Spoilers for Iron Man 3 lie ahead
When people sit down to rank their MCU movies, as we all constantly do, you can probably spot some clear trends. Avengers, Black Panther, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier usually end up near the top, Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, and Iron Man 2 usually end up near the bottom. And then a bunch in the middle. But one film divides opinion such that most people will put it at either extreme, and that film is Iron Man 3. Or as I prefer to describe it, the best MCU movie.
Please, save your outrage for later. First I’m going to try and explain to you why Iron Man 3 is, indeed, the best one. At least in my view…
1. It tells the story most superhero movies don’t
One of my favorite things about Iron Man 3 is that it’s a sequel to The Avengers. And I don’t mean notionally, in that it’s chronologically next. I mean literally, in that it takes the events of that movie and it follows up on them. Avengers takes Tony Stark, a self-interested rock star playboy, and shows him making the ultimate sacrifice. He embraces his own death to save millions of others.
Admittedly he lives through it, but unlike most action movies, he does not come out of his experiences unscathed. Iron Man 3 treats the previous film in the series not as a minor continuity blip that must be references or explained away, but as a major beat within the life of the character that he’s not going to forget any time soon. With the exception of Terminator 2 and Sarah Connor, I can’t think of a major action franchise that moves a character forward in that way. Usually, our heroes turn up and quip their way through adventure after adventure. Without getting dark and po-faced, Iron Man 3 answers the question: what would that really do to someone?
2. It has a twist that no other movie of this size would touch
So there’s a twist part of the way through Iron Man 3 that changes the whole structure of the film. (If you haven’t seen it, now’s your chance to stop reading). Essentially, the story reveals that the Tony’s foe, the Mandarin isn’t (as it first appears) an ideological terrorist leader attempting to wage war on the west. In fact, he’s Trevor Slattery, a down-on-his-luck theatrical luvvie employed by the film’s real villain – Aldrich Killian – to be the target of Tony Stark’s ire.
The reason it works is that the film plays it entirely straight up until the reveal, with Killian presented as a secondary antagonist to the Mandarin’s primary one. We can virtually see the shape of the movie: Killian and the Mandarin team up, Iron Man stops them both, exposing the evil business guy and discrediting him in the process. Instead, at the moment where this story is about to shift gears, it presents the truth – and it does so part way through an action sequence. We’re expecting a showdown. What we get is extreme tonal dissonance as a triumphant hero comes face to face with… whatever Trevor is.
This isn’t just smart writing, with the twist being subtly seeded earlier on in the movie – it’s also an incredible punchline. Everything we, as seasoned (or perhaps jaded) movie-goers, have assumed about the film is wrong. I can think or maybe two of three films with twists that surprise me like that. It’s how I imagine Star Wars fans felt during Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader uttered those four immortal words.
And while the twist works well on its own, it also sets the terms for the rest of the movie: if they can pull the rug from under the villain like that, suddenly this is a film where virtually anything can happen. I love Black Panther dearly, but did any one of us expect it to do anything other than depose Killmonger and put T’Challa back on the throne? We’ve seen these movies before. Trevor Slattery Vs. Iron Man? We have not seen THAT before.
3. It deals with The Mandarin far better than it might have
The Trevor twist also does something else unexpected: it fixes the Mandarin. This, I imagine, is the source of most people’s ire over the movie. The Mandarin is an iconic Iron Man villain: an ageless Chinese warlord with ten magic rings. Unfortunately, he’s incredibly problematic. As a racist stereotype born of a pulp tradition from a bygone era, you can’t just ‘do’ the Mandarin on screen. Certainly not in a movie where you don’t have any other significant Chinese characters to balance out the stereotypes. Certainly not without addressing the idea head on and making the movie ABOUT that.
But rather than make the movie into ‘Tony Stark learns a lesson about orientalism’, the film turns the idea of the Mandarin on its head: he’s a thinly-drawn bundle of stereotypes because he was designed to be, in order to promote the most unrest. In Iron Man 3 he’s not Chinese, but his mixture of ethnically and culturally ambiguous fashion, appearance and accent make him a blank slate for the ones people fear most. Like the comic book Mandarin, he draws on the fear of the other – he just does it without dredging up offensive racial stereotypes.
With an X, all caps. Because he does.
5. Barrel of Monkeys
The MCU is big on people saving the day in an action-cinema manner, but it’s light on anything you’d call traditional superheroics. For the most part, no-one’s stopping a mugging or catching people who fall from building unless they’ve got some investment in the people involved. In the MCU, the Avengers don’t assemble unless there’s a world that needs saving, and our heroes are rarely better than bystanders until it becomes sufficiently personal.
But Iron Man 3’s ‘Barrel of Monkeys’ scene, Iron Man rescues a group of people who have fallen from a damaged plane. Admittedly they’re collateral in a war on him, but regardless – it’s one of the greatest superhero rescue sequence ever committed to film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching Cap bust fascist heads in the name of freedom, or seeing the Guardians of the Galaxy doing the stuff they do – but superheroes saving ordinary people from disasters? That, for me, is the heart of the genre. That’s where the wonder comes from. It’s not about being stronger than someone, or even smarter – it’s about those with the power to stop a catastrophe from unfolding putting themselves at risk to do so.
6. Every joke lands
At this point, every MCU movie can credibly be called funnier than most comedies, and not just because they realise that hiring an SNL B-lister to improvize 30 takes of a single line isn’t necessarily a substitute for actual writing. If you’re being very harsh, you might complain that some of the jokes undercut the character too much. Personally, I love the hapless double act of Stark and Rhodey trying to storm Killian’s stronghold, and the effortless slapstick of the fall-apart armor, and the sharp wit of the one-liners. I even enjoy the trope-demolishing, from the kid assistant to the AIM guard who holds his hands up and, rather than getting a repulsor in the face, admits “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird.”
I mean, the film has all that other good stuff too – character and plot and style – but if this was just a comedy, that would be enough for me to have a very good time, because I’ll forgive anything in a movie if it makes me laugh. But combine these jokes with everything else? No wonder it’s at the top of my list.
7. Lots of Armor
And finally, what are we here for in an Iron Man movie if not to see the Iron Man armor? This film, if nothing else, gave us 40+ designs for a cinematic Iron Man, ensuring the continued profitability of Hot Toys well into the 21st century. I dare you to not have a favorite.
Ultimately, my fondness for this movie comes from the heart. I could keep going – talk about its themes, its idiosyncrasies, its end credits music and its post-credits scene. But if you don’t already love it, that’s fine.