The movie catches a lot of flak from critics for it's overuse of sarcastic humor and one-liners as well as the Mood Whiplash, but it makes a lot of sense when you realize that it's not actually a narrative third person movie, it's Tony telling what he remembers happening to Bruce Banner. It starts off with him narrating and it ends with Banner waking up at the end of his story. The one liners, the humor, the mood whiplash, that's all happening because that's how Tony would tell his story, especially to someone he considers his friend. Adding onto this, since this is Tony who's narrating, perhaps he made up Killian breathing fire, simply to spruce up the story. Not only is it something he'd totally do, but it fits in with the fact that it only happened once, purely for comedic value.
There being two Mandarins also echoes the comics, in that Mandarin himself has changed drastically over the years. From the embodiment of the east in a costume, into a business suit wearing embodiment of social darwinism.
Killian begins with buck-teeth, and ends up looking more like an ubermensche, just as Mandarin started out with buck-teeth, and was retconned into looking more like Christopher Lee. Also, his ponytail in videos set during early extremis testing echoes Knauf's era Mandarin, his dragon-tattoo echoes 80's shirtless Mandarin's dragon tattoo, and his business suit echoes Fraction era Mandarin. Essentially, his look evolution parallels the comics, with the necessary exception of showing the dragon tattoo out of order.
In one of his messages, the Mandarin mentions how fortune cookies are an American creation designed to mimic Chinese culture. This foreshadows the Mandarin being a fictional character - designed by an American, played by an Englishman, borrowing from Asian and Middle Eastern iconography.
When Tony and Rhodey are on the boat, Tony checks to see how much charge he has in his suit before pulling some cables off and remarking that it's close enough. This seems odd at first, after all in other movies he runs suits off his own arc reactor. Then we find out later that he was remotely controlling the suit, explaining why he had to charge the suit itself.
Notice how one trailer prominently features the Mandarin as the Big Bad, while making no reference to the fact that Guy Pearce is in the film, much less the real Big Bad. If so, think about this, all the segments in the movie featuring the Mandarin were made by him, so why can't the trailers themselves be made by him? Maybe that's why you can Never Trust a Trailer. Not this one at least.
Tony took a lot away from his fight with Vanko!
He's updated all of his suits to be hollow drones, just like Vanko did with Hammer's tech. In addition, like Vanko's drones and armor, Tony's suits also come with self-destruct protocols and he takes advantage of that to catch his enemies off guard.
This leads to another one: The hollow drone suits are listed on the main page under Conservation of Ninjutsu. Why would thirty-five suits get so easily torn up when one suit alone used by Tony works so well? In Iron Man 1 when Rhodie is giving a speech to some cadets about the qualities of unmanned fighters versus ones with pilots! This is a recurring theme in all three movies. In the first one, Rhodey insists that a human pilot's instincts will always be superior to a drone. In the second movie, Vanko insists that drones are better and is proven wrong. Now the third movie reinforces that. JARVIS is a fairly capable AI but splitting his attention between thirty-odd suits had to be taxing!
Moreover, we see that Tony's latest suit is not all that effective as he's been rapidly prototyping from Mk 8-42 nonstop, meaning that all the suits are still in the alpha test phase with none of their design kinks ironed out, as Tony is implied to have just quit and shifted to another idea! No wonder they're not as effective as Mks 2-7, which were more effective because Tony had a solid concept in mind and kept refining it over the course of several suits! When they said the suits were distractions they were just that. Distractions to keep Tony's mind occupied and his hands busy. The MK's 8-42 are either copies of earlier armors with slightly different colors, or have a single gimmick at the cost of everything else. None of them are a true improvement over the MK 7.
Early in the movie, Tony has a name tag which reads 'YOU KNOW WHO I AM', in typical Tony-style. Almost immediately after that scene, the Mandarin mentions the same phrase in his terrorist videos. Now who was with Tony in the flashback, for whom the name tag (or more accurately its BACK) had incredible importance? Who would be likely to remember every detail of that night so long ago? Who resents Tony for all his opportunity and genius? Who can't get over the fact, thirteen years later, that Tony doesn't consider them an equal or at least worthy of his interest? Finally, who is the Mandarin?
The Mandarin's Badass Boast of "You will never see me coming" takes on an entirely different meaning when looking at it from a certain perspective. Much like the twist of the man we know as "The Mandarin" being just a figurehead, we never saw Aldrich Killian being the true mastermind behind Mandarin and the Ten Rings coming.
Why would Tony prefer "War Machine" to Rhodey's new designation of "Iron Patriot"? For one thing, seeing as he unintentionally came up with the War Machine nickname back in Iron Man 2, it's unsurprising he'd prefer something he came up with, even if it was meant as an insult. There's also the fact that the Iron Patriot name and new paintjob with it would remind Tony of a certain star-spangled man that he wasn't impressed with when first introduced to him. On the flip side, he could see it as being disrespectful to both Cap and himself. The government is basically taking advantage of all the publicity the Avengers drummed up and, since they don't have Cap at their beck and call, dressing up War Machine as a Cap knockoff to make themselves look like the heroes, even though they tried to nuke Manhattan.
The Mandarin is a TDKR!Bane deconstruction to start with — a theatrical, costumey pseudo-anarchist with a silly voice and a penchant for surrounding himself with true believers and hijacking public attention. Taking hostages and manipulating via fear while maintaining that he's teaching and communicating a personal philosophy. In actually he's fake. This is also true of TDKR's Bane's speeches in-movie, but this one is straight up about its fakeness. Many of the criticisms of TDKR are at its handling of race and class and a callous grab by an external manipulator at instilling fear in viewers by playing on topical cultural anxieties about xenophobia and the stability of the American way. This speech giver is really a laddish, formerly washed-up, physically impressive but otherwise fairly average Englishman — in the Mandarin's case, Trevor, and in Bane's case, the man who plays him IRL. Though Hardy's had his own addiction issues under control for a while now.
Effectively, the Mandarin and Killian are Bane and Daggett, if there really was nothing about Bane that gave him power over the rich, connected, corporate, "mundane" Daggett.
Why didn't the drones use ranged weapons on the AIM mooks? Because they don't want to risk them blowing up and igniting the tanker. Also, the mooks are pretty high-mobility, so they could've simply swarmed them.
Putting the comic book basis aside, with the Mandarin being a terrorist threatening America one would wonder if this would be more appropriate for a Captain America movie. Then it is revealed that the Mandarin is just Killian's cover and that this is more about corporate maneuverings, which is Tony's area of expertise, and which follows the theme of the previous Iron Manmovies.
Mandarin being a stooge is similar to the "Osama was a CIA agent" conspiracy theories. He even claims to be a former Western agent that turned against them. He also supposedly has tactics based on The Art of War. What's the most famous quote from that book? "All warfare is based on deception." If you've read the book, Killian seems to be using it as a textbook.
O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands. -Section VI: Weak Points and Strong
In his first on-screen speech, the Mandarin stutters, mumbles, and repeats himself. It's jarring for a terrorist ringleader to stumble in his speech-making, but perfectly logical behavior for a brain-fried drunk of an actor.
Tony is shown to be capable of handling himself without his suits, having Took a Level in Badass since The Avengers. It would appear he took something away from Captain America's "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, what are you?" line.
Aldrich Killian wears a bunch of rings for an unmarried man. This not only counts as Foreshadowing but ties into the fact he's the true Mandarin. His backstory as a poor nothing who becomes all-powerful through terrorism and technology is also the Mandarin's backstory divested of all oriental and alien elements.
When the Mandarin's filming location is revealed, there's a screen with a teleprompter with the Mandarin's speech visible. This is odd- he's the leader of a terrorist cell with a cult like philosophy. Why would he need teleprompters to communicate to his people? It's because he's an ACTOR, not a warlord. Those aren't his speeches, it's his script. Also, in a Freeze-Frame Bonus, you can see that the guns by the Mandarin's throne are plastic replicas, not actual metal weapons.
When Pepper meets the Mk 42, Tony mentions it's a bit tight around the crotch. He also claims it was designed with her protection in mind. So it's plausible that he designed the Mk 42 for Pepper, with himself as an aside, especially considering the first time we see it in action, it's wrapping around her.
A Mandarin, in Chinese history, was a bureaucrat that ran behind the scenes in the empire. In times of weaker rulers, a bureaucracy picks up the slack and does the real job of running things. In that perspective, Aldrich's running the whole scheme with his hand pulling Trevor's strings makes the Mandarin title more appropriate than it ever was to the comic character.
When Tony calls the Mk 42 in his sleep, we perceive it as threatening Pepper. However, as more of its functionality is revealed later, it's likely that it was trying to protect her.
The Mark 42 comes apart way too easy in a fight when compared to the previous armors but then you remember that not only is it a prototype, it's a prototype designed to come apart easily. The previous armors would bolt together more securely, but Tony hasn't had time to work out how to do that with the Mark 42's modular assembly design! It's also a metaphor for Tony himself: due to the PTSD he has from the events in New York, he's also falling apart a lot more easily than he did in the previous movies.
Tying into the Mark 42 above, in the final battle, Rhodey asks for a suit and Tony tells him he doesn't have a suit, because his armors aren't calibrated for Rhodey. However, Tony's armors are also calibrated for Pepper, given that he has the Mark 42 fit her and orders JARVIS to route an armor to her.
Killian's certainly cleaned up nicely over the past 13 years. Years of physical therapy not to mention use of Extremis have him seemingly able-bodied but his cool-guy schtick is still stuck in the 90s. This isn't the film itself's conception of what suave young professionals wear being dated — it's Aldrich being stuck in the past, even as he tries to make his own past disappear, and it's another way he tries to mirror Tony and fails. Tony's pop culture references and retro band tee shirts work for him, while Killian's suits, his sad ponytail in the Extremis testing scene, and his sweet dragon tattoos straight out of a D&D 3.0 player handbook all either fall flat or make him look like a megalomaniacal douche.
The "Heartbreaker" suit is the one with the enhanced Uni-beam. So what does Tony call the stealth variant of it? The one that also has the big beam? "Casanova". Oh, Tony.
Killian makes a point of reminding everyone not to make eye contact with the Mandarin, unless they want to get shot in the face. Is it because the Mandarin is a vindictive and unstable terrorist? Or because making direct eye contact is one of the things that can cause an actor to corpse and break character?
Killian doesn't use his fire breath after that one instance with Rhodes. Why would he just not do that for the rest of the film? Because the fire breath is heat transferred by radiation. Energy transfer through radiation is much less efficient than heat transfer through conduction, such as through the contact between heated fingertips and metal plate. Killian doesn't use the fire breath because its far more effective for him to cut through armor with heated fingers. It's the same reason why Tony's suit is unscathed in Iron Man 2 where it's shoved into a lit fireplace, but takes damage from Killian's heated hands.
Tony's armors now have their own power sources. Considering that his Arc Reactor nearly failed him in the first film, & the strain it was putting on his body was killing him in Iron Man 2, but he surprisingly he continued to use his personal Arc Reactor in The Avengers rather than switch to an in-house reactor. In The Avengers it really did fail him.
Tony rapidly building dozens of suits in the wake of The Avengers, each of them designed for a different purpose like deep space exploration, underwater combat, stealth, heavy lifting, etc. He's trying to cover all the bases, be prepared for anything, because having fought aliens and been to space, he's realized he is not the invincible badass he's been posing as, even with the suit and his genius intellect fueling it. Bottom line, his near-death experience has sent him into a Heroic BSOD and he's trying to build his way to feeling better.
When Rhodey's Iron Patriot suit is in use and he can't use it, he asks to borrow one of Tony's suits. Tony then tells Rhodey that the suits are coded to himself, so Rhodey can't use them. Why wasn't he able to use Tony's suits when he could in Iron Man 2? The answer is very simple. It's because he was able to do it in Iron Man 2. Why would Tony continue making suits that can be hijacked by others? He probably changed his original suits to only open to him as well. Though we see he made an exception for Pepper, given that his suits are calibrated for her.
What do you call an Extremis-infected Pepper? A hot Pepper.
Why is Tony telling the whole story to Bruce Banner? Perhaps because this person helped cure Pepper's Extremis. Tony is a genius and he was the one near perfecting the formula but it makes sense for him to call in the help of a specialist like Banner if Pepper's life depends on it. So maybe Tony is telling him the story in order to explain why he needed his help. Or perhaps with Tony suffering bouts of PTSD all through the film, he realizes that walling up and building Iron Man suits day, dawn, and dusk isn't helping, and only when he talks through it with Harley does he find a way to ease it. That makes him realize that he needs to talk his experiences through the one person that gets it...the only other scientifically minded guy who was present when the aliens attacked.
It's initially surprising why Tony doesn't get that his gun and Rhodey's gun can't share magazines, especially when he builds weapon systems. Then you realise: Tony builds weapons systems. The Jericho missile, the crew-served weapons, the vehicle weapons Stark Industries used to make - these are all plug and play weapons that can be adjusted for any platform (the Jericho, for example, could be air-dropped or fired from a trailer).
Tony is missing and presumed dead. His opponents would certainly be monitoring his bank accounts. So where does he get all the spending money (for things like that trip to the hardware store, or for changes of clothing)? Answer: He'd long ago decided that he might need to suddenly play dead for a while. He's got money, ID, etc., stashed in various places—and anonymous electronic accounts that he can access wherever he is, without giving himself away. Maybe he needs a magic credit card to use them, but he'd be carrying that with him all the time. No need to mention it; it's just the sort of thing that a filthy-rich, paranoid, high-risk guy would naturally do.
It seems evident from this movie that the Avengers team are still staying in touch with each other. Aside from the fact that Bruce Banner shows up in the Stinger, there's a lot of clear analogues from The Avengers. There's a heavy bag hanging in his workshop, just like the kind Captain America used, and Tony's fighting style seems to borrow a lot from Black Widow's Waif-Fu. He even does a baseball slide under Killian the way Hawkeye did during The Battle of Manhattan or that Thor did while fighting Hulk on the helicarrier, as well as pulling off some epic trick shots. It seems almost as though the more experienced members of the team (maybe minus Thor) have been giving him some training so he isn't wholly reliant on his suit (and he made very good use of it in the movie). Pepper also makes a comment about Tony hanging around with new friends. The Avengers also taught Tony that he's good on his own, but if he wants to really win he has to fight as a team. Luckily, the JARVIS-piloted suits can give him the team he needs without having to call in the other Avengers from wherever they are.
Why isn't Tony insulted that Bruce Banner fell asleep? Because he had to let it all out to someone he trusted who cared in general; but not specifically about the details. They also wouldn't complicated his life with anything revealed. Which is why he launched right into another story.
The film itself could be seen, in a way, as a response to Cap's "Big man in a suit of armor" question towards Tony from The Avengers. Tony's closing monologue ("You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys...") can also be seen as his response to that question. You can take away the suit of armor, but you can never take away the fact that Tony is Iron Man, even without the armor.
How did the Mandarin get the president's phone number? The vice president was part of the scheme.
Killian's bad use of humor when facing Tony? Well, considering Tony is narrating the entire story, and that he considers himself a well-spring of humor (among other things), perhaps a few of his worse quotes were played-up by Tony, as a further Foil to himself.
Tony's live threat to the Mandarin, specifically that Tony gave the Mandarin his address, is criticized as being suicidal, but hey, Tony's got a literal army in his basement. Maybe Tony's got reason to be overconfident after all.
The movie doesn't show what happens to Pepper between falling 200ft into a flaming inferno and emerging fully healed thanks to Extremis, but it can't have been very pleasant. Hardly surprising that she initially looks deranged under those circumstances.
When the Mandarin threatens to kill a helpless accountant if the President does not call him within a certain timeframe. He claims on national broadcast that the President has the number. Imagine if he did not have the real number to that phone, and millions of Americans saw it fail to ring. There's no "good" response either way. If the President fails to make that call, even if people can logically understand why, the accountant dies while America watches. It's a massive blow to public opinion and morale. If the President is seen to make the call, he negotiates with terrorists. (As we see, the accountant still dies while America watches). Although, given that the Mandarin that does the shooting is a fake, it is probable that the shooting was false, too.
Very minor, but Tony having trouble with the armor at the beginning. That is, Tony having issues with the jet propelled faceplate. God forbid it malfunction...
The Mandarin broadcasts seem to hijack some major TV channels, and some not-so-major ones too. Who knows how many kids were watching? How many kids were exposed to the sight of frenetically cut Nightmare Fuel video clips and a man evidently getting shot right in the head on live TV?
Overlapping with Fridge Brilliance: When Tony was trapped in the cave in Afghanistan, he got free by building the first Iron Man suit, and since then, he's been continuously improving his design and building more armor types. Then, in the Avengers, he goes into the portal, comes home, and then obsessively builds more suits until he gets to Mark 42, meaning he's come up with 35 of them. When the kid tells him to build something, he's not shocked because this kid has imparted some kind of down-to-earth wisdom From the Mouths of Babes: he's shocked he didn't notice that he's been using tinkering with the Iron Man suit as a compulsive ritual as part of an anxiety disorder. This mentally returns him to the thing that empowered him when he was wounded, dying, and completely helpless; "You're a mechanic-build something." He does.
Trevor doesn't remember the names of his hookers. Since they know the Mandarin's a sham, Killian probably doesn't let them live for long.
When Tony runs out of the bar while suffering a panic attack there's a moment of 'oh Tony' when it's revealed Tony did not take a fancy car out to see Rhodes but the Mark VII. This seems like Tony doing his usual showing off amazing 'car' bit..then you remember he's been having nightmares and the so-called Invincible Iron Man is scared out of his mind he'll be without his armor and expects an attack from anywhere. Hence why the Mark 42 seems so appealing to him in concept. He can summon it from anywhere at anytime and each piece works independently of the rest of the suit. Note also that he runs into the suit so it can monitor his vital signs. The suit doesn't just offer protection, it's an ad hoc medical device. The trauma has made him so concerned about his physical being that he needs some form of medical attention constantly on hand.
During the scene under the water, a lot is made of comparing the depth of the ocean to the emptiness of space, and the effect that must be having on Tony's psyche. What can go almost unnoticed is that at the same time, Tony is restrained and essentially almost drowning...just like the waterboarding he suffered in the first movie, and with the way the suit's lights are fritzing out and flashing, there's a chance that he's going to run out of power, and he almost certainly felt on the verge of death. The situation below the water is even worse than we thought because it's almost literally a culmination of every single bad thing that's happened to Tony in the whole series. It's not really surprising he apparently fainted on the way to Tennessee.
Rhodes' support staff didn't report the switchover between him piloting the Iron Patriot and Killian piloting it. There can only be one explanation why. Not only is the Vice President in on it, but parts of the American military might very well be in on Killian's plan, too. We didn't hear anything unusual from them because they were in his pocket from the start, and played ball right up to the Air Force One attack.