For most people, Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man ranks as their favorite Avenger. Not only has he been around the longest but his arrogant charm and witty persona are hard to resist. Whether alone or in an ensemble, Iron Man steals the show (who can forget this exchange in The Avengers?). But honestly it took me a long time to warm up to the character. As much as I loved the first two Iron Man films themselves, I never fully gave in to the title character. The same traits that won over the masses pushed me away. All the quips and clever insults painted a hero I enjoyed watching but never found myself rooting for directly. Iron Man 3 was the turning point in this personal story.
Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 could not start more differently. Iron Man 2 starts with the suited hero jumping from a plane and flying into Stark Expo, an event Pepper describes as Tony’s “ego gone crazy”. Tony is riding a high hampered by paladium poisoning, a problem he quickly solves with some basic garage alchemy leading to the creation of a new element and a shift from a circular logo to a triangular one. Throughout The Avengers he deals with even more daunting issues than a Catch-22 fueled heart.
In the opening of Iron Man 3 we find Tony struggling to cope with the events of The Avengers, which ends with Iron Man carrying a nuclear weapon through a wormhole before passing out in space and being resuscitated Hulk-style. No amount of shawarma can heal the psychological scars Tony is left with after New York, as he explains to Pepper in an emotional (and well acted) early scene:
Tony: I admit it. My fault. Sorry. I’m a piping hot mess. It’s been going on for a while. I haven’t said anything. Nothing’s been the same since New York.
Pepper (sarcastically): Oh really? I didn’t notice that…at all.
Tony: I experience things. Then they’re over and you still can’t explain them? Gods, aliens, other dimensions? I’m…I’m just a man in a can. The only reason I haven’t cracked up is probably because you moved in. Which is great. I love you. I’m lucky. But honey…I can’t sleep. You go to bed I come down here, I do what I know. I tinker. Threat is…imminent, and I have to protect the one thing I can’t live without. That’s you. And my suits? They’re…, uh-
Tony: They’re part of me.
Pepper: They’re distractions.
Of course, Pepper is exactly right and the exchange encapsulates the film’s main theme and Tony’s mental state after the events of The Avengers. Recognizing his humanity, and its inherent weaknesses in the face of Hulks, Asgardians, Super-Serums and everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony pours himself into Iron Man, building dozens of suits for every conceivable need. He responds like any of us would, if we were genius weapons designers with seemingly infinite resources. By continuously upgrading his can, Tony tries to shield himself and his loved ones from the overwhelming threats that continue to make Nick Fury “very desperate.”
One of the more interesting arcs playing out across Iron Man’s three most recent film appearances is his evolving relationship with the suits themselves. In Iron Man 2, he finds himself attacked in Monaco by the crazed Russian burd-lover and is nearly cut into pieces before Jon Favreau shows up with a briefcase suit. Near the end of The Avengers Loki throws Tony from the top of Stark Tower only to watch the suit-rocket fly after the unarmored hero. In one of the more dramatic and visually satisfying scenes of the film, the suit wraps around Tony in mid-descent and saves him from a splattered demise. Now in the early scenes of Iron Man 3, Tony has created a gesture-based method allowing individual pieces of the suit to independently fly to him. With these innovations Tony always has access to the suits, a desirable upgrade for a man whose powers are given to him through technology not super serum, gamma rays, or heredity.
Like the finale of Iron Man 2, this edition ends with a massive battle with dozens of robotic warriors. We’re treated to a lengthy fight between super-powered humans and Tony’s legion of suits. In the main event, Tony fights the film’s central villain, jumping from one suit to the next after each is destroyed in battle. In some ways this ends the arc in which Tony tries to transcend his need for the suit. The fact that he is able to continue fighting after individual suits are destroyed shows his ability to fill the hero role without the suit. But really, the finale shows how much Tony does rely on the suits, blunting a potential story arc and character development.
Realistically, there would be no Iron Man without the Iron Man suits. The comics explore this symbiosis more fully but I do enjoy the efforts made by the filmmakers to progress this storyline. One of the greatest joys the MCU offers is its ability to allow multiple characters to develop and grow together across individual and ensemble films. Thor learned humility and tempered his youthful arrogance. Captain America has grown to distrust the authority he loyally serves. And Tony grapples with his role in an increasingly complicated world filled with “imminent” threats. After four films, both Tony Stark and Iron Man have grown tremendously and is now surprisingly one of my favorite characters. Maybe I love this new fragile Iron Man because of how much I disliked the pompous Iron Man. And now we only have to wait a few more weeks to see what else is in store for Tony and the rest of the collective “time bomb.”