10 years on, Iron Man 3 remains Marvel’s most overlooked movie

Iron Man 3
(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Everyone has a favorite MCU movie. Avengers: Infinity War, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are all generally regarded as the best MCU has to offer. The flip side is also true. If you read forums and social media for long enough, plenty will passionately tell you about how a batch of Marvel movies – Eternals, Thor: The Dark World, and Quantumania all spring to mind – are undeniable flops.

Then there’s Iron Man 3. Not quite a success (though the $1.2 billion box office would beg to differ) and not quite a failure, the Shane Black-directed threequel feels like the poster child for Marvel’s forgotten middle-of-the-road mediocrity. Upon a revisit for its 10th anniversary, it’s clear that it’s overflowing with style, charm, and charisma – something that Marvel’s post-Endgame era has been struggling to find.

You don’t have to look far to see why. "I’m the best," Tony Stark says in typically understated fashion while pirouetting into his new Mk. 42 armor early on in Iron Man 3. Robert Downey Jr. could just as easily have been talking about himself. He has never been better as the billionaire playboy than he is here, carrying the entire trilogy in spite of glaring story flaws and seeing it home in a way no other current Marvel character or actor – perhaps aside from Chris Hemsworth’s Thor – could do. The standout scene where he threatens the Mandarin by giving away his home address stands up there with one of MCU’s most badass moments and – whisper it – is a touch cooler than his "I am Iron Man" mic drop.

But he’s not all about one-liners. Downey also low-key delivers one of his best Marvel performances as a new type of Tony Stark: a manic, sleep-deprived inventor desperately clawing for new ideas and progress amid a political powder keg.

Iron Man 3

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

It’s worth remembering, too, that this is a Tony Stark film first and an Iron Man film second. It’s a bold, daring franchise transformation that could only be achieved with the time and space of a trilogy, and really digs into the mind of the man behind the suit. In a current-day MCU that anxiously dots back and forth between new origins and fresh faces, it’s oddly refreshing to see a proper arc play out across multiple movies – as it does here with Stark’s post-Battle of New York PTSD.

It's that frenzied landscape that allows The Mandarin, the shadowy figurehead leader of the Ten Rings played by Sir Ben Kingsley, to thrive. Yes, it’s a villain undercut both in this movie and in Kingsley’s latter-day return in Shang-Chi, but wasted potential still requires some quality for fans to be upset over. The threat and peril oozing through The Mandarin’s opening gambit – hijacking the American airwaves – twists Tony out of his comfort zone and is a surprisingly political force of nature – literally worlds away from the seeming galaxy-ending stakes of every present Marvel villain.

Bolstering The Mandarin’s presence is Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, the scorned peer of Stark who commands a legion of Extremis super soldiers. While it may not be as brilliantly commanding as some of Pearce’s career-defining performances in the likes of Memento and L.A. Confidential, Killian still presents a cold, hard mirror to Tony Stark’s own flamboyance. Professional jealousy is a well the MCU would return to again with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck in Spider-Man: Far From Home, but it just feels a little more authentic here – even if Pearce does get a little lost in the shuffle in the movie’s final act amid that Mandarin twist, Stark’s personal growth, and downsizing of his Iron Man arsenal.

Iron Man 3

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Even its most-maligned aspect – Tony Stark’s extended detour with young protégé Harley Keener – coughs up a few gems, namely getting Iron Man back to basics and presenting a more human, inspirational side to a cinematic universe that would soon have its head in the clouds (and in the multiverse). Then there’s the Christmas theme. It may not topple Die Hard as the best festive throwdown, but Iron Man 3 – as with the majority of Shane Black’s movies – has enough cheer and goodwill to warm the hearts of even the biggest superhero Scrooge.

Is Iron Man 3 secretly the best Marvel movie? Not quite. Shane Black’s superhero debut is an often messy, overstuffed trilogy-capper. Squeezing in Extremis, Iron Patriot, Pepper Potts, The Mandarin, double-crosses, and a presidential kidnap plot will do that to a movie. It might also leave those expecting an Avenger performing at the peak of his powers feeling a little short-changed. But when looking back at the MCU as a whole, it certainly makes a compelling argument for being the most overlooked: its Christmassy spirit and Iron Man-out-of-water story certainly sets it apart from the conveyor belt of milquetoast superhero sequels that have peppered the box office in the past two decades.

Whatever Iron Man 3’s shortcomings, its 10th anniversary offers a stark (and Stark) reminder of what the MCU is currently sorely lacking.

Now, a look at the MCU's future. Here's our guide to upcoming Marvel movies and shows, plus a run-down of everything coming in Marvel Phase 5 and Marvel Phase 6.

Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.