The ARC reactor and electromagnet chest piece are originally there to prevent pieces of shrapnel from piercing his heart. That happens because he was fixed by a Chinese/Afghan doctor who doesn't have anything else to do it properly.

However, when he got back to the US during Iron Man and Iron Man 2, why didn't he have the shrapnel removed? Why not just immediately get rid of the electromagnet and live normally?

He later decides to have the electromagnet removed (at the end of Iron Man 3), so why didn't he do it before, especially when it was killing him in Iron Man 2? What changed during Iron Man 3 that suddenly made it possible? Or what prevented him from having it removed before?

  • Watch Iron Man 3, it will give new fuel to your question ;)
    – Sentry
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 9:59
  • 3
    probably so that he doesn't get mind controlled by Loki in "The Avengers".
    – Muntasir
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 19:22
  • My theory is that he used Extremis to survive the operation.
    – alexgbelov
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 22:24

6 Answers 6


I think this is a case where we have to suspend disbelief to be entertained.

The first thing we have to suspend disbelief for is that they were able to perform surgery on Tony Stark's open chest in a cave in the middle of a desert. No sterilized room here! Not to mention the size of the hole in Stark's chest! See how Pepper Potts can put her hand in his chest? No idea how they could have rearranged his organs to make room!

Tony Stark's chest in Iron Man movie

Second, the arc reactor created is also capable of great magnitudes of energy to power an Iron Man suit, something that is pure science fiction. The chest piece is also essential because it keeps the shrapnel, or fragments, from killing Tony by entering his heart. The shrapnels must be of such a small size that even the cave desert surgery could not remove all of it.

So maybe we really need to believe that the shrapnel can truly not be removed, else Tony will die.

Well, with all this sci-fy and technology stuff, why not also believe that they would have the technology to fix Tony Stark all up when he is back in the US? Say some kind way to diffuse his blood or some other fantastic surgery to remove all the shrapnel. Very true. To which I would answer:

The chest piece also serves a purpose for the story and character. It's part of the drama that if our hero doesn't have it in place, he will die. It's a physical weakness. And who's to say that Tony doesn't want someone operating on him, when he's unconscious and vulnerable, who could then simply steal his arc reactor technology? In the screenshot above, Tony is having Ms. Potts change out his chest piece in his own lab, not a doctor in a hospital.

Or even he's not the type that wants to be fixed or cured. He is a genius, superhero, playboy billionaire with narcissistic tendencies. He may not be like us in thinking of simply getting it fixed.

It also adds emphasis to when Tony Stark says, "I am Iron Man".

  • 34
    It's important to remember that when the Iron Man comic first came into being, something like a heart transplant was not possible, even experimentally. I believe this is a nod to keeping a part of the original storyline intact, and thus our suspension of disbelief as sunpech suggests.
    – BBlake
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 13:00
  • 2
    Actually, there was a kid in my highschool who had a similar hole in his chest - it was covered with skin and smaller, but you could tell that at least some of the bone was missing (i.e. it was squishy). In his case I'm pretty sure it was a birth defect, but it's definitely possible to survive with something like that - on the surface he looked normal, he didn't have a respirator or anything.
    – Izkata
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 18:03
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    I think I've pointed out on here before, that even with the most advanced medicine in existence currently no reputable doctor would ever attempt that surgery on Tony. There exists no technology capable of finding the type of microscopic shrapnel that would be lodged in his thoracic region. CAT scans cannot find them because they are too small. Same goes for x-ray's. A MRI could very well find the shards, but the magnets would pull the shrapnel out, destroying most of his lungs and heart in the process. No doctor will just open him up and go poking around for tiny shards of metal. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 20:30
  • 4
    @Izkata Clearly, inventing a new element to use as a catalyst for his handheld fusion reactor was a far easier choice than inventing a non-magnetic body scan that could detect microscopic shards of metal in his chest. :P Although, honestly, I'd argue by that point Tony had more fully "become" Iron Man. Fixing his heart would mean he could lose the reactor, but I think the reactor meant more to him than just something to keep him alive. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 6:10
  • 2
    I'm sure he could keep the reactor just fine even without bits of shrapnel in his body.
    – Rob
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 20:39

Considering that other people trying to get their hands on the arc reactor is a major plot point in the first film Mr. Stark here might not be too keen on being unconscious with one on offer. Not that the other avengers couldn't guard him or something but again they did make an entire film about his trust issues. This did actually annoy me, I'm told in the comics it's also a pacemaker type device that is actually referred to as powering his heart, i.e. suit runs low on juice, body runs low on oxygen, they kind of show it in the films but it's not explicitly stated. Rearranging organs would be no issue though, he was probably missing a bit of lung from the injuries anyway, even if not, think about when they crack the chest for heart surgery, if you put something solid in to keep the ribs apart there's loads of room. I'd be more worried the long term effects of having metal inside the body, (not just the palladium but the canister too).


As Iron Man 3 points out, he just wants it to be part of him. He likes the feeling part of Iron Man is parted on him. Hmm leaving shrapnel there also serves good reason, rather just plainly planted - instead there's some "destiny" sense of purpose. There's also another purpose to remind himself of his savior and "creator", his reason becoming Iron Man. Surely that makes a good drama line, ended nicely by cleaning it out.

  • The fact that he has it removed at the end of Iron Man 3 is pretty good evidence that he doesn't want it to be a part of him that badly. Further, the palladium was killing him during Iron Man 2. Even if he wanted it to be a part of him to remind himself of whatever, the fact that it was literally killing him was plenty of incentive to remove it if he could.
    – phantom42
    Commented May 9, 2013 at 16:11
  • This makes sense, except for the fact that the reactor is killing him in Iron Man 2... Why didn't he remove it then? Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 19:50

Now IRON MAN 3 has been released, we can see that part of him apparently didn't want to, as there was no technical reason preventing him.


In order to fit the arc into Tony's chest, it is most likely that he either had a few ribs, or simply just parts of a few ribs taken out. After finally healing from having his arc removed, Tony would have a vulnerable spot above his heart where his ribs used to be. Also, seeing as the shrapnel is moving through Tony's veins in order to get to his heart, someone would have to cut open his veins to remove the tiny pieces of metal, somehow keep Tony from bleeding out, and would then have to sew his veins shut without blocking them off. I'm sure that there are more problems than these, but seeing as for the past week or so, I have kept up a schedule that would make even Tony Stark proud. However, I am not a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, my brain just isn't currently functioning at full capacity...

  • The shrapnel was in his heart not his veins, specifically his Atrial Septum
    – Monty129
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 17:28

Actually in the comics he does have a heart transplant, right before he got 'Happy' Hogan in Tales of Suspense #45 in September 1963.

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