Iron Man 3

Movie: Directed by Shane Black

Inciting Event: Aldrich Killian approaches Pepper about financing his new brain-hacking enterprise Extremis. Pepper turns him down, which, unbeknownst to anyone at this point, only solidifies Aldrich’s determination to wreak vengeance on Tony for past slights. Tony’s former bodyguard, Happy (now head of Pepper’s security) notices Aldrich’s lackey Savin lurking suspiciously and decides to investigate.

So… where’s Tony? That’s the question at the heart of almost every structural moment in this story. This movie was roundly criticized, and the vast majority of those criticisms could have been remedied by remembering one simple thing: this is Tony’s story. He’s the protagonist. As such, he should be the catalyst at the heart of every single major structural moment.

And yet he’s not. Almost everything important in this story happens away from Tony and is driven by other characters: Happy, Pepper, Maya, and Killian.

First Plot Point: While investigating Savin, Happy witnesses Savin’s contact literally blow up. Happy is injured and ends up in in a coma. This is the Key Event. One interesting aspect of this movie’s structure is that it offers a distinct Key Event and First Plot Point.

The First Plot Point then occurs when the conflict (finally) reaches Tony. After calling out the terrorist known as the Mandarin, his house is bombed. He barely escapes, and his suit takes him to the last programmed flight plan: Tennessee, where he intended to investigate other exploding humans.

First Pinch Point: Maya—one of Tony’s former one-night-stands—informs Pepper that her boss—Aldrich—is working for the Mandarin. This is an important new clue, but is Tony in on it? Nope.

Shortly after, Tony is attacked by Savin and another exploder. They get a nice battle, in which Tony gets hold of info that finally puts him on Aldrich’s trail. But he’s way behind the curve.

Midpoint: The Mandarin publically challenges the President on national TV. Meanwhile Pepper is captured.

Where’s Tony? Oh, he’s off gleaning a few clues that will eventually lead him to Aldrich’s base. But that’s about it. He doesn’t know about the Mandarin’s challenge or Pepper’s capture, which means these huge events have no power to drive the plot.

Second Pinch Point: Finally, Tony’s in the main game!

After tracing the Mandarin broadcasts to Miami, he crashes the place—only to realize the formidable Mandarin is, in fact, a druggie stage actor. Tony is captured and finally learns about Pepper’s capture. Both of these events are fantastic pinches that emphasize the antagonistic force’s power in Tony’s life.

Third Plot Point: Despite Tony’s best efforts, the President is captured and delivered to Aldrich. Again, this isn’t a super Tony-specific plot point. Certainly the President’s getting captured is a big deal. But it happens away from Tony—and doesn’t measure up to Tony’s personal loss of Pepper.

Climax: After bringing in all his suits to fight Aldrich’s exploding minions, Tony finds Pepper—who has been injected with Extremis and turned into an exploding person herself. He does battle with Aldrich to save her.

Climactic Moment: Guess who ends the conflict? As is par for the course, it’s not Tony. Pepper miraculously survives a 200-foot fall and emerges just in time to save Tony and kill Aldrich. Tony says, “I got nothing.” ’Tis truth.

Resolution: Tony gives Pepper the Christmas gift she wants by blowing up all his extra suits. He cures Pepper of Extremis and gets the shrapnel removed from his chest.

Notes: There’s actually a lot I like about this movie, but it’s easily the worst structured of all the Marvel films—not because it’s not hitting its beats, but simply because it removed all of those beats from the one person who should have been integral to them: the protagonist.

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