Five minutes into Iron Man 3, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) puts the finishing touches on his latest prototype of the Iron Man suit. As he prepares to put the suit to use, he instructs Jarvis—his nervous, Paul Bettany-voiced, robot assistant—to start some music. A jazzy rendition of “Jingle Bells” begins.
I turned to my friend sitting next to me in the theater and whispered, a little too loudly, “Wait, is this a Christmas movie?”
“Shut up,” she said.
“Yeah, but did something go wrong? Was this supposed to come out at Christmas?”
I know this might sound silly. It doesn’t really make sense for Marvel to have adapted “A Christmas Carol”, or for them to have put out a Christmas movie during the blockbuster movie season. Keep in mind, however, that Iron Man 3 was the first Marvel film to follow The Avengers—that record-breaking, super-star-stuffed movie of all movies. And how do you possibly follow something like that?
Well, you strip it down. Right to its electromagnetic core.
For all of its bells and whistles and blockbuster budget, Iron Man 3 is mostly a movie about a man learning to rebuild his life in a new world, learning which things are worth keeping, and giving up the rest. It’s about sharing burdens and taking on the responsibility of a changing, difficult world. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a piece of literature, it certainly comes much closer than any of its Marvel predecessors.
In the aftermath of a catastrophic alien invasion, it’s safe to say that Tony Stark is more than a little worn out. The public knows him both as a wealthy, arrogant, tech-savvy billionaire as well as by his Iron Man alter ego, but Stark isn’t particularly keen to live up to either of those expectations any more. He’s sleep-deprived and manic. He focuses only on his innovations, ignoring his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who serves as the head of Stark Industries, and his good friend, Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), rebranded by the United States government as the Iron Patriot.
There’s a host of shady, new characters introduced in this iteration of Iron Man. At the helm of the terrorist movement tormenting the US government is the Mandarin, played by a deep-voiced, cloth-draped Sir Ben Kingsley. Equally threatening is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist formerly blown off by Stark in the late 1990s, who has since gone on to found his own rival biotech company, AIM. And somewhere in the middle of these two men is Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a botanist who specializes in regrowth and confused loyalties.
Iron Man 3 is about ego and identity—becoming who you are meant to be rather than who you’re supposed to be. Tony Stark is arrogant and fast-tempered. After a mysterious bombing in Los Angeles which leaves his head of security hospitalized, Stark issues a personal threat to the Mandarin, giving out his home address, waiting for a fight. It’s not until his Malibu mansion falls—and his cars and suits and computers crumble around him in the ocean—that we are left with the Tony Stark who existed before Iron Man. We are left with Scrooge. Without Pepper and computers, without his money and reputation, there’s just a man. A bitter, selfish man.
We’re left with Scrooge.
In “A Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge is, of course, visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. While Stark’s ghosts don’t necessarily follow this exact trajectory, there are still three of them. They move in and out of the film, playing their part and then fading out of the picture, allowing Stark to act as his own agent of change.
In the midst of his house being decimated, his wealth tumbling into the sea, and nearly drowning, Stark wakes up in a snowback in—of all places—the Midwest. Prior to losing all of his material possessions, he had been researching the history of mysterious explosions, and in a last ditch effort to both escape an attack as well as pursue his research, his latest suit takes him to Rosehill, Tennessee. There, Tony Stark breaks into the tool shed of a young inventor named Harley.
Harley has all the makings of a young Tony Stark. He may not be wealthy, but he has attitude and resourcefulness. He points a homemade potato gun at Iron Man, and goes so far as to fire a warning shot just to prove his point. Stark is not particularly sympathetic in general, let alone towards children, but there is an earnestness in Harley that makes him endearing (albeit a little annoying, too). Harley has gone through some stuff; we don’t see his mother and he mentions his father walked out on them a few years back. He doesn’t demand sympathy. He demands respect. He’s bullied, but he’s not a victim. He’s just trying to get by.
The two cooperate. They’re mechanics, idea men. In this tiny tool shed in Tennessee, the two use wires and digital watches—not robots or holograms—and begin to make repairs on the new Iron Man prototype. Tony Stark doesn’t talk about himself as “Iron Man” in the presence of Harley. He calls himself “the Mechanic” instead. He doesn’t need to be anything more than that, because Harley doesn’t expect that of him. He expects a partner, and not much else.
When Stark leaves Rosehill, the two have an unsentimental goodbye and yet, in the epilogue of the film, we see Harley’s redesigned tool shed—complete with computers and electronics and an updated potato gun. Before Stark even bothers to rebuild his old mansion, he gives what he can to the future generation of inventors and mechanics.
The second of Stark’s ghosts is a little more complex, of course, because this ghost is Tony Stark. Only, this ghost of Tony Stark is the one who walks away from the disaster in New York City. It’s Tony Stark’s PTSD. His anxiety disorder. For a movie full of explosions and zingers (and the occasional girl in a bedazzled bikini), there are also a lot of very realistic reactions to trauma.
Stark had no reason to survive what occurred in New York, but the anxiety he feels isn’t survivor’s guilt, necessarily. In The Avengers, Stark constantly blows off and ignores Agent Coulson, an amiable member of SHIELD, and by the end of the battle for New York, Coulson is dead. In Iron Man 3, his chief of security, frequently the butt of his jokes, winds up in a coma. Pepper Potts vanishes mid-film. Captain Rhodes is taken too. Stark’s anxiety is the anxiety of not being able to save people, and not just any people, but his people. He’s saved civilians before, sure, but there was always a certain amount of glamor in it. When it finally came time to save the world—the universe, truly—the pressure of self-sacrifice proved to be unbearable, and the knowledge of this haunts him throughout the course of the film.
The Tony Stark who existed prior to The Avengers didn’t have much at stake, but now he’s grown up. He’s seen what happens to people in very real wars and struggles. The ghost of who he once was comes in the form of an increased heart rate and slight hyperventilation. There is nothing glamorous about being a superhero, he learns. Tony Stark is not used to struggling, but saving lives—especially lives so intertwined with his own—turns out to be a panic-inducing, traumatic experience indeed.
The third and final ghost in Iron Man 3 is also its most frightening, though he might not seem so at first glance, in the prologue of the film. A crippled, awkward Aldrich Killian, hobbling around on a cane, corners Stark in an elevator and begs him to take a look at as his ideas. He wants to be a business partner, or maybe even a friend. Killian is a little too eager, a little too pathetic. Tony Stark, on the other hand, is selfish. He doesn’t do business partners, let alone friends. It’s New Years and he’s in an elevator with a beautiful woman. He pulls Killian aside and tells him to meet him on the roof of the building in five minutes. And then Stark never shows up.
Over a decade later, Killian is a changed man. He walks upright—his disability cured, thanks to a frightening biochemical glowing ability (which just might come with the power to breathe fire, too)—and expresses himself with confidence. He is also a bitter man, scorned both by Stark (professionally) and Potts (professionally and romantically). Killian is Stark without the heart. He’s all progress, all manipulation. He’s got slicked-back hair and a bunch of one-liners, but he doesn’t work for anything beyond himself. Stark, in turn, realizes that he’s more than the sum of his parts. He’s also every person around him, working for a brighter and better future, rather than just strength and power for their own sake.
In the penultimate moments of the film, Killian and Stark fight each other man-to-man, and the conversation turns to Pepper Potts. “You really didn’t deserve her, Tony,” Killian sneers.
“You’re right,” Stark admits, “I don’t deserve her. Here’s where you’re wrong: she’s already perfect.” And despite the cheesy nature of this line (and, hey, it’s a Marvel film), the honesty is still there. People don’t belong to other people. You do not deserve someone simply because you are smart and powerful and good-looking. People are people.
“We create our own demons,” Stark narrates at the end of the movie. Aldrich Killian, Maya Hansen, and the Mandarin (and that one particularly evil glowing henchman) might all be “evil”, but the true villain of the film is the Tony Stark/Iron Man empire. Defeating the villains is one thing, but it’s the destruction of his personal empire that shows the most genuine emotional growth in the film. Tony Stark is Iron Man whether or not he has all the bells and whistles that come along with that title. There was much speculation following Iron Man 3 as to whether or not there could truly be another Iron Man movie. Perhaps Tony Stark’s narrative has ended here: waking up on Christmas morning and finding there doesn’t need to be all that much in the world beyond that which you already have. He drives off with Pepper Potts, the ruins of Jarvis the robot in a small trailer, to a place unknown, to a future uncertain.
It’s popular these days to have morally ambiguous films where the viewer is left wildly uncertain at the end about who is a hero, and who is a villain. The Marvel films are anything but ambiguous. Tony Stark is a hero, and we know this, as viewers, because he becomes kind and generous. It might be a little silly to have movies with moral endings in 2013, but there is something refreshing about a hero that grows and actually becomes better. Sometimes we need morals, and not only around Christmas time. “A Christmas Carol” may not have had regenerating explosive villains or an Adam Pally cameo, but it was about learning and sharing and growing nonetheless. This kind of positive growth—again, not in the exploding villain type way—can happen at any time of year. And what better time to remind movie-goers that there is some good out there than on the cusp of summer as they walk out of the theater, blinking back tears in the fresh May sunlight.