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Iron Man 3 is when the MCU started getting experimental

Iron Man 3
(Image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios)

We're watching the Marvel movies in order for a series of regular features. Check out our previous pieces on Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. Today, it's Iron Man 3's turn. Coming soon: Thor: The Dark World (uh-oh).

How do you top The Avengers? In 2012, the MCU seemed like it reached the highest point possible and told a tale that couldn’t be topped. Marvel succeeded in showing the world that it could string together characters from several different films to tell one epic adventure. 

So, what happens after you make a major crossover? How do you make compelling solo adventures after proving that these heroes are at their best as part of a team? Well, the MCU's masterminds had a plan – subvert expectations.

Iron Man 3, the end and the beginning

Iron Man 3 has the pleasure of being many things. It’s the final film in the Iron Man series (and the first complete trilogy in the MCU), and the first film to take place after The Avengers. The film picks up one year after the events of the battle of New York. In that time Tony Stark has been a busy boy – almost obsessively so. He’s developed 42 sets of armor and has developed them so that he can summon them from anywhere – and they can move by themselves.

Unfortunately, Tony’s busywork is a result of residual trauma from the Chitauri alien invasion, where he almost died in outer space.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, he’s suffering from a serious bout of anxiety attacks and PTSD. It couldn't have come at a worse time as, once again, the sins of his past have caught up to him. The Mandarian arrives, making threats against America. With him are a science collective known as A.I.M and a bunch of individuals enhanced with the Extremis formula, turning themselves into human bombs. When those close to Tony are targeted, he involves himself in a battle he is not completely prepared for. 

The trauma of Tony Stark

Iron Man 3 is a strange film. Like Iron Man 2, it has trouble topping the original film's highs. Still, what a lot of people don’t realize is that it isn’t trying to do that. Moreover, the film doesn’t feel like the end of a trilogy either. 

No, if you go back to Iron Man 3, you’ll notice that it’s the beginning of a long arc for Tony Stark that continues in other MCU films.

The Avengers is the driving force behind Iron Man 3, and it puts Tony Stark on a path he never leaves. Stark finds that after battling aliens, the world is painfully unequipped with defending itself from another extraterrestrial attack.

Iron Man 3 is the birth of this fear, and it's the main cause of his PTSD and anxiety attacks. If you’ve watched any of the films that follow, you know it’s that thought pattern that plagues him through the rest of the MCU.

When you think about that, you start to connect the dots and see where Tony’s whole “suit of armor around the world” idea comes from. It leads to the creation of Ultron, Tony’s idealistic and physical battles with Captain America, and the evolution of the Iron Man armor itself. It’s a fascinating character arc that transcends Iron Man 3 and pays off for fans in future films – and is arguably dramatically richer than where the hero had been taken previously.

The MCU does things its own way

While the Iron Man armor is the most advanced it’s ever been at this point in the films (the armor's ability to magnetically float while he suits up is the best), Stark feels like he’s at his lowest. His ego still gets him into trouble and combined with his anxiety issues, most of the film feels like he’s back in that cave years before, putting together whatever scraps he can to save the day. 

That’s not to say that the action doesn’t satisfy. The airplane scene with Iron Man armor saving 13 people free-falling from the sky is still amazing to watch. Also, Iron Man 3 manages to serve up some excellent fan service of its own during the end of the film. 

There is still nothing quite like seeing all the different Iron Man armors come out to play. It’s even fun as a fan recognizing a few from the comics.

After The Avengers, Marvel put a lot of trust in its audience’s ability to keep track of all the films in its shared universe. Using that to their advantage, with Iron Man 3, the MCU begins to perfect mixing in elements from its various franchises together. That way, the film not only is another Iron Man sequel but a functional sequel to Avengers as well. Iron Man 3 pulls directly from that film to move its plot forward. In fact, Iron Man 3 doesn’t really make much sense unless you’ve seen The Avengers. 

This is the case for a lot of MCU films going forward. No matter how much Marvel wants each film to stand on its own, prior knowledge becomes a must if you want to enjoy an MCU film to its fullest. It’s the gift and the curse of properly creating a shared universe of interconnected films. Despite this, Iron Man 3 is still pretty enjoyable. It unintentionally ends up being a Christmas movie – a signature of director Shane Black, reuniting with Downey Jr years after Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang – which gives viewers some fun gags and levity during the film. 

What is most interesting about the film is that it tries to feel different from previous Iron Man films. The movie subverts expectations and plays with what fans of the comics are expecting. While many fans hate the Mandarin twist that the film pulls, where Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian is the movie's villain rather than Ben Kingsley's wannabe actor Trevor Slattery (they say he's the toast of Croydon), it’s not as bad as many made it out to be. It’s actually really funny, inventive and perfectly encapsulates the MCU’s knack for using humor to take the edge off of drama. 

The twist works within the framework of this particular plot. More than that, it proved that while the MCU takes inspiration from the comic book stories it pulls from, it was still going to have some unexpected moments for even the most hardcore fans. This feels necessary considering Avengers gave us a film full of fan service and nonstop action. As the MCU continues on, like Iron Man 3, we see each film get better at crafting an identity of its own.