Again, this is all about identity. The film brings the Iron Man series full circle, and begins to do so with a scene set years ago that reminds us of the narcissistic, careless, and often casually cruel ass Tony used to be. This sequence serves to underline just how far he’s come from the unthinking playboy he was at the beginning of the first film (it even features a very clever cameo that references a minor but significant moment of continuity from that film) to a hero willing to sacrifice his life to save the entire planet in the climax of The Avengers, while also directly setting up the plot of this film. His past misdeeds have inexorably led to the crises that occur in Iron Man 3. If the first film was about how Tony Stark grew a heart, the second film about how Tony continued to grapple with the darker side of his nature, and The Avengers about how he proved himself to be a genuine hero to the rest of his compatriots and the world, rather than just a self-aggrandizing billionaire with a god/hero complex, Iron Man 3 is about how Tony Stark proves all of this to himself: that he is more than just a very rich, very smart man with an arsenal of very expensive toys. That he is a better man than he used to be, but also one willing to confront and take responsibility for his own past actions–this is represented particularly well through Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a physically weak scientist who Tony treated horribly in the past, largely due to the man’s outward appearance. Throughout, naturally, Robert Downey, Jr. does a magnificent job of exposing the cracks behind Tony’s magnificent-bastard exterior, in what is likely his greatest performance in the series to date, and perhaps his greatest screen performance yet.
In addition to exploring Tony’s new identity as world-saving hero, Iron Man 3 also takes the time to explore his new identity as romantic partner to his former assistant-then-C.E.O.-to-his-company, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), in a plot thread that builds beautifully from the relationship that we have seen grow over the past three films, the manner in which the film depicts how they’ve navigated the waters from boss/employee to couple quite remarkable in its verisimilitude and emotional honesty. At their core, they are two people who have known each other a very long time and very well. Even with that, Tony is having trouble adjusting to how the world has changed around him, both in regards to what he has learned about the threats that are out there and in regards to life in a committed relationship–not in the sense that he has a wandering eye but in the sense that he still has a tendency to put up walls, sheltering himself in his home lab when he feels overwhelmed rather than sharing with his girlfriend. Downey, Jr. and Paltrow have such natural chemistry and the parts are written with such complexity, they hardly feel like characters who originated in a comic book, even when their story is plunged into the comicbookiest of depths.
Significantly, Tony’s relationship with Pepper, as well as his friendship with Rhodes (Don Cheadle), aka War Machine aka Iron Patriot, ends up playing factors in both angles of Tony’s self-exploration, both Rhodes and, interestingly, Pepper, as well, serving as reminders that the suit itself can be detached from Tony and used by another person, even as they also inspire him to persevere as a hero on his own, using the same mixture of guts, gumption, brains, and even fear that it took him to make that first suit out of pieces of scrap metal in the first place. Perhaps, the film argues, what you really have when you take away Tony’s suit is a brilliant, only seemingly fearless mechanic.
In many ways, Iron Man 3 is the darkest of the series to date (both when we’re speaking of the Iron Man films alone, and in the context of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe). Practically brutal in how it rips our hero from the people he holds dear and everything he has always relied upon, the film shows us Tony in the bleakest situation we have seen him yet. There is an edge to the violence and the characters’ desperation that feels emotionally real and removed from the zippier fun of the earlier films. At the same time, it features some of the most gorgeously crafted action sequences of the entire series (one rescue sequence in particular might be the best of its kind ever) and in some ways provides a superior rush to the earlier endeavors, largely because the Marvel film world has never felt quite this dangerous before, and watching Tony rise to these challenges with homemade weaponry, smarts, and attitude is really a quite remarkable thing.
Two other things I must mention: firstly, Black should also be praised for introducing a young boy into the narrative who not only completely refuses to be adorably precocious but who also interacts with Tony on a level that avoids any hint of triteness. So many of Tony’s issues spring from the distance with which his dad always treated him. Even Iron Man itself could be seen as an attempt to impress his deceased father, and so it just makes sense to put Tony in this sort of situation, but in such a way that never undercuts his character. Lastly, this really should no longer need to be said for Marvel films, but don’t you dare leave before the end credits finish rolling. Out of all of the fantastic tag scenes the series has provided us with up to this point, this is probably my favorite yet. It doesn’t directly set up a future adventure, as many of the others did, but rather provides us with a revelation about this film that isn’t only a fantastic punchline but adds a further level of depth to all that came before it, while at the same time binding the film–on a character level–even more strongly into the framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe narrative than it already was. Mighty nifty.