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Iron Man 3 is the most underrated MCU movie ever. Here’s why it’s worth watching

The official cast poster for Iron Man 3.
Image via Marvel Studios

Casual comic book movie fans may be surprised to hear it, but upon the release of Iron Man 3, the most common response among comic book readers was anger. Since the first film, there had been hints that Tony Stark’s comic book nemesis, the Mandarin, would eventually make his live-action debut in a future Iron Man sequel. And when it finally happened in Iron Man 3, fans felt that Marvel had chickened out because Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin wasn’t really the Mandarin at all. He was just an actor who was pretending to be the Mandarin.

Some fans have held on to that anger for so long that they will tell you to your face that Iron Man 3 is one of the worst movies in the MCU. That’s a view that needs additional perspective. In 2008, Iron Man was an instant classic that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, revitalized the career of Robert Downey Jr., and established Jon Favreau as one of the top directors in Hollywood. It also became the template for almost every Marvel movie that came after it, for better or worse. It’s pretty hard for any movie to live up to that legacy, much less the third in a series.

A better argument could be made for Iron Man 2 as one of the worst movies in the MCU. It’s uncharacteristically sloppy, the script is nonsensical, and Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash is borderline incomprehensible. Iron Man 2 is so focused on setting up The Avengers (with the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow) that it never takes the time to be a good sequel to the original movie. Iron Man 3 doesn’t fall into that trap, and it’s arguably one of the last true solo movies in the MCU. That’s because Iron Man 3 doesn’t pair up its title character with an unrelated hero just for the sake of a team-up. Nor does it even try to continue the then-unfolding tale of the Infinity Saga. Instead, it truly wraps up the character arc of Tony Stark and stands alone as the final film in a trilogy. That’s why Iron Man 3 is the most underrated MCU movie, and we’re tired of pretending that it isn’t.

Writer/director Shane Black is Iron Man 3’s MVP

Director Shane Black directs Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3.
Photo vis IMDb

The biggest reason why Iron Man 3 didn’t make the same mistakes as Iron Man 2 is that Favreau wisely stepped aside from the sequel, paving the way for Shane Black to step into the director’s chair. Black also co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce with an eye towards making the film more in line with the comic books. Yet it also has a lot of the trademarks of Black’s films, including the Christmas backdrop, zippy dialogue, and even a personal transformation for the lead character.

Iron Man 3 was the first film in Marvel’s Phase 2, and it came to theaters just a year after The Avengers. Black didn’t try to pretend that The Avengers didn’t happen and send Tony off on another unrelated bender. The core issue of Iron Man 3 is that Tony Stark was traumatized by what he went through in The Avengers, and he clearly suffers from a form of PTSD in the aftermath.

Tony was never a heroic archetype and he’s always been wonderfully flawed in the movies. Iron Man 3 takes that a step further by knocking Tony off of his pedestal, giving him panic attacks and insomnia, and even stripping him of his armor for very long periods of time within the film. Early in the story, Tony tries to convince everyone that he’s still the same man he was before. And when his friend, Happy Hogan (Favreau), is nearly killed in an attack by the Mandarin’s forces, Tony literally challenges the Mandarin through the press and even shares his home address. That reckless move leads to a preemptive strike from the Mandarin that leaves Tony outgunned and on his own.

Iron Man 3 had two of the best villains in the MCU

Aldrich Killian in a poster for Iron Man 3.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Hubris was always Tony Stark’s original sin. And in the film’s opening minutes, a flashback sequence reveals how Tony inadvertently created his true adversary in this story: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). In 1999, a disheveled Killian approached Tony at a New Year’s Eve party and practically begged Stark to work with him. Tony essentially blew him off so he could go have sex with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a geneticist who was a genius in her own right.

By belittling Killian, Tony gave Aldrich the drive and the anger to create a way to genetically rewrite the human body with the Extremis virus. 14 years later, Killian physically reinvented himself with Extremis and used a fake terrorist in order to drum up business for himself. He’s the anti-Tony Stark, and the cautionary tale of what Tony could have been.

That brings us back to the Mandarin, the fake terrorist in question. Yes, it’s true that the Mandarin was one of Iron Man’s biggest villains. But the comic book Mandarin also has a history of some very racist tropes that date back to his introduction in 1964. The super-powered evil Asian overlord thing just wasn’t going to fly in 2013, or even now. At the time Iron Man 3 was in the works, Marvel hadn’t figured out a way to have the real Mandarin onscreen without playing into the character’s racist stereotypes. That’s why it took until 2021 before Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was allowed to introduce Tony Leung as the true Mandarin, Xu Wenwu. Instead, Iron Man 3 gave us Trevor Slattery.

Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery in Iron Man 3.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge just how great Ben Kingsley was in Iron Man 3. When Trevor is pretending to be the Mandarin, he’s truly terrifying and his entire demeanor screams super-villain even though his cadence is very controlled and menacing. But as Trevor, Kingsley is allowed to be hilariously boorish and more than willing to roll over on Killian.

Trevor even seems to genuinely appreciate his role of a lifetime when he is being led away to prison for his part in the scheme. As much as some fans hate Trevor, he really brings out the humor in the movie without making it into a farce. That’s a trick that Taika Waititi didn’t attempt to utilize when directing the last two Thor movies.

The supporting cast was top-notch

Robert Doweny Jr. and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 3.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Iron Man 3 also has the benefit of a strong supporting cast, particularly with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes. In this film, Pepper gets to be a true romantic partner to Tony, and their romance seems very genuine. Pepper does disappear down the “damsel in distress’ fox hole for a good portion of the story, but she emerges with her own heroic moments by the conclusion.

As for Cheadle, he spent most of Iron Man 2 trying to figure out how to play Rhodey in his own way after taking over the part from Terrance Howard. By Iron Man 3, Cheadle seemed very comfortable in the role, even when playing the secondary protagonist to Downey’s Tony Stark. The funny banter between Tony and Rhodey is another Shane Black hallmark, and it makes the final third of the movie play like a buddy cop film…in a good way!

The late Miguel Ferrer has a small role in the film as Vice President Rodriguez, and if you look closely at one of his scenes, you’ll notice that Wednesday star Jenna Ortega had a small role as the VP’s daughter. Somehow we suspect that this won’t be Ortega’s last appearance in a Marvel movie.

Iron Man 3 has nice tunes and is a fun movie to watch

Can You Dig It (Iron Man 3 Main Titles)

We could go on and on about what makes Iron Man 3 special, from the inventive action to the surprisingly poignant conclusion. But for now, we’ll close our argument with a shout-out to composer Brian Tyler, who delivered one hell of a score for the film. Many Marvel composers play it safe, and outside of Alan Silvestri’s Avengers and Captain America scores or Michael Giacchino’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange soundtracks, most of the music doesn’t have a lot of character. By contrast, Iron Man 3‘s music is bursting with character, especially in this selection from the film’s closing credits.

In short, Iron Man 3 isn’t just an underrated MCU film, it’s a great movie, period. And you can watch it right now on Disney+.

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Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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