Did you like the Iron Man Trilogy?  Were you disappointed?  While the first one blew people away, the second and third were somewhat of a letdown.  But how could they have been improved?

Let’s wind the clocks back to the Summer of 2008. Coldplay’s Viva La Vida is putting millions of radio listeners to sleep, the economy has just shot its own arms off, and all of your friends can’t stop talking about how every problem in the world will be solved the moment we elect Barack Obama.

But more to the point, the Summer of 2008 is poised to be one of the greatest summers for movies ever. We have the promise of a Batman sequel, two goofball comedies in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, and the impossible to disappoint, no way, no how return of the greatest adventurer of all time in Indiana Jones.

But before all that excitement could be dealt with, the Summer has kicked off with a film destined to suck: Iron Man. Directed by Jon Favreau (who was coming off the Jumanji spin-off Zathura that maybe five or six people saw) and Starring Hollywood punchline Robert Downey Jr., the film was seen as the first failure of the Summer before the big kids got up to bat.

But we all know what happened instead: Iron Man caught everyone off guard. Instead of it being a Daredevil-like bomb of a (at the time) B-list hero with a washed up actor in the lead, the film turned in over 100 million dollars in its opening weekend with critical acclaim never before seen by a superhero film.


Pictured: How to Make an Origin Story

 How did this happen? A lot of credit goes to Downey’s iconic performance and Favreau’s energetic direction, but the real clincher was a screenplay that dared to take the Superhero into the real, gritty world. As the great James Beradinelli put it in his review, “In one sense, Iron Man is really a character story with action elements, focusing on Stark’s psychological journey from luxurious ignorance to shocked awareness and how, having his eyes opened, he can no longer stand by and do nothing…Yet, in terms of their cinematic incarnations, even [Batman Begins] inhabits a pseudo-fantasy world. Tony Stark is grounded in something close to our reality. This gives Iron Man a sense of immediacy that even the fine Batman Begins does not have.”

He was quite right. I don’t like bringing in politics to an article about a drunken billionaire who shoots lasers out of his arms, but I think it’s necessary here. Whichever way you lean, 2008 was not the height of American pride. Economic crisis aside, it marked the last year of the Bush administration, and the majority of America had grown so disillusioned with the Iraq war that this film had just the amount of cynicism to hit home. Tony’s disgust with how his own weapon’s were used to kill both innocent civilians and American soldiers echoed poignantly with the audience. Later, when breaking down to Pepper about his trauma, Tony exclaims “I shouldn’t be alive.” He takes quite a strong pause before finishing “Unless it was for a reason.” Stark’s guilt was the nation’s guilt, and his determination to redeem himself evoked something in the audience that hadn’t quite been done in a superhero film.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect (Jeff Bridges’s 180° from father figure to hateful villain is one of the more egregious flaws), but at the time of its release Iron Man was practically invincible. Every comic and critic site was touting the new franchise as the savior of the genre, and by far the greatest Superhero film yet. It seemed that Iron Man was destined to hold its reign as the golden standard of comic book adaptations for years to come…

If not for a little Independent film that would be released later that year…


Maybe you’ve heard of it?

So yes, Iron Man picked a rough summer to rewrite the rule book. But hey, The Dark Knight was a sequel, able to spin a grand yarn without the necessary setup. Surely Iron Man 2 would be able to soar to new heights the same way once unencumbered by it’s weighty origin story? Maybe it might even be better than the first!

Well, what happened in between was the jettisoning of all that made Iron Man topical. In the post-credit scenes of Iron Man, Nick Fury promised that he just stepped into a completely different world. Like Berardinelli said before, part of the appeal of Iron Man was that it “takes place in our world”. Now, it tales place in a world where God’s fly around with giant hammers and New York City is constantly rebuilding from the alien attack of the week. What many forget is that Downey Jr himself was hesitant about the idea of mythical creatures like Thor being brought into Iron Man’s world. Much like Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the two just didn’t mesh.

This ended up having the worst effect on Iron Man 2. Instead of a dark followup the trailer promised, Marvel gave us a two hour long Avengers commercial with some romantic comedy shoehorned in. Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash was given one hell of a prison conversation with Stark ala The Joker in The Dark Knight, but was then promptly sidelined until the film’s overstuffed climax. What’s worse, the story wasn’t complimented by the presence of other superheroes. Rather, it felt as if the film was holding back to make other Marvel films feel included. When there was a chance to cut loose and shake things up for the franchise, Iron Man 2 took the safer route, making the film a mere placeholder film until every other Marvel hero was established and ready to take the field. The result was a film that holds zero influence on the entire franchise. Yes, this was the movie that introduced us to Black Widow.  Still, one can go from Iron Man directly to the Avengers and only really lose Pepper’s romance and the triangle on Iron Man’s chest. Iron Man 2 wasn’t a sequel. It was a non-event.


Pictured: Things That Don’t Really Matter

We all know what happens later. Avengers was an incredible success, Phase Two is a go, and Marvel keeps releasing box office hits with no end in sight. Good for them. The superhero film has come a long way and Marvel Studios is the biggest reason why.

But what if there were no Avengers? What if, like Nolan’s Batman, Iron Man belonged in a self contained trilogy of films? How would the sequels have fared without the requirement to meet up later on? What if Iron Man had the chance to tell his own tale?

It doesn’t do any real good to wonder, but here’s my go at it: Film two could have the same basic structure of Iron Man 2 minus the foreshadowing of The Avengers and the obligation to be primed and ready for the inevitable team up. Stark refuses to divulge the specifications of his Iron Man suit to the Government under the belief it will be used in the same terrible was as the first film. The arrogant Tony is later ambushed on the raceway by the vengeful Whiplash, but is able to defend himself nevertheless. The two have their conversation in the prison cell where Whiplash who, like in the film, taunts Stark that “like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” He then warns that the sharks will come for Tony now that they have seen him bleed. This time, instead of a weaselly Sam Rockwell going after Tony, the sharks take the form of something a bit more menacing. Whatever they may be, the film would end with Tony’s entire life in shambles as he heads into the third film knowing his Palladium poisoning will kill him, but he has just enough determination to set everything in his life right. It would be the dark middle chapter before the finale. Whereas the first film assured that one can redeem themselves, the second one reminds that one has to suffer for past sins first.

The third film would conclude his tale the most obvious way: his death fighting the leader of the Ten Rings, The Mandarin. Infamous Mandarin twist aside (I was actually a fan of it), Iron Man 3 left a lot to be desired as a conclusion. Tony Stark blowing up his suits and tossing his arc reactor in the ocean ran against every thing the first film stood for. Stark simply wouldn’t do this when so much work was left to be done. This third film, on the other hand, would see Tony rebuilding the legacy of Tony Stark in the moments before he would die. His final battle would be both against the Mandarin and the shameful parts of his legacy, perhaps even revisiting the very cave where he made his revelation. Finally, when the forces of the Ten Rings and all of his enemies, foreign and domestic, have been defeated, Stark can rest knowing his conscience has been cleared.


Wait… Why the Hell Did I Deal With All That Palladium Poison?

Instead of all of that, we now have a rather aimless Tony Stark storyline and a studio that will pay Downey Jr. any amount of money to keep him around. I’m a fan of the Avengers and most of the Marvel films, but I can’t help but feel that something extraordinary was missed when the studio obligated Iron Man to be less than what he could have been. Civil War and Avengers 2 may turn out to be incredible films, but to me the Tony Stark in these films no longer bears any resemblance to the first film’s guilt-ridden and desperate protagonist. Gone is the determination to set things right what he made wrong. Now we have have a slacker who would much rather stay home drinking and every once and a while blow some things up with his superhuman buddies. And, like I said before, it’s fun. More power to Marvel for making such a profitable product. But these films could have been a very timely and incredible tale that encapsulated a very specific feeling about an unpopular war. Now, every time I see Tony Stark in a film I will always wonder what might have been if Iron Man weren’t shackled to the conventions of the MCU. I will spend each subsequent film wondering about the Iron Man who would be king.

How do you think a stand-alone Iron Man trilogy could have gone? Write in the comments below!

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