You Know Who I Am: Identity in Iron Man 3

May 4, 2013 at 1:48am

By nature of being a sequel to a sequel, Iron Man 3 was surrounded with various expectations associated with maintaining a high standard of quality while functioning properly in context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the key plot points were adapted from Iron Man: Extremis, which I hold in high esteem, they were formed and developed and took on their own uniqueness, impact, and validity. Although it wasn't perfect, the film resonated with me in important, subtle ways.

Examine the above three movie posters. What sets Iron Man 3 apart from the other two? Tony is wearing the suit. He and Iron Man are one entity. In the opening scenes of the film, he leaves a note in Maya Hansen's room on a "Hello, My Name Is" sticker. You know who I am. And she does; he's Tony Stark, the drunken wunderkind who ignores Yinsen, disregards Killian, and makes his fortune manufacturing instruments of destruction. After his transformation in the desert in the first film, he affirms to the world that he is Iron Man; Iron Man 3 sees him questioning that belief as he struggles to define what the suits mean to him. A distraction? A hobby? A part of who he is?

Now I'm... Well, you know who I am.

I feel like one of the most important spots of dialogue is when Tony spills to Pepper about how his way of coping with the events of The Avengers is that he goes to the basement and "does what he knows." He takes comfort in tinkering, which is something I understand. I relate to the feeling of grappling for understanding of complexity through manipulation. Once you understand something enough, you can control it, and Tony's anxiety attacks must relate to his feeling of lack of control over what happens to the things around him after being confronted with something he doesn't understand in New York.

The film presents an interesting deconstruction of the idea of Iron Man. Tony spends a lot of the film not wearing the suits. In fact, the first shot of the film is the Hall of Armor exploding in silence. He builds the suits to operate without him inside, which in turn lessens his own dependency on the suits. Many of his defining sequences show him relying on his own wits - not the suits - to endure. I appreciated all of the scenes where Tony connects with fellow tinkerer Harley. They understand each other pretty deeply, because they share the hacker mindset of a kid in his garage. Harley calls him the Mechanic. Tony is special not because of his suits, but because he builds and creates. In one of my favorite scenes tells him just to build something to do what he needs instead of getting hung up over the suit. The novelty of Stark weaponizing a hardware store aside, it more importantly reminds him of who he is: the man who built his future in a cave with a box of scraps.

Even when he summons his fleet of suits, it doesn't really matter which one he's in. All are extensions of him, manifested aspects of his personality that extend his innate ability. The creativity with which he used his suits (in other words, the action choreography given the creative freedom to utilize the vast imaginative possibilities of the armor) had me in awe. Iron Man's superpowers are his intelligence, awareness, and creatively constructive tendencies.

As an aside, I always love thinking about the technical implications of Iron Man's resources. JARVIS displayed a huge amount of complexity in the film, and the signal processing, natural language processing, and overall AI involved astounds me. When JARVIS mentions saying the wrong cranberries at the end of a sentence, my thoughts immediately went to the complex Markov Chaining involved even to generate coherent sentences. Also, the fact that Tony's suits are available when he makes jumps on the oil rigs means that at any given moment, the centralized JARVIS system has to be computing Tony's motion path and cross referencing it to the projected paths of each suit to ensure one or more can be allocated to catch Tony. That's a crazy amount of lookahead happening with incredible precision, and I'm not sure current A* Mario solvers are quite at that level at the moment.

You don't know who I am. You'll never see me coming.

Contrast Tony with the Mandarin. The character sort of has a paradoxical anonymity, becoming a larger than life amalgamation of "terror" that nobody really understands. He's pretty one dimensional in a way, which is why, although it's obviously a huge divergence from the plot of Extremis, I appreciated that it was a projection, a persona of the film's Killian. He prides himself on the anonymity that Tony can never have, seeing how "subtlety's had its day" after the events in New York. His remarks to Pepper on Tony's ego near the beginning of the film are appropriate because Tony's notoriety and diminishing confidence in his sense of self are creating problems. On the other hand, Tony didn't take Killian seriously, and that makes him dangerous.

To an extent, the character of the Mandarin in the film is also a deconstruction of sorts. Because he ends up being a persona of Killian, the concept of the Mandarin evolves a bit past the racial pastiche, even if Kingsley's character still doesn't gain much depth. Even then, I loved the versatility in the scene when Tony is discovered at the compound and Trevor immediately re-adopts the deep Mandarin voice and protects himself. There was some potential for depth there, not that it's ever explored past that scene.

I did, however, appreciate the adaptation of Maya Hansen's character. The circumstances of her and Tony's meeting meshes a lot more with the Marvel Cinematic Iron Man than with Invincible Iron Man, but beyond that, the thematic development she embodies struck at similar heartstrings. One of the most important aspects of the Iron Man mythos is the young, idealistic engineer starting with an idea to make the world a better place - and then realizing that the realities of the world have corrupted the ideal. Maya and Tony both wake up one morning to find that they are in places in their lives that they never wanted to be. How do you cope with that? It's explored more deeply in Extremis, but Maya and Tony both got into the industry with hope for the future, and then found that their only path forward was to accept military funding. It's so sad and so true; I cannot help but think of the Manhattan Project as an analogy to Extremis or Stark technology. Tremendous strides in scientific research were made, but at immense cost to humanity. In the first chapter of Extremis, Tony argues that all of his microelectronic breakthroughs have led to beneficial social contributions by way of the initial military funding. And then Tony has to look in the mirror every morning and ask himself if he's changed anything at all. He had his revelation in captivity, but Maya never discovered her accountability. She is what Tony could have become, without Iron Man.

In the final statement of the film, Tony speaks as if answering the question Captain America asked, demanded of him in The Avengers. "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, and what are you?"

I am Iron Man.

Sure, the movie wasn't without its problems. I feel like a lot of dialogue from the trailers never made it into the film, which left a few transitions a bit jarring, or at the very least not smoothly introduced. The villains were a little weak and lacked for clarity in development or motivation, perhaps as a side effect of aforementioned cuts. Some of the gags worked very well, others dragged a little. But in an overall sense, I left the theatre with a both sense of completion, in terms of the closing of a trilogy and the excellently done montage, and in the sense that I find myself perhaps in that idealized phase that I hope never compromises me as it did Maya and Tony. In Extremis, Tony laments that Iron Man used to represent the future. I submit to you that the superheroic aspect of Iron Man is its hope for redemption and a brighter future.