Which Iron Man Film Is the Best in the Series?

Iron Man

It's the series that turned a comic book character nobody had cared about since the Cold War into the hottest IP on the planet and redeemed its star's career in the process. Initially considered a huge gamble, the Iron Man franchise kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe--a coup that the competition has been scrambling to replicate; so far without success.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

There's no question that the MCU--and the Iron Man films in particular--have left an indelible mark on the pages of cinematic history. But do these movies live up to the astronomical hype they've generated? That loaded question aside, which epoch-making installment is the best of the bunch?

The quick and dirty answers: not really, and Captain America; Civil War.

Team Iron Man
Everything the Russos touch turns to gold--or in this case, gold-titanium alloy.
Alright, invoking the Russo brothers in this context is like entering Carl Lewis in a high school girls' track meet.

To find the answer without cheating, I shall conduct a thorough analysis of the three standalone Iron Man films. Join me as I compare the relative merits of each movie according to objective standards of the cinematic and general storytelling arts.

WARNING: It's impossible to run this kind of analysis without venturing into spoiler territory. If you haven't seen Iron Man parts 1, 2, and 3 yet, a) welcome back from the desert island and b) correct your omission immediately.

OK. I'll grant a dispensation from watching Iron Man 3. In fact, if it saves somebody the 90 minutes and five bucks I wasted on that flick, this post will qualify as a PSA.

Main Antagonist
A hero is defined by his enemies. It's no exaggeration to say that the main villain can make or break a film.

Iron Man
Obadiah Stane Newsweek
Possibly the most badass picture of Jeff Bridges
A little-known fact about the first Iron Man: the original antagonist in early drafts of the script was none other than Howard Stark himself, who would have donned the War Machine armor to do battle with his own son.

Marvel almost certainly made the right call by scrapping that idea. They did carry over the father-son rivalry dynamic to the finished film, in which Howard's lifelong friend Obadiah Stane violently turns on his late business partner's heir.

I'm torn by Jeff Bridges' turn as Stane. On the one hand, he tackles the role with maximum effort, as is his wont. On the other hand, Bridges himself admitted to having some discomfort with the production's improv style. 

Obadiah Stane's real weakness has nothing to do with Bridges' performance, but with the writing. He's never given a compelling motivation to order the hit on Tony. He even highlights the foolishness of his decision by confessing that Tony is a "golden goose" whose lucrative ingenuity Stane can't hope to match. Such petty, short-term thinking undermines his portrayal as a corporate tech genius.

Then, because clunky final battles were mandatory in MCU Phase One, the Dude goes crazy or something and suits up in an ambulatory Soyuz for a frenetically shot yet plodding showdown with Shellhead.

Iron Man 2
Whiplash and Justin Hammer
Not pictured: Iron Man 2's main antagonist
Let's cut to the chase. Most critics of Iron Man 2 call out Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell for giving lackluster performances as the movie's dual antagonists. These critics fail to understand a number of mitigating factors.

First, a lengthy amount of footage establishing Ivan Vanko's motives and background were cut from the final version. So hate on Whiplash if you must, but blame the editing; not Rourke's acting.

Second, Rourke went to absurd lengths to infuse his character with authenticity, even going so far as to spend some quality time in a Russian prison. Say what you will about his effectiveness as a villain. You can't say that Rourke isn't utterly convincing as a Russian lowlife.

Third, if you think that Justin Hammer is passive-aggressive and grating for no good reason, you're not paying attention. From what I can tell, most critics assumed that Hammer is a pale imitation of Obadiah Stane. Viewing the character through that lens will produce a distorted image.

Stane was out for revenge. Or money. Or...honestly, it's hard to say why he tried to have Tony killed. By contrast, Hammer's motivation is much clearer. He's not after Tony Stark's head. He wants Tony's approval.

Like Stane, Hammer knows he's not in Tony's league. Instead of murderous rage, Hammer's envy turns into a deluded obsession with proving himself Tony's equal. Stark repeatedly makes it clear that he views Hammer as an annoying tag along at best, but Hammer's self-worth relies so heavily on Tony's acceptance that he can't let himself acknowledge his rival's contempt.

Think I'm grasping at straws? Revisit Hammer's dialog. The man makes a positive reference to James Joyce's Ulysses for crying out loud! 90% of people who say they enjoyed that book haven't read it, and 100% are lying about liking it just so highbrow literary types will think they're smart.

All of the preceding is moot, however, because neither Vanko nor Hammer is Iron Man 2's main antagonist.

Remember: the main antagonist is the character who poses the biggest obstacle between the main protagonist and his goal.

There's no question that Tony Stark is the main protagonist. What does Tony want in Iron Man 2? He has two complimentary goals.
  1. Continue operating as Iron Man free of outside interference.
  2. Continue running Stark Enterprises as he sees fit.
Hammer and Vanko certainly obstruct the attainment of Tony's goals. However, they merely complicate the major source of conflict imposed by this guy:

Garry Shandling - Senator Stern
A big prick hurts even more.
If Senator Stern, brilliantly portrayed by the late Garry Shandling, weren't orchestrating a government shakedown against Tony for control of the Iron Man armor, Hammer wouldn't be a threat at all and Vanko would've been neutralized in Monaco.

Not that Hammer and Whiplash are superfluous. Unlike most superheroes, Iron Man's civilian persona is a force to be reckoned with in his own sphere. The best Iron Man stories give the Armored Avenger a super-powered foe to tangle with on the battlefield and a viable threat in the boardroom. While Stane ably filled the latter role in the first film, only Iron Man 2 presents our hero with equally formidable challenges in both arenas.

Dramatically upping the stakes, Iron Man 2 pits Tony against the most implacable foe of all: the United States Government.

Iron Man 3
Fake Mandarins
"I am the Mandarin!"
"No, I am!"
Somehow, they're both wrong.
Fake Mandarins.


OK. You want more exposition on the bait and switch that Iron Man 3 pulled with its main villain? How about Fake Mandarins Prompted by Cynical Pandering to the Chinese Market Passed off as Creative Integrity?
The minute you start to govern your creative impulses based on anticipation of someone else’s response or their expectations, then you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail them, too. Because you’re not going to surprise anybody – you’re going to be busy second-guessing what other people want and indulging that people-pleasing side of yourself.
-Iron Man 3 co-writer/director Shane Black
Have I mentioned lately how Hollywood hates its own audience?

Hey Shane, "they" are the people who pay your extravagant salary. It's all well and good to surprise them. Just make sure you give them pleasant surprises; not pandering, PC, dirty tricks that betray the audience's trust.

Best Main Antagonist: Iron Man 2

While the main antagonist places obstacles in the hero's path, the consequences of failing to surmount those obstacles largely determine the level of dramatic tension and audience engagement.

Iron Man
Obadiah Stane attempts to assassinate Tony Stark with Wile E. Coyote-level tenacity. If Tony doesn't foil these schemes, he will die. Which would be a huge bummer.

Iron Man 2
The US government, represented by Senator Stern, will stop at nothing to acquire Iron Man's technology for themselves. Unless Tony can stave off Congress while countering Justin Hammer's industrial espionage and surviving Ivan Vanko's vendetta, Stark weapons tech will be proliferated worldwide, reigniting the arms race and certainly heightening US foreign and domestic military intervention.

Iron Man 3
If Tony can't stop Fake British Mandarin, Trevor Slattery will continue interrupting contrived, duplicitous television with equally contrived, marginally less duplicitous television.

Iron Man must stop Fake Hollywood Nerd Mandarin to escape an unwanted job offer at a corporation that makes super soldiers. The super soldiers explode, but only when it's convenient to the plot.
Iron Man 3 Creepy Fire Monster Lady
Hey Shane, my creepy fire monster lady can beat up your creepy fire monster lady.
Highest Stakes: Iron Man 2

A protagonist vying for stakes against resistance supplied by the antagonist is what forms a plot. Let's face it, all three Iron Man movies have pretty convoluted, sometimes nonsensical, plots.

But we need to pick a winner, so here goes!

Iron Man
An arrogant billionaire arms dealer gets a sharp lesson in humility from his own handiwork. With deadly shrapnel in his heart and a price on his head, he must use his natural genius and discover untapped reserves of courage to save his own life and atone for his mistakes.

In other words, the same superhero origin story that Hollywood--especially Marvel Studios--keeps churning out ad nauseum. Robert Downey Jr's career-resurrecting performance elevates the material, though, and energizes the proceedings with a refreshing dose of fun.

Iron Man 2
Having embraced his pledge to make up for a lifetime of war profiteering, Tony Stark finds his successful privatization of world peace threatened by US government intervention. Heightening the tension, the only known treatment for Tony's heart condition is proving as fatal as the malady itself.

The pressure sets off a midlife crisis which places Tony's business, relationships, and life in even greater jeopardy while interference from an unscrupulous competitor and a vengeful nemesis further compounds his peril.

Will Tony find a reason beyond his own interests to be a hero before his time runs out and his powerful technology is set loose on the world?

Iron Man and War Machine
The most awesome fight in a cherry orchard since Bleach

Iron Man 3
Traumatized by events that happened in another series but are only vaguely alluded to here, Tony Stark throws himself into his work. No, not ensuring world peace. Puttering around in his basement. Meanwhile, his love life--and life on earth in general--circles the drain.

A character with a Chinese code name who's played by a British actor of Indian extraction to avoid racism and certainly not to appease an audience that Hollywood desperately hopes to milk now that they've alienated most of the West, claims responsibility for a series of bombings.

When the director of the first two Iron Man movies is blasted into a coma, Tony argues with Pepper about their relationship, fails to prevent three helicopters form destroying a house packed with enough firepower to turn North America to glass, and visits Chattanooga, Tennessee. His panic attacks sporadically grind the story to a halt.

Pepper is abducted and infected with the same nanotech virus that makes some people explode, but turns most of them into super soldiers capable of shredding multiple Iron Man suits apiece. The dramatic tension needle remains fixed at zero.

Tony and Rhody team up. A sub-par episode of Riptide ensues.

How Bill Gates really made his money
Culminating in...

Fake Mandarins
Fake Mandarins
Least irritating plot: Iron Man 1 and 2 tie.

The Best Iron Man Film
Iron Man 2

It's not even that close. The first Iron Man set up an intriguing character and laid the groundwork for an enduring superhero mythos, but the sequel did what a good sequel should: deliver on the promises made in the original while raising the stakes and expanding the secondary world.

Yes, the first movie is good. But being an origin story, it only hints at the hero's full potential. Only in Iron Man 2 do we get to see Tony Stark at the top of his superhero game squaring off against equally formidable superpowered opposition.

This movie keeps every promise made by its predecessor and does it in style. Rhody finally suiting up as War Machine and kicking drone ass after ogling the Mark II and vowing "Next time, baby" is one of the sweetest payoffs in the MCU to date.

I could go on, but the point has been made with mathematical precision. Iron Man 2 is the best film in the franchise. Case closed!

Special recognition for entry in the series that bends over the farthest to indulge the stars' egos, the director's condescending PC bullshit, and the studio's servile greed goes to Iron Man 3.


  1. You need better head cannon. Have you seen the fan theory that Trevor Slattery is actually the Mandarin posing as Trevor Slattery posing as the Mandarin?

    Watch the movie that way next time and it's a million times better. We just need to wait for Marvel Studios to get their heads out of their collective asses and acknowledge what we all know to be true.

    1. Related: Marvel included this short in the extras of Thor 2 as an apology for Iron Man 3.


    2. Yeah, that was about the time the Trevor-Slattery-is-fake fan theory debuted. A lot of us were hoping that's how All Hail the King would resolve.

    3. What are the odds they'll actually follow up on it?

  2. Very good summary of the three Iron Man movies. I haven't watched any of them in ages (they tend to be my least favorite MCU movies) but your words have almost convinced me to watch them again.

    I guess my biggest problem with Iron Man 2 was that it was overstuffed. Too many different stories and characters that manage to make the whole affair feel flat. They all pulled on the story like taffy.

    The villains, Mr. Shandling aside, were just as flat as the other early MCU villains that weren't named Loki or the Red Skull (Sorry, he is a perfect Golden Age villain). Stane was pretty one note, but at least he wasn't boring or whiny.

    Really, RDJ as Tony Stark was the best part of those movies, and I think he's at his best in movies were his character's name is not in the title. That's probably why I've never been too big on them.

    On the other hand, that is a puzzling statement at the end from the writer of the first two Lethal Weapon movies. Those movies were about as un-PC as you can get.

    1. Very good comment on my summary of the three Iron Man movies!

      Everything you said is true. Part 2 is still the best one, though. Because the unpleasant truth is that all three Iron Man films have the same problems.

      The improvised script introduced continuity errors that make all three films' plots collapse under scrutiny. The fact that multiple franchises were riding on this series led to excessive studio interference and story bloat. The Oscar nominee-packed cast caused multiple cases of X3 syndrome.

      Watch the series again, and you'll likely reach the same conclusion I did. Iron Man was impressive for its time but mainly traded on its novelty. It and Iron Man 2 came early enough in the MCU that Marvel Studios was still figuring out the formula. Favreau--and especially Black--have since been massively outclassed by later directors like the Russos, and to a lesser extent Joss Whedon.

      As for Lethal Weapon being un-PC, rewatch those movies paying special attention to the gun control propaganda salted throughout the series. Then there's part 2, which is lousy with celebrity virtue signaling.

    2. I was aware of the PC propaganda in part 3, which is also the worst film in the series, but not the first two. I guess I should give them a re-watch in the near future. It was irritating how Donner used them for a platform for his political opinions.

      Out of curiosity, how would you rank the MCU films as a whole? If it wouldn't take too long, that is. I'd be curious to know.

    3. "Out of curiosity, how would you rank the MCU films as a whole?"

      Another question worthy of its own post!

      But since it's a fun thought exercise, I'll rank the MCU films in the order I remember liking them, off the top of my head.

      Captain America: Civil War
      Captain America: The Winter Soldier
      Guardians of the Galaxy
      The Avengers
      Iron Man 2
      Iron Man
      Captain America: The First Avenger
      Avengers: Age of Ultron
      Thor: The Dark World
      The Incredible Hulk
      Iron Man 3