10 Years Ago, Marvel Dared to Deal with Consequences. It Never Did Again.

Hate the Mandarin twist? You’re wrong.

15 Years of Marvel

Stakes don’t matter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At least, not anymore. Not when there’s an alternate version of a beloved character who can live on after their death and world-shattering events are mostly glossed over.

But once upon a time, consequences meant something. An alien invasion could be so traumatizing it leaves one of Earth’s mightiest heroes with debilitating PTSD. A professional snub made by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) could come back to haunt him in deadly ways. And the shards of metal embedded in Iron Man’s chest would forever remind him of his company’s bloody legacy, especially whenever the old, dull pain flares up again.

That’s the most interesting thing about Tony Stark. He’s a hero forever on the precipice, his mistakes literally poised to kill him if those shards were just an inch closer to his heart. It’s a tricky balancing act that Iron Man 3 pulls off well, even if it notoriously didn’t deliver everything the fans wanted. Instead, writer-director Shane Black chooses to frame Iron Man’s final solo adventure as a meandering neo-noir that more fully explores Tony Stark’s inner psyche than it answers questions about Marvel lore like the Mandarin and the Ten Rings. It’s this attention to Tony, and his place as an immensely flawed human in an increasingly fantastical world, that makes Iron Man 3 a great Marvel movie, and one that holds up 10 years after its release on May 3, 2013.

Iron Man 3 begins in the past, at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. Tony Stark has a one-night stand with brilliant genetic biologist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and coldly ignores disabled scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Little does he know he’s also given Maya the key she needs to perfect her Extremis invention — and given Killian the grudge that will fuel his plot to privatize terrorism with the help of a puppet Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). All this comes to a head 15 years later, as Tony struggles with the lingering trauma of nearly dying during the Battle of New York. When the Mandarin appears to threaten Tony specifically, an attack on his home leaves him stranded in the middle of rural Tennessee with nothing but a depowered suit and his own brain power.

Yeah, the overly complex plot boils down to a red herring and a villain twist ripped right from Pixar’s Incredibles. Yeah, Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen is sorely underused and has us wishing for the alternate timeline where executives didn’t decide a female villain wouldn’t sell as many toys. And yeah, you hate the Mandarin reveal (and you’re wrong!). But Iron Man 3 strips Tony Stark down, emotionally and physically, in a way that we hadn’t seen since the first Iron Man. He’s forced to become just the “mechanic,” as he tells Harley (Ty Simpkins), the precocious kid who becomes his unlikeliest ally after Tony breaks into his garage.

Stripped of almost everything that makes him Iron Man, we get to see the Tony Stark we fell in love with, flaws and all. In doing so, the movie reveals just how intensely human he is. Of course, he’s irrevocably changed by his near-death experience in Avengers. Of course, it causes him to experience sudden anxiety attacks. Iron Man 3 reveals the emotional toll near-constant violence can have on a human in a superhuman world.

Tony Stark finally got to separate himself from the suit in Iron Man 3.

Marvel Studios

But even while it revolves around such a heavy topic as PTSD, Iron Man 3 is remarkably fun. That’s because unlike so many made-by-formula Marvel movies now, Iron Man 3 feels undeniably like a Shane Black movie, right down to the buddy-comedy banter between Tony and Rhodey (Don Cheadle), the borderline sleazy glimpse of a criminal underworld, and the ironic Christmas backdrop. Seeing Tony Stark go full neo-noir detective as he investigates the truth behind Extremis makes it easier to forgive the biggest flaw of the movie: its convoluted plot. Because here’s the truth of what makes neo-noirs so successful: it’s about the vibes, man. Do you remember what happened in Chinatown apart from something about water? No! But you still love the movie.

That’s where the biggest misunderstanding of Iron Man 3 comes in: with fans wanting a typical Marvel movie that gives us badass fights with badass villains and tantalizing Easter eggs. Instead, we got a character drama and a meditation on humanity. In the end, it’s Tony Stark’s humanity, and his brush with death, that inspires Iron Man to finally get the shards in his chest removed. With the specter of his mistakes no longer looming over him, the one thing that makes him Iron Man is no longer the only thing keeping him alive. It’s the perfect ending for Tony Stark. And in a better world, it would’ve been. But despite Avengers: Age of Ultron underwriting this finality just two years later, for a brief moment in time, Marvel had themselves a perfect ending.

Iron Man 3 is streaming on Disney+.

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