Yes, Iron Man 3 is an action movie. Yes, there are a lot of things that blow up, melt down, and generally create havoc. But I want to concentrate on the love triangle.
What love triangle, you ask? Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow are two of the components, but who, or maybe what, is the third?
Here’s a hint. What is the opening scene? It’s the suits. (This scene, by the way, is also a foreshadowing of events. But that’s a subject for another day.)
Pepper is jealous of Tony’s iron suits and the amount of time he spends with them. In one scene, she walks in where one of the suits is sitting on the couch. It flirts with her, and we think Tony is in the suit, but he is controlling it from his lab. She confronts him. In another scene, one of the suits picks up on Tony’s nightmare and it goes to attack Pepper thinking her a threat. However, to be fair, when the house is under a real attack, Tony commands the Mark 42 suit to attach to Pepper so she is protected from falling debris, and in return, she hovers above him to protect him.
The suits are the bane of Pepper’s existence. But Tony can’t dispose of them because of the Mandarin, his newest threat. It’s discovered that the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, is really a front for the sinister DNA altering Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce. Tony defeats Killian at an oil drilling platform, where Pepper is being held against her will. When the war there gets hot, he thinks he’s lost her to a fireball. When she walks out of it, seemingly unscathed except for the fact that she is now made of fire herself, Tony orders Jarvis to employ operation Clean Slate. Jarvis then destroys the suits one by one. This is Tony’s promise to Pepper that he will devote all of his time to her. He then goes through surgery to remove the shrapnel embedded near his heart and pitches his chest arc reactor into the sea.
Iron Man 3 isn’t the first story to use a non-human as the third component of a love triangle. Often it’s the man’s job getting in the way, or a pet demanding the woman’s attention. Perhaps a sailor who is pulled by the sea and can’t commit to the woman who loves him. In this story, it is Tony’s hobby that comes between him and Pepper, but it’s tangible through the suits. We can see the suits. We can even empathize with them. This is what makes this triangle unconventional. As we applaud the suits for helping Tony out of yet another jam, he knows they are pulling him and Pepper apart. It’s that final act of sacrifice where the suits are destroyed that will keep Pepper in his life. I had a surreal moment during the celebratory firework destruction in the sky. Pepper is smiling, Tony has a self-satisfied smirk. I’m crying in my heart, “No! Not Mark 42! I don’t care if the bad guy is trapped inside!”
This love story is Tony Stark’s inner journey, his outer journey being to kill the bad guy. Our characters need those two journeys to give them depth. Always ask three questions of your characters:
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
- What gets in their way?
For Tony, he wants a meaningful relationship with Pepper because she grounds him, but his obsession with the suits gets in the way.
All this to say, we should think outside of the box. Kevin Feige, President of Production at Marvel Studios, describes the film's core theme as a love story: "The love triangle in this movie is between Tony, Pepper and his obsession with those suits, and the obsession with technology. Yes, there's a bad guy. Yes, the stakes are very, very high. But the real stakes are, is Tony going to be able to set aside spending every day in that workshop tinkering with the suits in order to focus on Pepper, the one thing that matters most?"
Tony said it best. “I hope I can protect the one thing I can't live without.” He was talking about Pepper, and I don’t think he was only talking in the physical sense.