I know this is a controversial thing to say, because Tony Stark is a popular guy… but I’ve never really liked Iron Man. I’ve always thought of him as an attention-seeking, slightly self-centered, totally wise-ass jerk. Compared to humble superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman who hide their savior status, living normal lives by day and sacrificing without personal glory, Iron Man has always seemed like a show off. If I recall correctly, in the previous Iron Man movie, Tony Stark spent his birthday partying in his Iron Man suit and performing drunken, daredevil stunts in front of a crowd. It annoyed Pepper, it pissed off Rhodes, and it definitely drove me nuts.
Then I saw Iron Man 3, and I realized I never understood Tony Stark before.
Iron Man 3 is my favorite Iron Man movie so far, because it explores his character more intimately than ever. The reason? Most of the time, he doesn’t have his armor. In the film’s modern-day opening scene (as opposed to the prologue-y bit), Tony is working on a new way to access his suit — by having the pieces literally fly to him and latch on. This would make his armor readily available to him, no matter where he is.
But problems happen, and his suit isn’t up to snuff when the action sets in. After an attempt on his life, he ends up far from home with broken armor and no easy way to fix it. He’s in a T-shirt in the snow, with everybody in the world thinking he’s dead — and to survive the cold alone, he has to steal a poncho and trek through unknown territory to break into somebody’s garage. He’s never been quite this vulnerable.
He’s also having panic attacks after everything that went down in New York (you know, in The Avengers). At times, this seems like just an easy, obvious way for the script writers to exhibit Tony’s psychological stress, but it works best after Tony encounters Harley, a kid and aspiring inventor who becomes Tony’s sidekick for a while. Harley even helps repair the broken Iron Man suit. But one of the kid’s shining moments is when he talks Tony out of one of his anxiety attacks by saying, “You’re a mechanic. Why don’t you build something?”
So Tony buys a ton of supplies from a hardware store and gets cracking. The makeshift weapons and traps he creates are ugly but effective, allowing him to infiltrate his enemy’s headquarters even without his Iron Man suit.
Some people say the inclusion of a kid in Iron Man 3 is a tad contrived, but I love it. Maybe it’s because I worked with kids for so long, but I totally believe in the ability of children to put things in perspective and get down to the meat of reality. Harley did this for Tony — and of course, watching Tony be his usual jerk self to a smart, capable kid is hilarious.
Finally, Tony’s relationship with Pepper is stronger than ever in Iron Man 3. His love and loyalty in their romance is one of his most redeeming traits, and I appreciate that the film showcases it without milking it too much. Just when we’ve forgotten about Pepper to focus on Tony’s problems, the villain reveals Pepper undergoing a torturous metamorphosis at the hands of Tony’s enemies, and seeing Tony’s pained reaction to it humanizes him even more.
It’s also great to see Pepper’s reactions to Tony, at any time. She’s always been easily frustrated with him, but this is the first movie that made me see why she’s in love with him, too. Their chemistry feels more realistic now than ever, in my opinion. An example is when Tony swoops in to rescue Pepper from being crushed under debris. (Don’t worry, she rescues him plenty of times, too.) Instead of comforting her, he makes a crack about her hanging out with his ex-girlfriends, causing her to laughingly say, “You’re such a jerk.” She’s relieved almost to tears to see him, insensitive wise cracks and all.
And let me tell you something: it never hurts when people — especially sometimes-jerks like Tony Stark — actually explain themselves. Tony does this at the beginning of the film when Pepper is upset at him, helping me see him through her eyes.
And so Tony Stark has started making lot more sense to me. I feel like I saw so much more of him in this film — not just him all suited up as Iron Man.
As his actor Robert Downey Jr. explains in a Hollywood Reporter interview, “He didn’t really have integrity when we first met him, and then he gained it as he used technology to save his own skin.” Yet what’s most interesting about Iron Man 3 is seeing him as “The Mechanic,” tinkering around in his lab, worrying about his responsibilities, saving people with a remotely-piloted Iron Man suit, and building gadgets on the fly to finish his missions. I finally see that it’s not the suit that makes him who he is. And now that I’ve seen his ingenuity and integrity, I’ve finally learned to like everything about his personality, too.