Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is well underway now, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s certainly… different. In a good way? No, probably not. The franchise is trying to find its footing in the massive universe it created in the wake of Avengers: Endgame. The culmination of the “Infinity Saga” marked the franchise’s peak of power, becoming the second-highest grossing film ever released and (kind of) ending ten years of storytelling.

However, since Endgame, the MCU has lost a bit of its glamour. While the older films had a zest and personality that made each experience new and attractive, the Phase Four films and Disney+ miniseries feel like they are just cashing in on the fandom they’ve created rather than trying to make something ambitious and new. They feel uninspired.

The irony, here, though, is that the MCU has a film that directly deals with the topics they are currently experiencing: Iron Man 3. A film that just simply doesn’t get the credit it deserves as being what I believe to be in the conversation for best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yeah, I said it. Iron Man 3 is the best of the best in the MCU.

The film is truly overlooked for its focus as a character piece of probably the most interesting and complex character in the MCU. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) started the franchise with Iron Man back in 2008, and he has been the foundation of the MCU ever since (well, until he made a heroic sacrifice to destroy Thanos for a second time in Endgame). And no other Marvel movie gets into the psyche of the “hero” like Iron Man 3.

Directed by Shane Black, Iron Man 3 is the first film after the groundbreaking 2012 film-slash-crossover-event The Avengers. The film’s beauty is its contrast with its MCU counterparts (including The Avengers); it’s a deep character study of a hero rather than a smashmouth action movie. Iron Man just saved the world by flying a freaking nuke through a freaking wormhole, so everyone now looks up to him as a savior. Let’s be honest, though, that shit would get to your head a bit! That’s the exact topic that Iron Man 3 sets out to explore. What makes a hero? What makes someone “super”?

A hero is supposed to be this amazing, perfect being that exhibits few flaws and is capable of anything. Tony likes to act exactly like that. He lives in his beautiful mansion on the Malibu coast, does anything he cares to do and hides himself in his handy dandy super suits. But what’s really going on with Tony? He’s a human being experiencing real mental health problems, and he’s not invincible.

This is where the real genius (intended or not) of Shane Black’s storytelling comes from. What’s the best way to get to the real psyche of a lofty person? Well, take away everything that makes them lofty. Let’s blow up Iron Man’s home, destroy his suits, take away the people (and AI) he cares about most, and put him in the middle of nowhere Tennessee. Who is this guy now? Who is Tony Stark, really?

At his core, Tony wants to be able to know and control everything. That’s why he builds. He can fix and control anything with his suits, but you know what he can’t do on his own? He can’t protect his loved ones from a multiverse of aliens, gods and superheroes. Because all he is is a guy with a lot of money and a cool suit. That terror, that anxiety of powerlessness plagues Tony all throughout the Infinity Saga until his final moment of sacrifice and reconciliation.

But, still, it’s here in Iron Man 3 that the MCU plants the seeds of Tony’s crippling internal conflict that is being a hero expected to save everyone. He faces villains who can regrow and replace pain at a whim, yet he himself can’t. His conflict isn’t a physical pain; it’s internalized.

I truly don’t think people understand just how unique of a superhero movie Iron Man 3 is, and that is a shame. It’s a superhero movie in which the superhero is a broken, egotistical guy stripped of everything that makes him super. It’s a superhero movie in which the main conflict is an internal one. It’s a superhero movie (namely an Iron Man movie) in which the superhero is rarely even in his suit. It’s a superhero movie about what’s under the suit, not about the over-the-top action that comes with the suit.

There are so many lessons the MCU can learn from this film, but one I find especially prescient is to just trust a filmmaker. The Phase Four content seems so caught up in engaging with every aspect of the universe that it loses any personality as a singular piece. Give the reins to the filmmaker! Look at what happens when you let Shane Black, James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) or Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) just do their thing. You get some of the most compelling and interesting movies in the franchise! And guess what, Marvel – you had the amazing Chloé Zhao and you took the reins from her, resulting in the shallow and confusing Eternals, which had such astounding potential it hurts to see the final product.
Iron Man 3, on the other hand, is an incredible movie that deserves more respect and acclaim than it gets. It gave a distinct, interesting personality to a character that would lead the MCU for years to come. It is because of a character study like Iron Man 3 that the end of Endgame works so well. It’s because we understand the character. We understand the man behind the suit.

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