Shane Black’s much-derided masterpiece made the franchise what it is today.
This article contains spoilers for both ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’
The trailers for Iron Man 3 sold a much different film than the one that ended up arriving in theaters in May of 2013. The advertising campaign was dark and brooding, all deep blues and dramatic voiceovers. A year after The Dark Knight Rises had done the same, Marvel’s marketing division was hawking the end of a trilogy and a potential goodbye to a beloved character.
We’re now five years and twelve (twelve!) MCU movies away from Iron Man 3, and the cultural environment is strikingly similar. Advertising for Marvel’s overwhelmingly crowded superhero slugfest Infinity War took a leaf from the Iron Man 3 playbook, making sure to cover up the wisecracks with plenty of ominous sturm and drang. And on top of all that, speculation continued to fly that this was the end of the road for Tony Stark, the character that started it all. The theatrical poster even featured Iron Man front and center, arms extended in classically Christ-like fashion. Martyr me, it screamed silently, my contract is running out.
Of course, anyone who’s seen Iron Man 3 or Infinity War knows that in both films, Tony Stark lives to fight another day. In 2013, Robert Downey Jr.’s contract was extended to include Avengers 3 and 4 after plenty of press tour waffling; later, he signed on to both Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming as well. In the meantime, Stark as a character has grown from a snarky rich brat with a healthy disrespect from authority to a character consistently crippled by his responsibility to those around him–and all of that springs directly from Iron Man 3.
The Tony Stark we meet in Iron Man 3 is crippled by anxiety, haunted by his experiences during the Battle of New York. He holes himself away in his Malibu mansion, building endless weaponry and even outsourcing quality time with Pepper to a remotely controlled suit of armor. The responsibility that he took on in flying a nuke into outer space has nearly destroyed him; the carefree genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist of the first two Iron Man films is almost entirely gone. There are remnants left behind; a child asks for a crayon autograph and he quips, “I loved you in A Christmas Story. A moment later, however, the same child has invoked the wormhole over New York, and Tony is engulfed in a massive panic attack.
At the end of the day, Tony Stark is the ultimate control freak, a man who takes matters into his own hands, no matter the cost. The events of The Avengers made him aware of his own mortality, but they also took away his sense of control, making him more vulnerable than he’d ever felt. Iron Man 3 is Tony’s quest towards taking control of his life back, finding a way to protect the people he loves without laying his life on the line in order to do it. In his desperate attempts to create an army of weapons, there’s a simple goal: Outsource the saving of world to the robots. Let the superheroes have some peace.
Unfortunately, Tony’s own failings don’t allow that to happen. Much was made of Iron Man 3‘s villain upon its release, and writer/director Shane Black’s interpretation of the Mandarin is certainly interesting. Comic book fans attacked the film’s portrayal as a betrayal of the source material, but it’s hard to see how the films could have handled the loaded question of the character in a more tactful way. Black takes the cartoonish Chinese stereotype of the comic books and makes it into a nuanced and intelligent critique of the American tendency to accept a foreign scapegoat when the real villains are typically rich, American, and white. Black literalizes this trend, making Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian into a sinister puppet master pulling the strings of a dangerous terrorist leader.
The critique of Pearce’s character is slightly more valid than complaints of Mandarin disloyalty; Pearce does his best, but Killian just isn’t particularly arresting. It’s a classic MCU trend, but it goes over better in Iron Man 3 than it does in say, Thor: The Dark World. Killian is a good villain in at least one regard: He makes our main character more interesting. And not just by comparison. Killian’s motivation–spurned by Tony at a party in 1999, he decides to return for revenge–may seem simple, but tie directly into Tony’s fears of the wormhole. One may be earth-bound, but both are foreign and unfamiliar, with Tony dealing with an indiscretion from his past that he can barely remember. Tony’s failures are catching up with him, just as he begins to fear failure again.
Those failures chase him into Age of Ultron, where he once again creates a monster in his determination to escape the responsibility of being one of Earth’s mightiest heroes. At one point, in a heated confrontation with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, he asks, “Isn’t that why we fight? So we can end the fight? So we can go home?” Tony is defined by his desire to set arms down and leave the war behind; Steve is defined by his inability to do the same. The Tony in this scene is the same Tony from the finale of Iron Man 3, where he promised Pepper he’d leave his suits behind. A contract extension later, Stark is back on the front lines–but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
Civil War sees a continuation of this broken promise: Tony is wracked with guilt after Pepper leaves him, and once again attempts to pass responsibility onto someone else, this time the United Nations. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Pepper is back, but Tony’s responsibility is passed on to a new proxy, Tom Holland’s Peter. “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” Tony tells Peter, a direct callback to the message of Iron Man 3. In Infinity War, we see the direct consequences of Tony’s relationship with Peter; even as he desperately tries to protect him, Peter ends up washing away into ash when Thanos snaps his fingers. Tony is stranded on a distant planet, with Pepper far away. Earlier in the film, he told her he wanted to settle down, escape the surprises. That future seems impossible now. Speculation that Tony will die in the untitled Avengers 4 continues to build.
But if Marvel really wants to give Tony the ending he deserves, they’ll let him live. Fans will continue to push their predictions down the pipeline until they eventually come true, but the arc laid out for Tony, starting in Iron Man 3, is clear. He needs to let go, but he can’t. The conclusion of Tony Stark’s arc isn’t death: It’s learning to pass responsibility on not to an army of robots, but to the people he trusts. After ten years, Tony Stark deserves his time in the sun.