Iron Man 3 in-depth thematic analysis with spoilers – Part 2: Identity
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Why Iron Man 3 is like The Lord of the Rings...
[This three-part article contains many spoilers for the plot of Iron Man 3 (which is a great film, by the way). If you haven't seen it, I recommend that you go and do so, and then come back and read the article, which will explore themes of Meaning, Identity, and Relationality as expressed in Iron Man 3.]
Part 2: Identity
Part 1 of this article explored how Iron Man 3 explores the theme of meaning, particularly using the metaphor of fortune cookies, representing things unable to bear the weight of meaning placed on them. If you are what you eat, then eating things that are "hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth" is not a healthy diet, and doesn't make for a healthy person...
(Ben Kingsley as) The Mandarin, as set up in the trailer and earlier in the film (and also apparently in the comics), is a very dramatic, theatrical villain, and thus very effective, especially in a comic book realm such as this. As such, the Mandarin reveal – that Ben Kingsley's character is actually a drug-addicted actor called Trevor – is startling, pulling the rug out from under the audience's feet. While amusing, it could be considered gut-punchingly iconoclastic; as if Darth Vader in Star Wars were to turn out to be a whiny kid or a petulant teenager. Oh, wait... [For the record, I'm actually a fan of the Star Wars prequels, so I'm not bashing them; but this is how many people feel.]
However, this is kind of the point. It's thematically relevant, and supposed to be disappointing, because (fittingly, as 'the Mandarin' (Ben Kingsley) himself says) fortune cookies are “hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the the mouth”, whether they're drugs, Extremis, or tinkering with and obsessing over Iron Man suits. (Ironically (or should that be Iron-ically?), the story twist is satisfying disappointing in its thematic relevance.) In fact, it's not just a plot twist, but a character twist, pertaining to (and arguably unravelling) the character's very identity.
(Also, this twist subverts the film's own marketing (or, alternatively, the film's marketing supports the impact of the twist, whether you think the twist was a good creative decision or not), with the trailers having portrayed (and deliberately stoked fans' anticipation for) Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin. Thus it could also be considered as a meta-textual comment on how trailers (and marketing in general) can sometimes function as fortune cookies, allowing people to set up impossible expectations for the films themselves. By contrast, a healthier approach to films is to engage with them for what they are, rather than expecting them to be something they're not. So, for instance, recognising that even counter-intuitive creative choices like the Mandarin reveal can serve a purpose and can serve a purpose in the context of what the film's trying to say.)
Essentially, Iron Man 3's story is like that of Gollum / Smeagol from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but refracted in many different ways. For instance, Tony Stark's Precious is the Iron Man suit(s). Though iron isn't a precious metal, it's actually a gold-titanium alloy (as Tony says in the first film), and gold and titanium are both precious metals. But Tony keeps the name Iron Man because he likes the symbolism. Iron Man 3 explores symbolism to a great extent, and perhaps the symbolism of the name Iron Man could represent the importance of strength, not cowardice; where cowardice as defined by Iron Man 3 is relying on fortune cookies, or hiding in a cocoon. And conversely, strength in Iron Man 3 terms involves relying on and being there for others. That is, relationality; something explored in the third and final part of this article. 'Iron' is actually a gold-titanium alloy. The individual elements work together to make something stronger and more effective. (Thus, at the end, when Tony Stark declares, "I am Iron Man.", it means that he's now become strong (and become a man), because he finally realises and embraces this fact, that he needs others, and they need him. Yay, metaphors!)
[The Lord of the Rings spoilers follow]
Smeagol's obsession with the Ring (his Precious) turns him into Gollum, a desperate and emaciated creature, and though he fights against its hold on him, it ultimately proves his undoing (but, coincidentally [or eucatastrophically, as Tolkien would put it], this helps save Middle Earth).
To continue the Lord of the Rings metaphors (because, let's face it, in what situation would you not want to?):
The Ten Rings in the Mandarin's emblem roughly equate to the Nine Rings of Power from The Lord of the Rings, which the Nine Kings accepted greedily, and then were quickly corrupted and enslaved. ("They gave me things...they gave me things...my own speedboat..." – the Witch King of Angmar...I mean, Ben Kingsley as Trevor in Iron Man 3.)
Also, Denethor's storyline in The Lord of the Rings shows the dangers of using a Palantir as a fortune cookie.
The Lord of the Rings would be quite different with fortune cookies (instead of Rings of Power), though it would still be essentially almost exactly the same story. Except that Gimli would probably smash the One Fortune Cookie of Power with his axe at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell, and the story would be over. Unless the fortune inside it was, like, a treasure map or something.
[Vague character arc spoilers for How I Met Your Mother follow]
Arguably, Tony Stark is also a bit like Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother; rich, narcissistic (i.e. impressed with his own awesomeness), and obsessed with his suits. They also both avoid emotional attachments in their relationships with women, though they both arc over time as they become more mature and develop actual genuine feelings, making them able to relate romantically to women in a way which is much more mutual and real than they were previously capable of.
Yes, I just compared Tony Stark / Iron Man to Gollum, Darth Vader, and Barney Stinson. (Okay, the Darth Vader comparison comes later.) And to think that only six years ago, he was relatively obscure, considered a second- or third-tier Marvel character; and now he's being compared to some of the most iconic characters ever. (And it's in large part thanks to Robert Downey Jr. Which is one of the reasons why he arguably can't be recast – though it's a complex and fascinating discussion.
Going back to Iron Man 3, the line, “You're a mechanic. Make something.” implies that Tony Stark's true identity isn't the suit(s), but rather in terms of who he is, which includes / encapsulates / encompasses his abilities, and using them as a hero to help others and to save the day. He discovers this (or perhaps it simply clicks into place) right at the end when he throws his now-unnecessary arc reactor into the sea, and then picks up a small screwdriver from the ruins of his mansion (his old life), realising that “The Mechanic” is perhaps a truer and healthier facet / aspect of his identity than what he previously thought (and acted as if) Iron Man was.
At the end, Tony Stark realises, “It wasn't a hobby or a distraction...it was a cocoon.”
(This may have be speculated elsewhere before, but perhaps the cocoon metaphor is represented through the trilogy by the cave in the first film (where he builds the arc reactor and becomes Iron Man), the projection room in the second film (where he watches the video footage of his father (no, not Darth Vader, though there's a similar argument to be made for Tony Stark becoming “More machine than man”) and tries to deal with and work through his issues), and the mansion in the third film (which represents the life he's built for himself, and placed such confidence in, and is then destroyed, from which he must emerge and get to grips with his true identity – being reborn, as it were).
These scenes from each film are also in some way reflective of the respective film itself. The first one is active, with Tony using tools to build the arc reactor and establish his identity; the second is passive, with Tony watching the film, largely reflecting on his identity and legacy; and the third is active, with Tony picking up the screwdriver from the ruins of his mansion, redefining his identity. Perhaps this is one reason why the second film is less effective for some people than the first and third.)
Tony Stark then continues, “But now I don't need it, because I know who I am. I am Iron Man.”
(Smash cut to credits, which are comic booky and awesome.)
Next up: character dynamics, how relationality makes sense of both meaning and identity, and more, in Part 3 – Relationality...
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