This article contains spoilers for Iron Man 3 and the wider MCU.
Following up The Avengers was always going to be a tricky job, but Iron Man 3 was more than up to the job. Although its audacious plot twist and hyper-irreverent tone sharply divided fans, director Shane Black (who’d previously worked with Robert Downey Jr. on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and writer Drew Pearce turned out an idiosyncratic, genre-savvy script that blew away any lingering cobwebs that remained around the franchise following Iron Man 2. To date, we reckon there’s not a bad threequel in the MCU – and this is the one that kicked off that trend.
The Iron Man franchise has always enjoyed amazing chemistry between its leads, so in addition to Downey Jr. returning as Tony Stark, we’re treated to Gwyneth Paltrow returning as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle back as James Rhodes (aka War Machine, aka the Iron Patriot). Guy Pearce is suitably creepy as Aldrich Killian (boy, there’s a name), and while Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen is sadly underused, you can easily buy her as someone brilliant enough to draw Stark’s eye.
In fact, there’s not a weak performance in the movie. Certainly, the main cast is filled with actors (and characters) you could watch again and again. Sir Ben Kingsley is clearly having the absolute time of his life as disgraced luvvie Trevor Slattery, and so are we every moment he’s on-screen.
There are many things that make Iron Man 3 great: a story rooted in character yet rich in theme. A twist so sharp it’ll leave you stunned that they ever went there. More overt comedy than any MCU movie at the time had ever gone for. Meanwhile, the action scenes are still some of the best in the franchise. Do you like Iron Men? Well if not, you’re in the wrong franchise. For the rest of us: there are armors and lots of them.
There’s a ton packed into the film’s running time, and yet it still delivers on all its promises. With Avengers having set the bar for an MCU movie unreachably high, Iron Man 3 wisely takes its cues from the events of that movie, building off the enthusiasm of moviegoers while telling a personal story that wouldn’t benefit from the inclusion of Captain America (except in the sense that all movies would benefit from the inclusion of Captain America).
It’s arguably the first time that the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave some extra space to a director to really put their stamp on the franchise. With the possible exception of Joss Whedon, everyone else seemed to be on a tight set of reins. Here, though, there’s no mistaking that it’s a Shane Black movie – right down to the Christmas-for-some-reason trope. For a studio often criticized for sanding directors down until they’re completely unrecognizable, Marvel Studios undoubtedly gave Black the leeway he needed to succeed.
Ultimately, Iron Man 3 works because it does actually provide a conclusive narrative arc for the story begun in Iron Man. If you only watch Iron Man, IM2, and IM3, you’ve got a story. Sure, it’s a story with a major narrative beat happening off-screen in a team-up movie, but the core journey – of Tony and Pepper, of Stark saving the world and himself, of Tony realizing that he doesn’t need Iron Man, he is Iron Man – it all tracks. If RDJ had ridden off into the sunset after this film ended, we’d have been upset but it wouldn’t have felt like unfinished business.
Standout scene: Take your pick! The “barrel of monkeys” rescue sequence has a claim for being Iron Man’s definitive hero moment, made no less impressive by the reveal that Tony isn’t even in the suit at the time. Iron Man fans are spoiled for choice during the Iron Legion sequence, which shows you around 40 amazing armor designs fighting it out at once. However, the real star has to be the Trevor Slattery reveal, which remains one of the most audacious things the MCU has ever done. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the entire film turns on this brilliantly-executed twist.
Best quip: “Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.” Like most of Shane Black’s scripts, the fun is in quickfire back-and-forth rather than one-liners, but this line (from Tony to Ty Simpkins’ Harvey) works on multiple levels. At face value, it demolishes the classic superhero parental issues trope. On another level, it exposes Stark’s own unresolved daddy issues. And on a third level, it brings you the hilarious character moment of Tony being unable to turn off his famous snark even when he’s dealing with kids. And if you’re thinking: “You got all that from one line?” Well, yes. This is why we love it.
First appearances: Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, who admittedly only comes back once more in a Marvel One-Shot where he’s being interviewed about his role in the events of Iron Man 3. But what a character.
So long, farewell: Rest in peace Aldrich Killian, aka the Mandarin, killed by an Extremis-powered Pepper Potts in a moment that gets us excited for the possibility of her finally getting her own suit of armor in Avengers: Endgame. And also RIP Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, who should have been the main villain of the piece (comic fans, go check Hall out in the fantastic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women). We also wish to lament the Iron Patriot armor, which remains surprisingly cool (though not as cool as War Machine) and all those other really awesome-looking Iron Man armors. So long, Red Snapper, we hardly knew ye.
And finally, let’s not forget to say a proper goodbye to Tony’s arc-reactor heart, which was finally fixed at the end of this movie, thus bringing the trilogy and his character arc to a meaningful close. Tony Stark himself will return in… well, lots more movies since.
It’s all connected: Aside from the obvious callbacks to Avengers‘ Battle of New York, which is responsible for Tony’s PTSD, there are a few other MCU references…
• In the opening flashback sequence, Tony brushes off Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub) so that he can swan off with Maya Hansen, not knowing that the guy will one day help save his life and build the original Iron Man armor with him, as seen in Iron Man.
• The Mandarin – or rather, Trevor Slattery – has a tattoo of Captain America’s shield on the back of his neck, only instead of a star, there’s an “A” for anarchy. It’s all part of the character.
• The accountant that Slattery murders on live TV works for Roxxon – first referenced in the original Iron Man movie but a fairly hefty part of the MCU in general, especially when it comes to the TV shows. They are what people in the biz call “legally distinct” from Exxon.
Credit check: Anyone sitting around after the final shot of the movie gets to see some fantastic end credits, showcasing key moments from the entire Iron Man trilogy with Brian Tyler’s 70s-influenced theme “Can You Dig It?” over the top, and that’s enough of a treat in its own right. But wait even longer and you get the reveal that the person Tony has been narrating this movie to is none other than Bruce Banner, Tony’s one true science bro from Avengers and the first hint we’ve had that the team are still hanging out in their downtime. Bruce’s protest at being used as a therapist – “I’m not that kind of doctor!” – falls on deaf ears. The science bros will reunite in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Are you a fan of Iron Man 3? Are there any other aspects of it that you love, or anything that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below!