This post discusses plot points from Iron Man 3 in extensive detail.
“A famous man once said we all create our own demons,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) says at the beginning of Iron Man 3. The backlash theory of terrorist attacks on the United States and its interests has become somewhat popular in culture in recent years, most notably in Showtime’s drama Homeland, in which the death of a child in a drone strike inspires an American prisoner of war to become a suicide bomber. But Iron Man‘s extensive critique of the war on terror—a major subject of the film, along with eighties movie tropes, domestic harmony, and fan culture—takes a different and more radical tack, suggesting that the threat of violence by terrorist actors may be real, but the War on Terror is an invention that both terrorists and terrorized participate in.
Iron Man 3 begins in 1999, on a New Year’s Eve where Tony Stark’s conduct has two fatal consequences. First, he rejects a pitch from Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant but hopeless nerd whose use of a cane, unkempt self-presentation, and transparent eagerness, offend Tony’s sense of cool. “She’ll take both,” Tony tells Killian, who offers up his business cards to Tony and to Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a biologist who Tony is taking back to her room for the evening. “One to throw away, and one not to call.” In a bit of high school cruelty, Tony tells Killian he’ll meet him on the roof of the hotel, and then maroons him there, making an enemy. Killian will return fourteen years later with suits and big ideas, and the intent to go after, at least, Tony’s now-girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Second, he talks science with Maya, who is pioneering a radical new technology that allows plants to regenerate themselves, but that is encountering some problems, and then sleeps with her. The first is a rather more intimate act then the second, especially after Tony leaves Maya with part, but not all, of a solution to the flaw in her project, and then becomes the person who doesn’t call.
Both of them reappear in Tony’s life fourteen years later for reasons that appear to be unrelated to larger events. After Loki’s attack on New York, Tony is personally traumatized. But the United States is distracted by what seems like it ought to be considered a comparatively minor threat: the appearance of a human terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and likes to deliver pretentious lectures through hacked television signals and internet connections before bombing targets like a military church. There’s a general sense of insecurity. “The human element of human resources is our greatest point of vulnerability,” Tony’s former driver Happy (Jon Favreau), now running security at Stark Industries, tells Pepper. “We should start phasing it out immediately.” And the United States’ primary response has been the aggressive deployment of Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who in his own Tony-designed suit, is jetting around the world like the fantasy of how a drone should work, preventing American troops from harm, but still providing human judgement in targeting and decisions to fire.