Billionaire Inventor Tony Stark, the alter-ego of Iron Man, is rightly one of the most loved characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Robert Downey Jr’s (RDJ) portrayal of the “Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist” is a match made in heaven. You won’t find many who disagree with the fact that Iron Man was never a popular comic book character until RDJ’s portrayal. Marvel needed a champion, someone with charisma and wit, to pull audiences to see the movie, which would set the stage for the rest of the MCU going forward. Its sequel, regarding by many as the weakest installment in the trilogy, debuted just two years later in 2010. Iron Man 3, a sporadically fun yet underwhelming endeavor, was released in 2013.
Don’t be mistaken, making a great trilogy is no easy task! Many film franchises have tried, many have failed, and only a have handful succeeded. So, I did a quick Google search. I wanted to see what trilogies are regarded as the best of all time. I know; I have way too much time on my hands. Now, of course, film is subjective, and each list I looked at is different from one another. As one may suspect, the usual suspects pop up on every list I looked at. But, what dumbfounded me the most is how the Iron Man Trilogy makes it on so many lists as one of the greatest movie trilogies in the history of cinema. Yes, I will concede that the Iron Man films are successful when it comes to raking in that coin. But come on. To be compared to likes of The Godfather, Back To The Future, and The Lord Of The Rings, just does sit right with me. I want to conduct a fun, thought-provoking experiment and take an in-depth look at the Iron Man Trilogy and give the flip side on why it is mediocre, at best!
A warning before we begin. This post will contain spoilers! So, if you have been living under a rock and still yet to see any Iron Man movie; It’s best to give this post a miss and read it later.
RELIANCE ON THE MCU
It is vital to differentiate the entire MCU storyline from the standalone trilogy of Iron Man films. Until we all come to that understanding, then my criticism of this trilogy isn’t going to make much sense. The Iron Man trilogy sacrifices storytelling in favor of world-building. For instance, Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man 2. His whole purpose was to eat up screen time, to frankly, do nothing more than promote the MCU’s upcoming slate (and do a whole lot of hand-holding for Tony).
Now, I don’t mind certain nods or post-credit scenes. I’m not a savage. However, I do have a problem when a movie feels bogged down with cameos at the expense of developing its own story. Iron Man 2 is a film that felt unfocused with a messy plot, lack of action, and somewhat questionable pacing. And before you question me, no, not every superhero trilogy requires a Marvel-like expansive universe to tell a good story. Take a look at The Dark Knight Trilogy.
I will say that there is something liberating when watching the first Iron Man film. Simply because, being the first film in the MCU, it doesn’t have the shackles and restraints of fitting in certain cameo roles, navigating timelines, or conforming to particular storylines thanks to other MCU films. Clearly, Jon Favreau set out to make an entertaining superhero film. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the first Iron Man film turns out to be the best of the bunch.
FUNDAMENTALS OF A GOOD TRILOGY
The first film begins with Tony, a narcissistic snob, conducting a weapons demonstration that quickly turns ugly. One of Stark Industries’ missiles is used against Tony in a terrorist ambush leading to his capture and an injury filling his chest with shrapnel. While prisoner, Tony builds an arc reactor stopping the shrapnel from reaching his heart as well as his first Iron Man suit, which ultimately leads to his escape. Having seen firsthand the horrors his weapons cause, he announces that his company will no longer manufacture weapons. Tony’s most significant transition was becoming Iron Man and fighting the terrorists he helped arm. I believe one of Tony’s most important moments was at the end of the film. When Tony announces to the World’s media, “I am Iron Man,” revealing how he has become a selfless hero, a stark contrast (pardon the pun) to the self-absorbed, profit-loving billionaire who we see at the beginning of the film.
Cue Iron Man 2, Tony learns that the power source keeping him alive is slowly killing him. He becomes isolated, ignoring what seems to be the inevitable. Death. This emotional and dark piece of storytelling was quickly tossed away when Tony is magically thrown a vaccine by Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff (thanks for the hand-holding Nick); and on top of that, after spending just one afternoon in his lab, Tony quickly and conveniently creates a new chemical element to power his new arc reactor making for an anti-climactic solution before the third act. For me, Tony’s character takes a step backward in this film and almost ignores the changes he went through in the first film. In fact, I would go as far as saying he is unlikeable. His playboy attitude and carelessness made me not want to root for him at all. The film leaves a broken arc by never really overcoming his self-destructive nature. My biggest problem still falls with how it prioritizes world-building and setting up future sequels instead of being a good sequel itself.
Iron Man 3 has a different flavor compared to the other films, which was always going to be the case with Shane Black directing (check out Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). The darkest film of the trilogy, we see Tony suffering from anxiety and PTSD due to the attacks on New York (as seen in The Avengers). While the first two films deal with Tony’s physical health. In Iron Man 3, we explore mostly his mental health. Fans are still split today on the narrative, with many feeling it would have been disingenuous to ignore the psychological damage caused by Tony’s near-death experience. The ending of Iron Man 3 has never really made much sense to me.
Tony ditches his arc reactor and enacts the “Clean Slate Protocol,” a command given to JARVIS to destroy all Iron Man suits. To me, this ending felt like Tony’s moment to ride off into the sunset, a fitting conclusion. However, all of this gets wholly disregarded (and I know this isn’t part of the trilogy, but let me rant) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and other MCU movies. “Why?”, well, Tony is right back to building a new entire iron army, and is also seemingly back to being dependent on his Arc Reactor. And, I know it powers his iron suits, but just make it part of the suit. It’s obvious that the folks at Marvel probably were never big fans of what Shane Black did and wanted to revert back to his iconic look with the Arc Reactor on his chest.
Tony Stark’s journey takes place inside the Infinity Saga. A series of twenty-three films, beginning with Iron Man and concluding with Spider-Man: Far From Home. A considerable amount of his character development and most memorable moments occur outside of the trilogy in films like Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers movies. There really isn’t a clear, cohesive, and apparent storyline throughout the three films. And while yes, Tony’s character drives the movies. I can’t help but feel that Marvel missed a trick by not planning a meaningful storyline running throughout the three films, free from the pressure of world-building. Instead, we are left with two, arguably, rather forgettable films, in Iron Man 2 & 3 weakening the overall trilogy.
Let’s look at the original Star Wars trilogy. Common themes run throughout: good vs. evil, family & friendship, hope, and sacrifice. The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment, maintains these themes while feeling different from its siblings. The film feels darker, raises the stakes, and also contains one of the biggest plot twists of all time (you should be taking notes, Iron Man 2). Star Wars uses the hero’s journey, a common template that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.
So what are the common themes of the Iron Man trilogy? Tony’s untrust of government interference and desire to regulate things on his own makes him the true embodiment of capitalism. Recurring themes in all the films are power and wealth. A target for our villains who want to take that from Tony. His character flaws go hand-in-hand with those themes. Tony struggles to shake off his egotistic self-obsession persona despite all the challenges he faces. He is constantly questioning his own power and control. As Tony’s perspective of the universe changes, he feels more and more responsible for protecting those closest to him and the people of earth.
People tend to watch movies as it provides an escape from reality. Romance in a film gives you the freedom to fantasize yourself in the relationship, or it allows you to take a back seat and observe how a relationship unfolds. Romance in action movies can be used as a tool to can help drive the story, fill the time between action, and give us a better understanding of our heroes.
The romantic chemistry between Pepper and Tony didn’t entirely work for me! I like Pepper’s character, I do. It’s obvious how much Tony cares for Pepper; although he did forget the one thing that Pepper is allergic to… strawberries. I cannot shake off the feeling that their relationship is more of a close business friendship than anything romantic. In fact, their relationship is one way, and I find it hard to see what Pepper gets out of it. I know, I know, I may be in the minority here but let’s face it, they are no Troy and Gabriella. I predict that Tony & Pepper’s relationship will not stand the test of time. In 15 to 20 years, I don’t think their romantic love for one another will be a memorable one in the history of cinema.
On the topic of relationships, let’s talk friendship. The first film left a lot to be desired. One of which was Tony’s friendship with Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Rhodey). There is no denying that Terrence Howard’s successor Don Cheadle had better on-screen chemistry with RDJ. I feel that sadly, in the first and second film, Rhodey felt very underutilized. When you look back at some of the best trilogies, they all play on great friendships. Whether that be Woody & Buzz, Frodo & Sam, or Han & Chewie. Although Rhodey was used more in Iron Man 3, giving the audience a better sense of their friendship, I can’t help but wish we saw more of that spread across the trilogy.
The stakes throughout are low-key and at no point during any of the three films did I feel like Tony couldn’t overcome any challenge he faced. A large part of that was, for me, the lackluster villains. Obadiah Stane, a longtime family friend, and father figure to Tony, is the only villain in the Iron Man Trilogy that isn’t entirely dreadful. In the first film, you really do get a sense of the history between the two characters, making their rivalry more complex and interesting. However, Iron Man’s final confrontation with Obadiah and his new suit was a somewhat anti-climactic final battle.
There is no debate that Iron Man 2 has two of the worst villains in the MCU. One of which is Justin Hammer. A laughable character who struggles to be taken seriously. Justin Hammer served more as comic relief. It is hard to buy into his wealth, power, and any threat he possesses simply because of how foolish he is.
For me, Whiplash is sadly underused and has a disappointing backstory. Whiplash holds resentment and anger towards Tony because his dad worked for Howard (Tony’s father) and got the raw end of the deal. The film spends so much time building tensions between Whiplash and Iron Man, only to be led to a (there seems to be a common theme here) terribly anti-climactic final battle scene. It felt like the climax only lasted 30 seconds.
A final film in a trilogy should set us up with the most formidable foes and the toughest of challenges that our heroes have to face. With that said, introducing Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, The Mandarin, or should I say, Aldrich Killian. The big, divisive, twist in Iron Man 3 was that the great and powerful Mandarin, was a fake! Yes, that’s right, one of Tony Stark’s biggest and most feared foes in the comics was just Trevor, an actor from Liverpool. The real bad guy pulling the strings was Aldrich Killian, another genius Tony Stark slighted, and someone who is jealous of Tony’s success. I think this twist would have stuck better if the real villain behind the Mandarin was actually good.
In the final battle of Iron Man 3, Rhodey and Iron Man seem outnumbered against Killian’s army of orange-glowing, flame-breathing terrorists until Tony’s Iron Legion arrives. Although, Tony jumping from suit to suit was a visual feast. Tony himself had zero impact on the outcome of the final battle. Rhodey eventually frees the President with ease. Pepper survives her deathly fall. By the way, I felt like they severely underplayed her death which made it all the more obvious that she would come back to kill Killian.
When my wife proofread this essay for me, she deemed it unnecessary for me to point out the trilogies score. I take her point, and I suppose a movie’s score isn’t that important for many moviegoers. It would be remiss of me not to briefly touch upon how some of the finest trilogies have epic scores to match. This is not the case for the Iron Man Trilogy! Think about Howard Shore’s work for The Lord Of The Rings, or Hans Zimmer’s for The Dark Knight, Alan Silverstri’s for Back To The Future, or even John Williams’s famous work for Star Wars. All of these classic trilogies have memorable scores that are simply timeless. I expect all movie scores to set the tone for a movie. A score should enhance the movie’s narrative and emotional impact of a scene. For me, the Iron Man films fall short with rather forgetful scores, which heavily rely on AC/DC to cover up its mishaps. That’s all I wanted to say on this matter. I think it’s important because it contributes to my overall feeling of the Iron Man Trilogy. Like the trilogy, the score is adequate but forgettable in large parts.
OUTSIDE OF THE TRILOGY
Ironically, I think Tony is best written and more complex in films outside of the trilogy. I love his inner conflicts in Civil War with him trying desperately to keep the team together. And, found it interesting how his arrogance led to big mistakes in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. The one endearing relationship that we all adore is the one Tony has with Peter Parker. He plays an almost father figure to him and is a mentor. Tony teaches him the vital lesson that is responsibility. He provides Peter with better equipment and the chance to work on his skills as a superhero. In Endgame, we got to see the proof of the pudding on how special their relationship was. Their reunion hug showed us just how much Peter meant to Tony. It was a beautiful moment seeing the relief from Tony’s face as he felt enormous guilt for Peter’s death in Infinity War.
While we are on the subject of other MCU characters. I would argue that Captain America’s trilogy is a better trilogy. The First Avenger offers a solid origin story for Captain America. It was something that we hadn’t seen before in the Superhero genre. The Winter Soldier is personally one of my favorite MCU films. It’s tense, dark, and emotional. It features a complex villain with great action that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Civil War dives into the complexities that come from juggling relationships and loyalties that Cap has with his best buddy, Bucky, and one with Tony Stark.
Now don’t get my words twisted. I am not advocating for the Captain America trilogy to feature on an all-time top 10 list. I am arguing that it has all the right ingredients to make it the best trilogy in the MCU. The use of Hydra throughout the three movies gives Captain America a separate storyline free from other MCU projects. Captain America’s relationship with Peggy is stronger than Tony & Pepper’s. Hell, Cap’s friendship with Bucky is miles better than the one we get with Tony & Rhodey. All of these factors, and I could go on, strengthen my case when claiming Cap’s trilogy is superior to Iron Mans.
It is hard to see there being an Iron Man 4, given that, SPOILER ALERT, something happens in Endgame *clicks fingers*. But I think it is worth mentioning that Marvel Studios are planning a future slate of Disney Plus projects, including Ironheart. In the comics, Tony can no longer be Iron Man, paving the way for Riri Williams, a.k.a Ironheart, to step into his armored shoes with an advanced, high-tech suit she built herself. It is unclear whether RDJ will, or will not, reprise his role for the upcoming project. I guess we will just have to wait and see.
Now look, there are many things I love when it comes to these three films. Whether that’s the visual effects, the humor, or its compelling origin story. There can be no doubt that Iron Man forever changed superhero movies and their wider cinematic landscape. My overall feelings toward the trilogy aren’t entirely doom and gloom. The bottom line is, they could have been better, much better. This was a pointless exercise, but in the end, I still firmly stand by what I said – the trilogy is mediocre. I can’t understand why these three films sit on many well known film websites in their all-time top trilogy lists. Like I said, I have a lot of time on my hands.
Leave a Reply