Robert Downey Jr. received three solo projects as the MCU’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. Marvel Studios kicked off their new shared universe with 2008’s Iron Man, introducing audiences to Downey Jr.’s genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, Tony Stark, who became the superhero known as Iron Man after being taken captive by the Ten Rings and shown the error of his ways. Downey Jr. appeared as Iron Man in ten MCU projects, but only three of those were solo features putting his armored superhero front and center. Even so, Iron Man quickly became one of the most iconic, high-profile, and beloved superheroes in the MCU.
By the time the MCU’s Avengers first formed, Iron Man was by far the most developed hero in the franchise, having already been featured in two solo projects: 2008’s Iron Man and 2010’s Iron Man 2. Iron Man 3 released in 2013, concluding Stark’s trilogy and allowing Downey Jr. to appear in other heroes’ stories rather than appear in a rumored Iron Man 4 project in the MCU. Joined by his supporting cast, Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, and Don Cheadle’s “Rhodey”, a.k.a. War Machine, Iron Man was a staple of the MCU. Here are the MCU’s Iron Man films, ranked worst to best.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Although far from the MCU’s weakest project, Iron Man 2 doesn’t do much in service of its titular hero. After being introduced in Iron Man, Downey Jr. reprised the role both in the post-credits scene of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and 2010’s Iron Man 2, with the latter developing his character further ahead of Marvel Studios’ first crossover event, The Avengers. With a screenplay written by Justin Theroux and Favreau returning as director, Iron Man 2 introduced new characters, including Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, but not all of these faces were done justice.
Iron Man 2 falters by trying too hard to set up future storylines for the MCU rather than giving substance to its characters in the moment. Hammer and Vanko feel like “cookie-cutter” villains, posing an annoyance rather than a major threat. Perhaps Iron Man 2’s most interesting story – Stark battling with his mortality – was all but ignored to save space for high-action sequences. The introductions of Johansson and Cheadle – replacing Terrence Howard as Rhodey – and the return of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury were high points but weren’t enough to save Iron Man 2 from being regarded as the weakest link in the trilogy.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
The MCU’s Phase 2 reintroduced Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the wake of the events of 2012’s The Avengers, starting with bringing Downey Jr. back to the franchise in Iron Man 3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s Shane Black replaced Favreau as director, and while Iron Man 3 is one of the more controversial releases in the MCU, some major aspects prove it was the best start to Phase 2. In previous Iron Man projects and in The Avengers, Tony Stark had started to play second-fiddle to his superhero persona, so Iron Man 3’s choice to focus on the man behind the mask was a brilliant move.
In the wake of the superhero spectacle of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 saw Stark be a simple human, struggling with PTSD and balancing his work and personal life while trying to deal with a terrifying terrorist threat. While this side of Iron Man 3 is incredibly strong, and despite Guy Pearce’s powerful performance, Iron Man 3’s villain was disappointing. Many expected the trilogy’s conclusion to pay off Iron Man’s Ten Rings hints, and while the Mandarin appeared to debut, Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery was soon outed as a fraud. The drama and humanity of Iron Man 3 are brilliant, but the film’s lackluster villain is hard to ignore.
Iron Man (2008)
The cultural impact of the MCU is undeniable, and none of it would have been possible had Iron Man started things off strong. Marvel Studios needed to adapt the iconic Marvel Comics character on the big screen in a way that would stay true to the source material while also modernizing the hero, and Iron Man walked that line perfectly. While Iron Man grossed less at the box office than its successors, the film is widely regarded as one of the most significant projects not only in the MCU but in modern cinema as a whole, even being selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2022.
Vibrant visuals captured the essence of the Marvel Comics source material as Robert Downey Jr. suited up as Iron Man for the first time, facing the Ten Rings in Afghanistan, and his father’s former partner, Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, back in the United States. Despite being an action-heavy storyline, Iron Man never relents on its character study of Tony Stark, showing a drastic personality change over the course of the film as he moves away from weapons manufacturing to superheroism. From beginning to end – including its memorable post-credits scene – 2008’s Iron Man is by far the strongest of Robert Downey Jr.’s MCU trilogy.