Iron Man 3 is about everyone's favorite technocrat Tony Stark. He spends his time being righteously hostile to reporters and developing more and more Iron Man suits that he begins controlling with a wireless autonomous technology called Extremis. Little do we know that one of the nerds that he spurned with his celebrity power and sexual dominance has become a twisted Nietzschean triumphant slave. This beta-male posing as an alpha-male does botany research that allows him to artificially give former soldiers (the horror! look what we're doing to our veterans!) the ability to melt things and other boring superhero powers. Further, this little twerp is using the reactionary politics of the War on Terror as a shield to hide his cynical and manipulative plans. At this point we're supposed to remember that Osama bin Laden and those other Muslims don't really believe all that God-and-Jihad junk; they're just using it to hide their real, greedy, Machiavellian agenda.
Anyway, Tony Stark's arrogance gets the best of him and he has to go to a small town to recover. But his super-genius allows him to escape handily, proving that if you have talent in America, you always rise to the top. He has some touching moments with a kid that are hilarious adumbrated by the writers' need to make Stark an unfeeling quip-machine. At the end, Stark will show that he really cares about the kid by facelessly buying him a whole laboratory with product placement energy drinks and everything. That's what daddy does when he can't express how much he loves you with his words, honey.
In the final climactic scene, an army of Stark's Iron Man suits, representing technology, face off against the AIM superhumans, representing genetic modification. Ultimately, all of Tony Stark's technology doesn't save him, and just when we think we're going to get a humanist narrative about how his human intelligence is going to get him out of the sticky situation (it's the man in the suit that counts), the narrative is mutilated by his girlfriend. She has been given superhuman powers by the villains as part of a fucking idiotic plan to threaten Stark and she brutally destroys the main antagonist. This causes Tony to remember that he's forgetting all of the important things in his life, like his paper-thin relationship. So he sends the Iron Man suits zinging up into the air to explode like fireworks, raining debris into the ocean below. The final scene is Stark becoming entirely human and thus removing himself from the picture; now he'll just sit back in his armchair and watch the superheroes, just like the rest of us. But he'll always be Iron Man, he rehearses.
The final scene of Iron Man 3 is the culmination of superhero movies, and, arguably, of action movies. The whole picture is a machine to deliver an orgy of our detached power fantasies; Iron Man's normal technological augmentation becomes more and more autonomous until it becomes a completely independent fighting machine that his computerized butler orchestrates while Stark watches from afar. The superheros(/villains) are laboratory products; the AIM storyline takes the mystical miracle "science" that was a stand-in for magic in the Captain America story and makes it into an easily reproducible process that can pump out superheroes like clockwork (except, awesomely, when they explode instead). These two forces clash for our entertainment, with both us and Stark watching passively from the sidelines.We're on the couch with Tony, letting things take care of themselves. The conflict that we watch is a Tony Stark vanity project; if he had only shown some humility, it would have never happened. Lucky for us, he's so arrogant that we get to watch it culminate in violence. In the end he learns his lesson and all is well.
The brilliant final gesture of the film is performed in two strokes. First, Pepper's obliteration of the classic humanist resolution foils any connection that the narrative might have to the real world. Just when we think Stark is going to be jarred out of his mediated removal, the spectacle that surrounds him saves him from activity; the "showdown" reveals itself as the scariest part of the rollercoaster ride. Then, Stark's fireworks show of his own self-destructing technology unveils the purpose of the whole exercise; his exoskeletons, like him, and like the film itself, were all designed to destroy themselves in spectacular fashion. The conflict is artificial, the hero is a spectator, the combatants are inhuman robots and supermen, and the resolution is an escalation.
Think back to a post not too long ago on Don DeLillo. Art has exhausted its ability to communicate anything politically serious to us. The only thing that can really make an impact is an act of self-destruction. We're powerless to understand the complexity of the modern situation and so we find ourselves on the couch with Tone, watching things play out to their conclusion. There are no stakes, no history, and no movement save for the drive to the inevitable pyrotechnics. The anesthetic, desperate middle-class sensibilities of our generation have reached their full expression in the self-immolation of Iron Man 3.