Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.
Marvel/Walt Disney Pictures
Let's step back.
The most important scenes in last summer's The Avengers took place between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers — Iron Man and Captain America, although their true identities are crossed over, such that the real beings involved are the man on one side and the superhero on the other. (This is how they acknowledge each other from their first meeting, even while they're both suited up: "Mr. Stark." "Cap.") Cap represents the most traditional ideas about American exceptionalism — there's a wonderfully economical exchange in which Black Widow warns Cap that Thor and Loki are "basically gods," and Cap says, "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that." It's a line in which he manages to come out in favor of monotheism, chivalry, and machismo in 14 words, right before he jumps fearlessly out of a plane.
(Of course, one could reasonably ask how Cap thinks God does dress, given that Thor and Loki's long hair and flowing robes are actually pretty similar to traditional Judeo-Christian iconography, but Cap gets his point across: Thor and Loki dress silly. God dresses like ... well, a man.)
Stark represents a much newer mythology of American might: He gets his power from earned egotism, unchecked capitalism, and entrepreneurial genius. Cap's military-made respect for authority ("We have orders, we should follow them") impresses Stark not at all ("Following's not really my style"), and Cap in turn has no use for Stark's slick, wise-guy self-regard ("And you're all about style, aren't you?"). Cap's accusation in their climactic argument is that Stark is all weaponry and no character ("Take that off, [and] what are you?"); Stark's defense is that inside the suit, he apologizes for nothing, because he's hit all four fundamentals of the Successful American Man. He calls himself a "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist," meaning he has brains, money, women and respectability. Cap cares about the common good; Stark argues that the purity of his self-interest works just as well for everyone.
The ultimate resolution of the conflict in The Avengers is essentially a draw. The film posits that both can work and both are needed, as are Hulk's distilled fury and Thor's connection to everything otherworldly and ancient. But while the message might seem inexact, the ending is pure Joss Whedon: Like all his hero stories, it moves to a rhythm of sacrifice and Pyrrhic victories, followed by a bruised effort to regroup. As we look at New York at the end of the film, after it is "saved," it's Cap who somberly says, "We won," and Stark who weakly says, "All right, yaaaay. All right, good job, guys." The city is devastated. A lot of people are dead.
The story of Iron Man 3 could have been told with no reference to the events of The Avengers at all. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) has come up with a classic medical MacGuffin: an intervention with theoretically therapeutic potential that becomes evil in the wrong hands. (See also: The Amazing Spider-Man, to name only one recent example.) Stark must find him and stop him. Alone, it's not much of a story.
What creates the film's complexity, though, are its continuing interest in the conflict from The Avengers and its use of Stark to say pretty provocative things about the American psyche. His panic attacks brought on by what he saw in battle — in fact, the words "New York" are nearly adequate to induce them — are crippling, he's building unmanned weapons he can't entirely control, and his conviction that he should speak fearlessly and invite whoever cares to confront him to do so is at odds with his fear that his vulnerabilities (and those of the people he loves) will be exposed. When the battle is brought home to him in a couple of ways, he confronts exactly what Cap asked him: "Take that off, what are you?"
Which, according to a strong undercurrent of our cultural conversation about old heroes versus new ones, is pretty much what a guy who fought in World War II might say about Google Glass.
Of course, Stark's mastery of the universe is signaled most of all by his extraordinary wealth. It is a given in American films about wealth that he who has nothing must rise (provided he's deserving) and he who has everything must fall (unless he's deserving). The original Iron Man is about Stark proving he's worthy of his wealth, which meant he could keep it. Here, in the film's middle section, Stark's arrogance — mixed with moments in which he was callous and cruel — takes him from a man who has everything to a man who, at least temporarily, has nothing.
If Tony Stark in The Avengers still had a dollop of our pre-recession, tech-bubble cockiness, this is the story where he is brought low and has to start over. Five minutes after he was using his fancy suit to fly, he is pulling it through the snow on a rope; his reliance on technology goes from blessing to burden in an instant. (And talk about tapping into the American psyche: What fells Tony Stark is that his battery runs out of juice.) The ungranting of powers is certainly a common superhero trope (it happens to Thor all the time), but it's a powerful image seeing Tony Stark lugging the body of Iron Man behind him.
And as he undertakes this battle, part of Stark's responsibility is to figure out who the actual enemy is. He's been told it's a terrorist called The Mandarin, a man with a topknot and a long beard who appears in videos to threaten the United States. But how this man is connected to Killian is initially difficult for Stark to parse, precisely because he's susceptible to certain ingrained ideas (which arise partly from experience) about what terror looks and feels like, and the idea that it might not be all that it appears doesn't come to him easily, despite how clever he both actually is and thinks he is.
Stark will eventually see his suits again. He will get his armor back. It's an Iron Man movie, after all. But there is a late scene that draws an unmistakable connection between the destruction of weapons and the advancement of patriotism — between a tentative and perhaps temporary retreat from supermilitarism and a celebration of the Fourth of July. For all that Stark has accomplished, his biggest assets turn out to be a best friend in a polo shirt and jeans, the kindness of strangers, and a loving partner. His most important power is healing. His final acquired skill is trust, and his final act of faith is in others and in science.
The biggest difference between Stark and other superheroes, both in the Marvel universe and elsewhere, is that his goodness is not instinctive. Superman is reflexively good, Spider-Man spends his life making up for one weak moment, and Bruce Wayne often seems to be incidentally wealthy as a byproduct of his efforts to improve life for everyone. Cap was born good, Thor was born good, Bruce Banner was born good. They're certainly not perfect — crises of conscience arise over whether these guys want to get involved. "With great power comes great responsibility," and so forth.
But Stark, as Robert Downey Jr. plays him, is a reflexively selfish, self-promoting, ego-driven person with a genuine tendency toward bluster and rudeness. What fascinates about him is that the power comes first and the decision to become good comes later. He was rich and powerful before he was decent, as the opening moments of this film make clear; he gives of himself by conscious choice, by teaching himself a kind of ethics that don't come naturally. He does it reluctantly, always for a complex combination of selfish and unselfish reasons. Until you hit him close to home, he'd always rather stay out of trouble.
He is, in many ways, the new Captain America. He is friends with the other one, of course — he came to respect Cap's brand of old-school good-doing, and was influenced by it. Steve Rogers, as the little guy who became the big guy, who went from weakling to protector and who is aghast at the idea of selfishness, still has an undeniable pull. But the biggest conversation we're having now? About balancing self-sacrifice and ego and capitalism, generosity and gadgetry, embracing other human beings versus shutting ourselves inside ever more advanced fortresses at every level from national security down to personal technology? It's pure Tony Stark.