When Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its world seemed quite close to our own. Yes, it was a world where tech had advanced to the point of palm-sized reactors and humanoid combat armor capable of supersonic flight. And yes, it was a world where an arms dealer grew a conscience and ceased manufacturing weapons (save for those he made for himself to destroy his earlier weapons). But those were divergences. Life for everyone in Iron Man who was not Tony Stark, one of his friends, or one of his enemies looked very much like 2008 as we in the real world experienced it.
11 years and 21 films later, the differences are more dramatic. A Norse God led an army of aliens in an assault on New York. The Vice President was arrested for collaborating with a terrorist. A fascist conspiracy was exposed as having infiltrated the US government for decades. The capital city of a small European nation was flown into the sky and almost used as a weapon of extinction by a robot with delusions of grandeur. The United Nations was bombed by a terrorist as part of an elaborate plan to destroy the Avengers. Part of the American Midwest was briefly consumed by a gargantuan tumor. A small, isolationist nation in Africa revealed that it was the most technologically advanced country in the world. An alien warlord murdered half of all sentient life in the universe. Whatever ordinary life looks like in the MCU, there is a good bet that it’s not quite as close to real life as it was back in the first Iron Man.
It’s intriguing, and an entry in the MCU about everyday life amidst all those happenings would be a treat. At present, the closest the series has gotten to that is Spider-Man: Homecoming – and in that case its titular hero spends most of the film wanting to get more involved in the massive happenings around him than he does his civilian life. Similarly, Black Panther offers glimpses of everyday life in Wakanda, but most of the film sees the nation either busy with the coronation of T’Challa as King or dealing with Killmonger’s coup – neither is an ordinary happening. Amongst the 22 films in the MCU, Shane Black’s Iron Man Three – which launched the second phase of the ongoing project – offers one of the best looks at what life is like on a planet where one of the most famous scientists in the world transforms into a gargantuan representation of his unleashed id and the Norse God of Thunder will pose for pictures if asked politely.
Now granted, Iron Man Three takes place relatively early in the MCU. But it’s still a world somewhat estranged from our own. Tony Stark is not only publicly known to be Iron Man, but Iron Man has become something regular. When Stark meets up with his long-time best pal James “Rohdey” Rhodes for lunch, he can leave his armor parked on the street. Stark is treated like a celebrity and a national hero – a child asks him to sign her drawing of Iron Man – but the reasons for the latter and to a lesser extent the former (as he was already quite famous even prior to becoming Iron Man) are taken as part of life.
Indeed, Iron Man Three depicts superheroes as woven into public life to the point that their public image is no longer a question of “Egad, a superhero” but “How do we, average people, perceive this particular superhero?” When Rhodes’ War Machine armor is upgraded, it is given a patriotic paint job and rechristened the “Iron Patriot.” The US government wants a symbol they can use to counteract the media blitz launched by an apparent terrorist mastermind called the Mandarin. And, as Rhodes notes, “Iron Patriot” allegedly focus-tested better.
Ordinary crime and supervillainy have started to coexist. Killian, the embittered creep behind “the Mandarin,” commands a squad of superhuman soldiers. But his crew is not so large that he does not need to recruit old-fashioned goons for some extra muscle. The goons take being employed by a man who can breathe fire and is plotting to murder the President in stride. One mook (Eric Oram) does confess to Stark that, “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird.” But he still took the paycheck and put up with the weirdness until Stark laid siege to the compound.
But no moment in Iron Man Three better illustrates regular folks in the MCU getting used to superheroism than Iron Man getting hit by a truck. Just before the last act of the movie kicks into gear, Stark stages a daring rescue after Killian’s chief enforcer sacks Air Force One and launches thirteen people into freefall. Between his flying, his ingenuity and the bravery of the folks he’s saving, Stark catches all thirteen of the unwilling skydivers. As he turns to leave, he is immediately struck by a truck. Fortunately, Stark was remotely piloting the armor at the time. But what a world it must be when Air Force One explodes in the sky while Iron Man pulls off daring acrobatics to catch freefalling people and traffic just continues as normal. Folks have places they need to be, and they won’t get there by stopping to gawk at whatever Iron Man is up to today. It’s both a darn good joke and a little piece of world building, highlighting and underlining a little bit of what the ordinary looks like in an extraordinary world.