Iron Man might feature a mesmerizing performance by Robert Downey Jr. and kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that doesn't entirely save it from a weak villain or falling apart by the third act.
Director: Jon Favreau
Summary: After being held captive in an Afghan cave, billionaire engineer Tony Stark creates a unique weaponized suit of armor to fight evil.
It would be hard to look at Iron Man, 10 years old today, and not appreciate how astounding the fact that this is the first stepping stone. This was the movie that started a multi-billion-dollar film franchise. It would help bring comic book style continuity to the big screen and spawn a media empire unlike anything we've ever seen. It cannot be denied how important this movie is to the cultural landscape and how much the world has changed since it came out. However, it's also impossible to ignore that, despite how influential it is, the production is far from perfect.
This isn't to say it's by any means bad. The character work between all of the main players works (except for one, but we'll get to that), and the chemistry between everyone works perfectly. Downey Jr. truly made this role his own and changed the character in ways that even Marvel couldn't have predicted. The suit is almost perfect page to screen transformation, and 10 years later the special effects more or less hold up. Jon Favreau clearly had a ball bringing this character to life, and the action beats, particularly the ones in the beginning and the middle, are solid.
That being said, the focus on the characters, world-building, and action means that the villain practically gets kneecapped. Jeff Bridges's Obadiah Stane is the first one of many Marvel villains who seems to go crazy for apparently no reason. He goes from wanting to assassinate Tony Stark to wanting to do the deed himself and jumping into his own suit to scream like a lunatic. The final action beat between the two suits isn't great to watch and just can't compare to the other action scenes at the beginning. Once Iron Man frees Gulmira, the entire movie feels like it should be ending — and the third act can't help but feel like a letdown.
The rest of the movie is compelling and fun enough that no one seems to really care that the movie nearly falls apart by the third act, but the idea to shelve the villain hurt the movie overall. It meant that Stark himself was much more the main player compared to the DC movies at the time (which were much more villain-driven), but that didn't mean they needed to shelve Stane entirely. This movie has a great script and they could have easily come up with another way to have Stane turn out to be the bad guy other than hand-waving his insanity away like it wasn't a big deal. It set a bad precedent for the other movies and has nearly kneecapped other movies in the franchise — including its own sequel.
Iron Man is a movie that's impossible to review in a vacuum. You cannot look at the movie itself without looking at the movies that have come out afterwards. You cannot look at Iron Man without thinking of that weekend in May four years later where we woke up in a world where The Avengers got up on screen and worked. We cannot look at Iron Man without thinking about the present day, 10 years later, with a third Avengers movie that unites all sides of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Whether or not the movie entirely holds up is irrelevant the same way it's irrelevant if 1989 Batman holds up, or Superman holds up, or any other genre-reshaping production. It's moved beyond being a singular movie to being something more than that and, despite the flaws, it's still one hell of a ride a decade later.