The Iron Man trilogy is one of the best sagas around, almost all due to Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. On the surface, the movies are connected, but I wanted to dig deeper to see if, as Tony puts it, he really IS Iron Man. In this discussion, I am going to breakdown the Iron Man trilogy movie-by-movie with the evolution of character Tony Stark. For the sake of argument, I will include the movie The Avengers, as the events in that movie are pivotal in the plot/story arc of Tony for Iron Man 3.
WARNING: if you haven’t seen these four films, there may be spoilers that follow.
DISCLAIMER: I have not read any of the Iron Man or Avengers comics, so this discussion is all movie-based.
We start by seeing the playboy image of Tony Stark before he is captured. He’s arrogant, quick-lipped, doesn’t take life seriously, parties all the time, and is VERY self-centered. After he escapes his captors in the Mark I suit, he comes to the realization of his mortality and vulnerability, due to the shrapnel that sits just over his heart. It stays put thanks to the powerful electro-magnet (a mini arc reactor) that gives Stark a signature look and thus creates the first step of his evolution into the Iron Man persona. This is a living reminder of his time left on Earth allowing him to know what his true calling is: to protect and serve. His creations of each version of the suit, the Mark II and III, advance his progress into the Iron Man persona and further away from what Tony Stark was all about. By the end of the first film, the character arc started as a parallel of the Bruce Wayne/Batman dual personality as Tony Stark tried to recreate his public image of the playboy millionaire, but ends up being the opposite with a clever twist spoken as the last line of the movie with Tony proclaiming, “I am Iron Man.” THIS moment sets the ground work for the evolution of who Tony Stark will become, whether it be a shadow of his former image, a self-proclaimed hero, or a man behind his machines. Iron Man ended with Nick Fury, in the post-credits scene, asking Tony about the joining “Avengers Initiative.” This important moment helps set Stark/Iron Man on the path to becoming a hero, although the only person he only saves is himself in the first movie. Iron Man, basically, represents a stronger version of the Tony Stark that escaped captivity and nothing more.
Iron Man 2
With the second chapter, the stakes are upped with multiple elements: 1) a formidable foe named Whiplash/Anton Venko as an opposite image of Tony Stark, 2) Stark’s mini arc reactor poisoning him although it’s the only thing keeping him alive, and 3) the heavy push to join S.H.I.E.L.D, thanks to pressure from Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and the deceptive Black Widow. With his mortality staring at him in the face with visual scars created by the arc reactor in his chest, the character Iron Man starts slipping, bringing back the old Tony Stark. His best friend and colleague Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes steals Tony’s Mark II suit to put him back in check. Venko, on the other hand, tests his limits with Tony’s new Mark IV “Suit-case” and keeps reminding Tony of the failure he is. Leave it to Nick Fury to inspire Tony who he really is and what Iron Man stands for: again, to protect and serve. After discovering a new element, he finds a way revive himself and the Iron Man. He gets rid of the poisoning mini arc reactor by replacing it with a new one allowing him to create the more powerful Mark V. With Venko threatening to destroy Stark’s expo in New York, causing all sorts of damage and death, it takes Rhodey to partner up with Stark, in a pimped-out version of the Mark II nicknamed War Machine. Stark’s teamwork leads to a resurgence back into the Iron Man persona, but it’s more of a cross-contamination because Tony’s flair, humor, and arrogance now sticks with him in and out of the suit. By the end of Iron Man 2, Nick Fury assesses Stark, confirming that Tony indeed is Iron Man since all of his character flaws stick with him, including his lack of teamwork. So the character Iron Man evolves from saving himself to saving many people, and some would argue New York City. He has now become a true hero.
Now he thinks he has graduated to the level of hero, but it seems that the members of the Avengers only see him as Tony Stark with some fancy suits, NOT Iron Man. For example, take the argument with Captain America: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that, away what are you?” Tony replies, “Genius, playboy, millionaire, philanthropist.” Notice how he did not reply with “I am Iron Man.” NOW, Iron Man/Tony has downgraded himself back to just Tony Stark even though he said in Iron Man 2, “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one.” That can’t be true because he, reluctantly, gives Rhodey one of his suits; so does that make Rhodey Iron Man? Getting back to The Avengers, the whole fight of New York city against Loki and his army of Chitauri soldiers helps elevate Tony, once again, BACK into the Iron Man persona as he works with the rest of the Avengers. He saves the city, countless lives and possibly the world by going through the wormhole Loki created and delivering a nuke the main Chitarui spaceship and barely making it back to earth. This level of sacrifice, which Tony/Iron Man has never experienced, upgrades him him the level of superhero.
Iron Man 3
Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD), Tony Stark, once again, breaks down and is unable to handle what it means to be Iron Man, recovering from the events of The Avengers. He makes his own therapy by creating dozens of suits, his most advanced named Mark 42. After a series of events that lead to Tony’s home getting destroyed, Tony escapes with his life, in the Mark 42 suit and does a lot of soul searching into what it means to be Iron Man without the suits. To be honest, it really never answers that question. Turns out, by the end of the movie when he destroys all of his suits and gets the mini arc reactor plus the shrapnel piece taken out of him, he’s just Tony Stark even though the movie ends with him saying, “I am Iron Man.” How can Tony Stark be Iron Man without the suits? Could he have defeated Obadiah Stane, Anton Venko, the Chitauri, or the Mandarin without the suits? No, he would’ve been killed immediately by Obadiah, leaving no Iron Man 2 or Iron Man 3.
In conclusion, I don’t see how Tony could still be considered Iron Man without the suits. Which leaves me to the question: how is Iron Man going to show up in the follow-up sequel Avengers 2: Age of Ultron if all of his suits are destroyed? To wrap up my point, I will use a quote from Iron Man 2 when Tony pulls to the side of a road to buy strawberries, the seller asks, “Are you Iron Man?” Tony replies, “Sometimes.”