It has been made very clear over the last few months that the major theme of Iron Man 3 would be “does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?” Even without knowing that, the theme is made fairly clear over the course of the film, as not only Tony, but many of the other characters as well are forced to look within and see what they really are without their suits, both literal and metaphorical.
Here, we take a look at how each of the film’s major characters approach this central question: Does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?
SPOILER WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
4. Tony Stark
Tony Stark’s journey throughout the film is clearly centered around this question. At first, Tony is completely reliant on his suits, building more and more as a means of coping with his near-death experience in The Avengers. He is barely sleeping and when he does eventually sleep, his nightmares are so intense that he subconsciously calls his latest armor to him.
After the initial attack on his Malibu home, Tony spends much of the second act of the film without his armor, which forces him to face this question head on. Eventually, he realizes that even without his armor, he is still a genius (and a philanthropist, a playboy, and a billionaire). He is able to use his ingenuity to fight off two of Killian’s Extremis-enhanced goons AND take down the Mandarin’s compound single handedly and un-armored.
By the end of the film, Tony himself admits that the suits were a cocoon, and that he is now ready to move on. He has JARVIS blow up all the suits and even rids himself of his arc reactor chest-implant. He is a now a new man, ready to face the future without his armor.
And so far so completely on the surface. The filmmakers told us straight up that this is what Tony’s journey would be like, and that’s what happened. But Tony wasn’t the only one who had to face life without armor…
3. James “Rhodey” Rhodes
Tony isn’t the only one dealing with the aftermath of the New York incident. Rhodey’s War Machine gets a new name and a new look as Iron Patriot. While he does still have his physical armor, he does still have to deal with the fact that his War Machine identity has been stripped away from him.
Which is rather interesting considering he is never once called War Machine in Iron Man 2. In fact, while there are references to Rhodey having been known as War Machine at one point, he is never out and out called War Machine. And yet he spends much of his screen time in Iron Man 3 lamenting his lost identity…
Anyway. Just as Tony must prove that he can be a hero without his armor, so too must Rhodey prove that he’s still War Machine no matter what his armor looks like. He spends much of the third act without his armor, with Killian’s goon Savin taking it first and then the President himself wearing it later. However, Rhodey shows himself to be quite a capable soldier without his suit. I absolutely love the shot of him leaping out of his armor and knocking out one of his captors. Not only is it totally badass, but it makes quite the visual statement about Rhodey himself: he can kick ass with or without the armor.
2. Pepper Potts
Pepper finally manages to break out of her damsel status this time around, becoming something of a hero herself. During the first act of the film, Pepper is mostly relegated to “Tony’s girl” status. Much fuss is made about him protecting her, namely the clip that was seen in several of the trailers where he literally spells it out.
That said, there is a very surprising moment during the helicopter attack scene. Tony’s first instinct is not to don the armor himself to protect Pepper, but instead instructs the armor to go to Pepper, shielding her from the attack. Here, Pepper shows that she is more than capable of heroics as well as she saves both Tony and Maya Hansen over the course of the scene.
Later, Pepper shows further thematic growth after undergoing the Extremis enhancement process. At the end of the final battle, it is Pepper, and not Tony, who ultimately defeats Killian’s Mandarin. Thus, Pepper proves that she does not need Tony to shield her from harm, but is in fact more than capable of taking care of herself.
1. The Mandarin: Trevor Slattery & Aldrich Killian
It’s a bit difficult to talk about one of these characters without mentioning the other, especially since their “armor” is effectively the same thing. Both Trevor and Killian hide behind the identity of the Mandarin, with Trevor providing the public face and Killian working behind the scenes.
Unlike the other characters in the film, Killian refuses to accept his weaknesses and instead retreats into the armors provided by the Mandarin as well as his Extremis enhancements. Hiding behind this assumed persona, Killian becomes free to carry out his research and become a world-class terrorist while still able to remain relatively anonymous. It is as though he cannot stand the person he once was so much that he creates a whole new persona to inhabit, and he is unable to function outside of that persona. Trevor, thus, becomes just one more layer of Killian’s armor, one more way he keeps the world at arm’s length.
In this way, Killian is truly Tony’s opposite in the film. Whereas Tony learns that he is more than the sum of his Iron Man suits, Killian is ultimately brought down by his obsession to stay within the comfort of his armor. Well, that and he’s a megalomaniac intent on world domination. Which, thankfully, Tony definitely is not.