So here’s the deal you make when you tell a story. Actions have consequences. I don’t mean of the physical variety (you destroy a support, the roof caves in), no, I mean emotional consequences. Sometimes you have to deal with those.
Well, sometimes you don’t. Look at romances like Star Wars or other more light hearted fare. Han gets frozen in carbonite, Leia’s planet gets destroyed, and Luke blows up the Death Star and everyone on it. But the movies opted not to deal with emotional repercussions, and it’s fine since it didn’t keep with the theme. The Star Wars movies are inherently fun and relatively light hearted, angst and baggage need not apply.
It’s hard, though, to get in to it. Exploring emotional trauma is difficult. It’s easier to go the route of “good guys win, everything’s great now!” Of course, if the good guys don’t win, hey, half the work’s done.
More or less, anyway. Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds fought for the Independents who were soundly defeated in the Unification War. It left him with a great loss of faith and a desire to be unfeeling. Everything that happened haunts him throughout the TV show and into the film. He doesn’t want to get close to people, but he won’t let anyone harm his crew. Mal isn’t the Mal we see in flashbacks, the loss cut deeply into him and shook him to the core. It’s all hallmarks of him being haunted by the events prior.
Which, finally, brings me to Iron Man 3. As a series, the films have done a good job of dealing with emotional consequences. Iron Man 2 serves up the question of what would Tony do if the thing keeping him alive started to kill him? The answer was a reckless lust for life which we see play out and, at times, leave him a hungover wreck. That movie dealt all that, letting us move past that and into The Avengers where Tony decided to be truly selfless, a massive leap forward in his character.
So what now? So where does Iron Man 3 go with a Tony Stark who’s not a selfish playboy? With the Avengers he helped saved the world, so the next story would be Tony saving the world again, right? No. Iron Man 3 asks how can Tony come back from what happened in New York. This is where the story needed to go. Not doing so would be a disservice to the character. It had to explore what a character like Tony would do in light of acting completely out of character and volunteering his life. What are the ramifications? We find out that he’s not okay. He’s broken, he’s been awake for days on ends building suit after suit, keeping himself occupied while trying to protect himself - and those he loves. The man feels vulnerable, he’s just a man in an iron suit in a world where there are supersoldiers, aliens, ‘gods’, and a Hulk. Without the Iron Man armor, Tony realizes he’s just Tony. He suffers an anxiety attack at the mention of New York and can’t sign a little girl’s drawing of him saving the day without scribbling a speech bubble above Iron Man saying “Erin help me”. These aren’t spoilers, by the way, this is where we meet Tony as the film begins. This has become his normal. We get to see him fight out of it.
This is what makes Tony’s character so interesting. He’s haunted by his past. The whole reason he’s Iron Man is because he’s seeking redemption for the harm he caused. Tony isn’t a cut and dry character. He’s vulnerable, far from the ‘invincible’ used to describe his armor. Iron Man 3 dares to peel back the armor and get at the man inside. We’ve established the superhero, we’ve sent him to [there] and back, now let’s watch him try and stand. It’s a daring move, one that can go the path of creating a character too caught up in his own angst or one that has barely enough. Yet Iron Man 3 nails it.
I love Iron Man. He’s been one of my favorite superheroes since I was a small kid. Why? I remember explaining it once when I was around 7 or 8; because underneath all that armor, Tony’s just a regular guy. Iron Man 3 delves into that and it’s all the better for it. Go see it; it might be my favorite not-The-Avengers Marvel movie yet.