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 Stand 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 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.
  • Anthony M

    Brian, we may not ever be able to talk again. I consider “Iron Man 2” the MCU’s worst movie.

    Yes, the stakes were higher. But it’s also less fun. And horrifically paced. And dull as dishwater. And the screenplay is booooooooring. And the villains were dull.

    Sure, the villain in the original “Iron Man” was also dull. But then, the MCU movie universe has exactly one good villain, and that is Loki (I mean, I guess I liked Yellowjacket but I don’t see him making sense in more than one movie). I’m not giving “Iron Man 2” the villain award over the original.

    The original was good because the screenplay was clever, the plot fast-paced and exciting, and RDJ’s performance simply perfect. The other two movies never reached the greatness of the first. “Iron Man 2” was dull as dishwater; “Iron Man 3” was entertaining but extremely dumb, though honestly I enjoyed myself much more watching it than at just about any point during “Iron Man 2”.

    Gonna have to disagree with you on this one.

    • “Gonna have to disagree with you on this one.”

      That’s OK. You can be wrong 😉

      Note, though, that we start on the same track–scrutinizing the films’ merits–then your comment diverges into subjective territory by the end.

      “I enjoyed myself much more watching it than at just about any point during ‘Iron Man 2’.”

      That’s…interesting, but I didn’t methodically analyze the Iron Man series to find out which one I liked more. That could’ve been done just by watching them passively.

      I set out to identify which installment is the best made movie. The correct answer is Iron Man 2.

      • Anthony M

        Partially, but not totally. Higher stakes, for example, don’t make the film objectively better. EXECUTED well, they do, but then the stakes in “Iron Man 3” were probably the highest of all of them. That doesn’t mean they were executed well.

        And I think you’re not giving full consideration to screenplay and pacing. “Iron Man” was far better paced than its immediate sequel, and the dialogue was much more quippy and clever. These aren’t small things; “The Avengers” had a dumb plot, but was brilliantly carried almost entirely through character interaction and dialogue.

      • Anthony M


        That’s…interesting, but I didn’t methodically analyze the Iron Man series to find out which one I liked more. That could’ve been done just by watching them passively.

        I submit that this is an error – a SUBTLE error, but an error nevertheless.

        Art is meant to be enjoyed. This didn’t happen, but pretend “Iron Man 2” bombed. Really bombed. Nobody enjoyed themselves watching it; like with me, the word dull was used a lot.

        Grant that everything else you said about the three movies is true. Can a movie that fails at its main purpose – entertainment – still be said to better than a flawed movie that more people actually liked watching?

        Because while the extreme of my article isn’t true, it’s also no secret that “Iron Man 2” is almost universally considered one of Marvel’s worst movies – and “Iron Man” one of its best.

        My evidence: http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/the-marvel-cinematic-universe-movies-ranked-from-worst-to-best.html/?a=viewall

        (Note that of twelve movies “Iron Man 2” is down at eighth best)


        (“Iron Man 2” last)


        (“Iron Man 2” last)

        Obviously this tells us nothing objectively, since everything you’ve said is true. But I submit that if “Iron Man” is so consistently rated as the far superior movie to “Iron Man 2”, and “Iron Man 2” is so consistently placed near the bottom of Marvel’s best of lists…that should tell us SOMETHING. It’s not doing its job as well as “Iron Man” did as entertainment, at least.

        Want to go by something other than critics (tomato and metacritic ratings heavily point in “Iron Man’s” favor)?

        91% of the audience liked the original film and gave it 4.2 of 5 stars.

        72% of the audience liked “Iron Man 2” and gave it 3.7 of 5 stars.

        None of this, of course, makes anything you said wrong…not on its own. But the fact that one is apparently doing, not only a better job, but a significantly better job at entertaining people than the other, we should at least look at why, and see if the reason factors into things.

        Which is why I submit that you’re giving “Iron Man”‘s screenplay too little credit. The plot is dumb, but the dialogue they gave RDJ is excellent.

  • Foxfier

    The villain in Iron Man 1 wasn’t designed to make sense– he’s a straight up copy from real life. I’ve run into several of these guys– I actually think of it as the male version of the evil Queen in Sleeping Beauty. Mirror mirror, on the wall, who’s the most powerful of all? As long as the power of the other is yoked to theirs, it’s fine– but if they start being an effective bother, offering a real challenge… gotta go.
    It doesn’t make “story sense,” it’s just someone you recognize, or you’ve been fortunate enough not to meet.
    Disagree on the fake Mandarin being a deal-breaker, but agree on the “dude, the only reason you have a job is those folks. Respect them, and respect your source material.” Which is why I’m not bothered by the fake Mandarin– I don’t think the character would be done justice in that situation.
    The old saying is wrong; a hero isn’t made by the villain, a hero is made by the challenges— usually, that’s going to be the villain. And it’ll be singular, because that’s easier.
    But they didn’t do that any of the movies– it was one dang thing after another, you overcame it well BANG!!! too late!
    And that’s why you’re right that Civil War is the best Iron Man film. Holy cow, character development AND action and WOW and ZOMGA and Captain America curling a helo!
    Wait, was that last one typed out? 😉

    • Winter Soldier: Cap beats up a plane.
      Civil War: Cap beats up a helicopter.

      Just imagine what he’ll beat up next! (I’m hoping it’s a tank.)