTSD is handled very well, as is his journey of working through the trauma and moving forward.
There was really no way for the movie after The Avengers to avoid getting overshadowed by that movie. Unless they had gone to space, there was no way for the next movie to ignore the events of that movie. Bearing this in mind, Iron Man 3 does a decent job of handling the aftermath of The Avengers. The larger context of the U.S. government’s response to the knowledge of alien threats is present in the movie (War Machine gets rebranded as “Iron Patriot”), but it take a backseat to the very personal aftermath of The Avengers represented by Tony’s struggle with PTSD. For a movie about super-soldiers and terrorists abducting and attempting to assassinate the President of the U.S., it’s surprising just how personal this movie manages to be.
This movie also serves as a respectable conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy. Tony has progressed from thinking only about himself and his own pleasure to working to correct his own mistakes. In this movie, he takes the one step further in putting the needs of others ahead of his own—particularly with regard to his relationship with Pepper. There is also a realization by the end of this movie that the suit does not make the man; Tony is Iron Man whether he’s wearing a gold-titanium alloy suit or something cobbled together after a Home Depot spending spree. In the end, Tony is Iron Man, even without his signature ARC reactor and without any of his suits.
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On the subject of the larger narrative into which Iron Man 3 fits, I was surprised to see just how well this movie leads in to Captain America: Civil War (as well as Avengers: Age of Ultron). Of course the idea of Jarvis controlling a large number of Iron Man suits plays a key role in Age of Ultron, when Tony designed Ultron to do that on a larger scale. However, it wasn’t until rewatching this movie that I made the connection between Tony using a repulsor by itself against Savin and the watch that converts into an Iron Man gauntlet which he debuts in Civil War. There is also a clear narrative trajectory from Iron Man 3 to Captain America: Civil War with the government and military response to both the alien invasion and the existence of the Avengers.
The secondary characters in Iron Man 3 are all very good, particularly their dynamics with Tony. Rhodey and Tony of course have good chemistry, as do Tony and Pepper. Even Harvey, Tony’s young friend, is a decent character, particularly for how he serves as a foil for Tony himself. Harvey, like Tony, is abandoned by his father and is left largely to his own devices. He also pushes Tony to put the needs of another ahead of his own.
Of course no movie is complete without a villain. To be honest, I am torn regarding the villains of Iron Man 3. On the one hand, Aldrich Killian is a rehash of both Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer. On the other hand, Killian’s history with Tony—particularly the fact that Tony insulting and humiliating him set Killian on his present course—makes him the most compelling and sympathetic of the Iron Man villains. On the one hand, Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin is incredible: menacing, intimidating, grandiose. On the other hand, the twist of the “Mandarin” being a character used by Killian to create demand for his Extremis soldiers is probably the most hated part of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That last point is mitigated somewhat by the One-Shot All Hail the King, which reveals that there is a real Mandarin whose name and likeness were co-opted by Advanced Idea Mechanics for their own purposes. What they did to the Mandarin is the kind of thing that would work very well in any other movie, but would just anger the comic fans in a comic book movie.
The fight scenes and effects in this movie are really good. The way they up the action from the previous movies is very cool. My favorite part is probably when Tony infiltrates the Mandarin complex using equipment he put together on the run. However, the final fight when the army of Iron Man drones takes on the Extremis soldiers is also great: a huge, over-the-top, superhero spectacle.
There are still a couple of other problems with this movie. For one thing, it does not live up to the expectations that come from being the follow-up to The Avengers. It doesn’t move the larger narrative forward. There are oblique references to the changed status quo—Tony is “off with the super-friends” and the government wants to handle the Mandarin on their own to show some strength following the alien invasion—but we don’t really see what that changed status quo looks like (beyond the end-credits scene which shows Banner staying with Tony).
The other major story issue is with the epilogue: it’s rushed way too much. Tony blows up his suits in a grand display of his love for Pepper, and then in about a minute he solves the Extremis issue, cures Pepper, removes the shrapnel (and ARC reactor) from his chest, and moves on from the destruction of his Malibu house. Considering that Pepper being injected with Extremis is a major part of the movie’s final act—and considering that Tony’s ARC reactor and shrapnel have been a major part of his character from the beginning of the first movie—I really think the resolution of both issues deserves more than a passing comment that it “took some tinkering.”
Iron Man 3 is certainly not the best movie in the MCU. However, the good elements far outweigh the bad. The villain has a compelling motivation. The hero goes through a major transformation. The character development is incredible. The action is really fun. This movie was never going to be better than The Avengers, but it’s still pretty darn good. Sometimes that’s all you can really ask for.