I hate spoilers. I really do; I swore off social media for the two days in between the Lost finale and when I could watch it. That said, this post deals with an aspect of the ending of Iron Man 3. It’s not one of the huge twists, but it’s a little surprise. It’s been a week since it came out so I feel alright writing about it.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Well, first spoiler, Tony survives. But the main one I’ll be addressing is that he decides to get the shrapnel out of his chest once and for all, negating his need for an Arc Reactor. This takes place in the resolution, after the climatic battle with The Mandarin. Although it seems to come almost out of left field, Tony getting ‘healed’ is the culmination of his growth over the series.
But hang on, if getting the shrapnel out was that easy, why didn’t he just get it out at the end of the first film? Because he chose not to. See, the cave in Afghanistan was Tony’s rebirth. In it he was forced to come face to face with his wrongs; namely that the weapons he created were being used to fight those he made the weapons for. It was during this time that Yensin, a fellow captive in the cave, implanted Tony with an electromagnet to keep the shrapnel at bay as he lacked the resources to perform adequate surgery. Tony then created the original Arc Reactor to power the magnet and the first Iron Man suit. This was his rebirth, from that moment on Tony was Iron Man. When he returns home he builds a new Arc Reactor rather than finding a topnotch cardiologist to remove the shrapnel. Why? Because this is who he is.
The mentality persists into the second film. Despite the palladium in his chest slowly killing him, removing the shrapnel and negating the need for the Arc Reactor isn’t an option. Why? Because it’s part of him, as he says “the suit and I are one.” He’s Iron Man, and so he has to live with it. Does Tony want to die? No. But Tony can’t go back to his life before the cave; Tony’s the atoner. He acts in the hope that Iron Man might somehow set right Tony Stark’s wrongs. To remove the shrapnel and the Arc Reactor would be, in his mind, to renege on what he promised himself to do when he left the cave. It’s not just part of him, it is him.
Iron Man 3 tackles this idea; who is Tony Stark and who is Iron Man? If his armor doesn’t work and he’s left without it, is he still a superhero? Tony has to work through these questions in the movie, he has to find a real answer to Captain America’s challenge in The Avengers: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”
Tony has to learn to be Iron Man without the Iron Man armor. He spends much of the second act without his armor or the resources to build one. Back to basics, Tony is once again in the cave from the first film. Though in the first film he emerges from the cave clad in the Iron Man armor, in Iron Man 3 he emerges from the cave without a new suit of armor, just a few gadgets (he gets the Mk 42 back later). But the transformation is done, Tony no longer relies on the suit to be a hero.
Iron Man 3 is based on the Extremis comic-arc which concludes with Tony injecting himself with a modified version of the Extremis virus, which basically allows him to control the armor with his thoughts. In his words, it’s so he can become Iron Man inside and out. Though Tony doesn’t go through the same process in the film, the end result is figuratively the same. Whereas in Extremis Tony essentially merges with his suit, in Iron Man 3 Tony learns that he doesn’t need a suit to be Iron Man, that even without it he can still be the hero he became.
So Tony finally gets the shrapnel out his chest because his identity as Iron Man is no longer reliant on his injury. He’s gone past that; now he knows that if you strip everything away, Tony Stark still is Iron Man.