By Anthony Breznican
November 30, 2012 at 06:31 PM EST

It’s a common theme for superheroes to stand for more than just their own powers.

In the DC universe, Superman is famously synonymous with “truth, justice, and the American way,” while Batman is a darker symbol of vigilante justice, inspiring citizens to resist the things they fear the most.

In Marvel’s realm, Spider-Man stands for every puny kid who ever got pushed around, and learned how to use brains as well as brawn, the Hulk is the anger inside all of us, fighting to get out, if only we can channel it for good. Wolverine is the rebel without a cause, looking for something he cares enough about to fight for.

But what does Iron Man stand for?

In The Avengers, Steve Rogers challenged Tony Stark’s identity, too. “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away then what are you?”

To which Stark playfully replied: “Uhh … Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist.”

It’s a good line. Who wouldn’t want to be those things. But let’s face it, all four are kind of … easy.

Genius — that’s innate. Billionaire — that’s inherited. Playboy — ask Hugh Hefner how hard that lifestyle is. And philanthropist? It’s not hard to give when you have more than you could ever want.

Stark proved by the end of The Avengers just how far he was willing to go to sacrifice for the greater good, but each movie is kind of another step for this hero, who evolves more than most of them.

NEXT PAGE:  Robert Downey Jr. on where he thinks Iron Man goes from here …

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Robert Downey Jr. said that Iron Man 3 aims to connect that climactic moment of self-sacrifice in The Avengers to something approximating authenticity. “We try to take everything that would otherewise be two-dimensional or genre-esque, and try to take it literally. How would you feel if a wormhole opened in the sky and you saw things that no human had ever seen before?” he said. “We just looked at the practical realities of what life after Avengers would be like. And we end up coming back to the relationships.”

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Don Cheadle’s Air Force Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Stark’s bodyguard, driver, and all-around mensch Happy, played by Jon Favreau. Even JARVIS, Stark’s computerized majordomo is kind of a confidante, if only as a reflection of his own huge ego. Stark, in the end, may be his own best friend.

Looking at this new batch of Iron Man 3 stills, which were all part of the trailer last month, I was wondering why Marvel chose to package and release them now. All four contrast strength and vulnerability. We look at the destroyed mask above and fear for our old pal Tony, even though — it’s just a mask and there’s no evidence of him being harmed. We just can’t help but worry … Maybe he really is all about the armor.

There’s no doubt he’s a good guy, but like all those other iconic superheroes what does he stand for in a deeper sense? Who is Iron Man?

I think Iron Man is the hard shell each of us presents to the world, and Tony, for all his charisma and bluster (which is its own kind of armor), is the fragile person inside, wondering if we have what it takes to be good: good human beings, good spouses, good parents, good neighbors. Not saving the whole world, per se — just our little corner of it.

The trailer for the film features Stark wrestling with self-doubt, haunted by nightmares, and pledging to protect the people who mean the most to him. You can guess, the story doesn’t really work out so well for him…

NEXT PAGE: Bromance? Pepper Potts may not be the main relationship fueling Iron Man 3.

Although they’re allies, much of this sequel will be Iron Man vs. Rhodey (seen here ditching the flat-gray War Machine armor for something a little more star-spangled — a suit that leads him to be known as Iron Patriot.)

“The relationship deepens, we get to understand a little more who these guys are as friends and what they are for each other, and how they function,” Cheadle says.

“In the comic books, we really got a sense that these two guys were buddies, but there was also a somewhat friendly competition,” adds Downey, who says he only regrets not exploring their friendship more in previous movies. “The comics took it in so many different ways, we always felt it was hard to get into a movie that already had a plot and a bad guy and all that other stuff.”

Director and co-writer Shane Black, whose past credits include writing Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and writing and directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tells EW the film feels to him like it fits a much different genre. “When you get these guys going and riffing, it’s almost like a sense of something I’m really familiar with, which is a buddy cop film – with armor,” he says. “There’s this really great dynamic between them.”

Rhodes has a kind of self-discipline and control that creates a spark of distrust between someone like him and the wild, frenetic Stark. They like each other, admire each other, but like true best friends, irk each other, too.

The addition of Rhodes as Iron Patriot in Iron Man 3 is actually a sharp detour from the storyline of the comic books, which have rival billionaire industrialist Norman Osborne, the Green Goblin himself, sporting the red, white, and blue Iron Patriot armor. Osborne is a character still under license to Sony as part of the Spider-Man movie franchise, but Marvel Studios wanted to use the look of that suit in a different way in this film.

“It is not Norman Osborne in there, as opposed to the comics,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige assures any doubters. “We were inspired by that look and that suit, and again symbolism – what those icons mean.”

Of course, Iron Man has a much bigger pain in his chassis — the villain known as The Mandarin, whose identity is also defined by his outfit.

NEXT PAGE: What does The Mandarin’s t-shirt reveal about him?

The Mandarin is not a Chinese refugee turned supervillain, as in the comics. This version, played by Brit Ben Kingsley with a kind of amorphous accent, was designed to transcend any one culture (which may be a nod to the box-office power of China these days), while still adopting assorted warrior motifs from around the world.

“It’s less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end,” Feige said in an earlier EW interview. From his samurai hair, to his royal robe, to his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47 he keeps at his side, Kingsley’s interpretation is a hodgepodge of the sinister.

But something kept nagging at me — what is that on the t-shirt he’s wearing under that vest?

If you click on the photo above for a larger, zoomed-in version, it becomes even more obvious. You can see the letters “ONS” to the left and “REO” (or is it “AGO”?) to the right, as well as assorted cylinders. I felt like I’d seen it before, somewhere …

Then I found this: He’s wearing some variation on this t-shirt with all the different caliber of bullets. The BMG in the bottom middle refers to “Browning Machine Gun,” and that .50 caliber cartridge above it.

So The Mandarin is a gun nut (we could have guessed that from the AK-47 to his left.)

But Feige was very specific — everything about The Mandarin’s appearance is meant to shape the public’s view of who he is. “Our version of this character wants to push those buttons in everyone, in every different country, all around the world to his own ends,” Feige says.

This could be his way of tapping those survivalist types in the U.S., who have more faith in their own ammunition stockpile more than the government. But Feige declines to clarify what that part of the costume means, or what the obscured writing on the shirt says.

“If I tell you what it is, that takes away from all the amazing speculation I’ll get to read on EW.com’s comment board,” Feige jokes. Don’t disappoint him, folks. What are your theories?

Whatever the case, Iron Man 3 seems to be focusing on a battle between appearance vs. true self.

While Rhodes has hopped into War Machine’s armor in the past to help Stark, his new Iron Patriot suit brands him as a pure military weapon, working on behalf of the United States of America, while Stark — driven away by an attack from Kingsley’s Mandarin — remains a loose-cannon, a freelance good-guy who comes through in a pinch, but isn’t following anyone’s orders.

As Iron Patriot, Rhodes is a man in uniform — and that uniform gives him a certain identity, just as The Mandarin’s appearance does for him. Stark, on the other hand, is just trying to figure out how to be comfortable in his own skin.

That may be a fight he never quite wins.

For more Marvel news

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Read More:

‘Iron Man 3‘ and ‘Thor’ 2 to be released in 3-D; ‘Ant-Man’ to follow ‘Avengers 2′

‘Iron Man 3′ back underway after Robert Downey Jr. injury

Marvel’s ‘Phase Two’ goes micro (‘Ant-Man’) and macro (‘Guardians of the Galaxy’)

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