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The Ending Of Iron Man 3 Explained

The MCU has always been built on a foundation of giant swings. In 2008, it revved up its engine with Iron Man, a big-budget adaptation of a less-than-beloved character starring an actor who was, at the time, perhaps, also less-than-beloved. When Avengers was announced, it seemed to many like a huge overreach — mech suit billionaires and Norse gods in their own movies were one thing, but trying to fit them into the same narrative was another story. And Iron Man 3, the first post-Avengers entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was another risky maneuver, at least on paper. Sure, its star had become one of the most bankable faces in Hollywood thanks to the role he'd be reprising, but bouncing from an ensemble blockbuster back to solo stories could be seen as a step backwards. More than that, the film was handed to Shane Black who, while he'd had plenty of experience as a writer, had only directed one feature film up to that point, 2005's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which helpfully also starred RDJ.

Black elected to take the Iron Man mythos in a bold new direction. He dug deep into Tony Stark's human side, showing audiences a man elevated in the public eye to the status of a celebrity demigod attempting to meet the expectations of the people relying on him. As an added bonus, Tony is shown struggling with PTSD after the events of the Battle of New York in Avengers, while also facing the long-gestating repercussions of his misspent first act.

Iron Man 3 features personal responsibility and homemade explosives

There are a lot of moving parts in Iron Man 3. Tony and Pepper Potts' (Gwyneth Paltrow) relationship is on rocky ground, thanks to the former's rapidly developing personal eccentricities, including going days without sleeping and obsessively building new suits of armor to defend himself from threats both real and imagined. Meanwhile, a passing acquaintance from more than a decade prior named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), still sore about being bullied by a drunken Tony Stark at a New Year's party in 1999, has developed a means by which to rewire the human brain, granting test subjects the ability to regenerate from what would otherwise be fatal injuries. Pepper, now running Stark Industries, turns down a business proposition from Killian, citing the way that this "Extremis" therapy could make people, in medical terminology, totes explode.

Complicating matters is the appearance of The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), a terrorist with a characteristically over-the-top speech pattern and an apparent bone to pick with American foreign policy. Tony's house is attacked by the Mandarin's men, exploding in a barrage of missiles. Tony, unconscious after the attack, is sent on a cross-country trip by his suit's internal J.A.R.V.I.S. Waking up in Tennessee, Stark begins looking into a series of bombings for which the Mandarin has taken credit. Leaving his suit to charge in the garage of a charmingly manipulative little boy, he seeks out the Mandarin's base of operations, building a small armory of D.I.Y., Anarchist's Cookbook-adjacent weaponry with which to slaughter the guards. As Disney in which where the good guy kills a man with a nail gun go, it's definitely in the top five.

Iron Man fights terrorists and audience expectations

Tony uncovers the real situation: the man calling himself "the Mandarin" is actually an out-of-work actor, hired by Killian to take responsibility for his screw ups. The Extremis formula, while objectively rad, has a bad habit of turning its users' bodies into living bombs at unpredictable points in time, and pinning the explosions on a "perfect terrorist" takes the pressure off of Killian's A.I.M. organization. Pepper is exposed to Extremis in an attempt to strong-arm Tony into solving the more explody aspects of the formula, and the president of the United States is taken hostage, with an A.I.M.-sympathizing vice president primed to take his place. Tony, alongside his old pal James "War Machine" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), assaults the scene of the intended crime, fighting off a contingent of Extremis-enhanced bad guys with the help of his legion of Iron Man suits.

Killian is killed, Pepper is saved, and Tony feels redeemed. Acknowledging Pepper's fears regarding his obsessive nature, Tony explodes each and every one of his Iron Man suits in the most expensive fictional fireworks display on fictional record. Furthermore, he has the ARC reactor removed from his chest in a symbolic step back towards humanity. In the film's final shot, he picks up a screwdriver from the debris where his mansion once stood, signaling that the real magic was never in the suits, it was in the creative spirit that imagined them in the first place. Also, maybe, in the friends we made along the way.

The unexpected epilogue to Iron Man 3

In the aftermath of Iron Man 3, a number of important events take place. Sometime before Age of Ultron, and despite Pepper's wishes, Tony gets back to building and piloting suits, demonstrating the "grand gesture/zero follow up" dynamic present in all healthy relationships. He even has a new chest piece implanted leading up to Infinity War, which makes the story of personal growth seen in Iron Man 3 a little less sweet, but makes for some really cool action figures. Also, in the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King, we learn that Slattery's Mandarin was a re-appropriation of an actual shadowy criminal's identity. For more on this, you'll want to check out the upcoming MCU entry Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Nearly a decade after its release, Iron Man 3 still stands out as one of the most unique Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings. It's a comparatively small, personal story, painting its hero as a flawed and vulnerable man, haunted by his past imperfections and plagued by self doubt. It's bleaker than other Marvel movies, too, making use of Shane Black's personal brand of dark comedy and buddy cop vibes. More than any of that, though, one message shines through for generations of fans to latch onto: if your house gets trashed, even if you're an Avenger, none of your friends are going to show up to help you clean.