The Iron Man trilogy may not be the most beloved set of films within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s most certainly been an important one for the franchise. After all, there really wouldn’t be an MCU without the first Iron Man movie, which not only helped revive Robert Downey Jr.’s acting career, but also helped put Marvel Studios on the map. As with everything in the MCU, each film in the Iron Man trilogy has a variety of callbacks to Marvel comic books, as well as a host of cameos and other hidden details. Much like with our breakdown of the best Easter eggs in the Captain America movies, we’ve broken down the best hidden details found in the Iron Man films that you may not have noticed upon first (or repeated) viewings.
Iron Man (2008)
Invincible Iron Man Theme Song
The original Iron Man (2008) movie helped make the former B-grade Marvel superhero a household name, but there had been previous attempts to adapt the character from the comic page, such as the Invincible Iron Man cartoon from 1966. Iron Man includes a nice callback to that series, as you can actually hear the cartoon’s theme song playing during several scenes: when Tony Stark is in the casino at the beginning of the film, in Stark’s bedroom at one point, and as Rhodey’s ringtone.
The Ten Rings
While Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, the Mandarin, wouldn’t officially make an appearance until Iron Man 3 (well, sort of), his organization the Ten Rings plays a prominent role. The leader of the group is Raza, who can be seen fiddling with an ornate gold ring on occasion. In fact, Tony Stark, Obadiah Stane, James Rhodes, and Raza all wear rings in the film, symbolizing the power each character wields. In the comics, Raza is not actually an enemy of Iron Man, but rather an alien cyborg and leader of a space pirate gang known as the Starjammers. The only thing they share is a facial disfigurement — in the comics, Raza has implants on the left side of his face, whereas in the film, Raza is scarred on his right side. Finally, the end credits sequence features an animation of the Ten Rings logo.
Burger King Beat Drugs
When Tony returns to the United States after months spent in captivity, his first request is to grab an American cheeseburger. According to Robert Downey Jr., this story beat was inspired by real life events. In an interview with Britain’s Empire Magazine, Downey Jr. specifically thanked Burger King for helping him get clean back in 2003. As the story goes, the actor was eating a burger from the chain in his car, which was full of drugs at the time, and the burger tasted so disgusting that it made him rethink his life, and dump all the drugs in the ocean. Of course, his character’s epiphany (to no longer sell weapons) is a bit of a different scenario.
Captain America Shield Protoype
About 1 hour and 25 minutes into the first Iron Man, there’s a scene in which Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) walks in on Tony removing his damaged armor. In the background of this scene, you’ll spot Captain America’s shield (well, a prototype version anyway) sitting on a workbench. This same scene was actually used in the trailers for the film, but the shield was edited out. Cap’s shield would show up again in Iron Man 2, but you already knew that.
Fitting Musical Accompaniment
Around the halfway mark, there’s a scene where Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) plays a classical music piece on the piano. The piece was written by eighteenth century composer Antonio Slieri, most famously known as the jealous rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There have been theories that Salieri murdered Mozart, but historical records have proven this false; in fact, both composers had collaborated and promoted each other’s work on several occasions. If we stick to the Salieri as bitter, potentially murderous rival story though, this parallels nicely with Stark and Stane’s relationship in the film.
A Christmas Story
Early on in the film, Tony tells a young child wearing glasses that he loved him in A Christmas Story (1983), an obvious allusion to that film’s main character Ralphie. Interestingly, the actor who played Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, served as an executive producer on the first Iron Man and also played a small role in the film as the Stark Industries scientist who tries and fails to recreate the Arc Reactor technology for Obadiah Stane.
In the same scene where Obadiah plays the Salieri piece, we see him give Tony some pizza from New York City, in a box marked “Ray’s.” New Yorkers will recognize Ray’s as being a famous chain of pizza places in the Big Apple, but what you may not have realized is that this is also the second film directed by Jon Favreau to feature the chain. In his 2003 Christmas movie Elf, Santa Claus recommends Ray’s Pizza to Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell).
It’s no secret that Tony Stark and Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes graduated from MIT together and we see confirmation of Rhodey’s affiliation with the school during the scene where Iron Man flies with a pair of F-22 fighters. During the phone call between Stark and Rhodes, you can spot a big gold ring on the hand Rhodes is using to hold the phone. This is MIT’s class ring, otherwise known as the “brass rat.” Another bit of cool trivia in this scene is that the pilots flying the F-22s are codenamed Whiplash ‘1’ and ‘2,’ a nice nod to the Iron Man villain who would make his debut in Iron Man 2.
During the highway battle between Iron Man and Obadiah Stane, a.k.a. Iron Monger, there’s a building in the background sporting a Roxxon logo. Marvel fans will recall that Roxxon is a notorious petrochemical company from the comics known for illegal activities. In fact, Roxxon agents were responsible for the deaths of Stark’s parents (in the Cinematic Universe, it’s revealed in Captain America: Civil War that Bucky Barnes/HYDRA are responsible). A fictional counterpart to the Exxon Corporation, Roxxon is later referenced again in Iron Man 3, with the Mandarin capturing and executing a Roxxon executive as retribution for an oil tanker spill, inspired by the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Around the 1h 50 mins mark, just before Tony Stark holds his “I am Iron Man” press conference, he can be seen reading a newspaper with a grainy, amateur photograph of Iron Man on the cover. That is because this picture really was taken by amateurs. It’s actually part of a video shot by some onlookers who were hiding in a bush during initial filming. The video hit the internet in 2007, well before the film’s theatrical release.
What S.H.I.E.L.D. Stands For
Considering it’s the very first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man is pretty light on the shared universe setup work, but the film does introduce us to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Phil Coulson, both of whom would become important fixtures in subsequent films. Throughout Iron Man, Coulson (Clark Gregg) repeatedly refers to his organization as the ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforement, and Logistics Division,’ finally shortening it to S.H.I.E.L.D. near the end of the film. What you may not have noticed is that S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for something different in Iron Man than it did in the comics. Originally, it stood for ‘Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage/Law-Enforcement Division,’ but it was changed to ‘Strategic Hazard Intervention/Espionage Logistics Directorate’ in 1991.
Iron Man 2
In addition to learning to speak some Russian and studying Russian history, Mickey Rourke’s preparation for his role as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash involved making his character’s tattoos as authentic as possible. Vanko’s tattoos reference various things, such as his Russian heritage, prison societies, and special clubs Rourke figured he would be part of. He also initially had a tattoo of Loki on his neck, but it ended up being removed in post-production because the film’s producers feared it would confuse fans into thinking Whiplash had a connection with the character. As for Rourke’s favorite tattoo, that would be the on Vanko’s torso that shows a Russian schooner bordered with Russian script that translates to: “Give a blonde, a bottle, and a boat, and I’ll sail away …”
As revealed in the opening sequence, the year of Anton Vanko’s defection to the United States was 1963 and this was no accident. This is actually the same year in which that character first appeared in the comics as Crimson Dynamo, a Soviet supervillain sent to America to sabatoge Stark Industries and defeat Iron Man in battle. Vanko would later defect to the U.S. after losing to Iron Man and the two would eventually become friends, with Vanko later sacrificing his life to save his former adversary.
Kate Mara Cameo
She’s a pretty big name now but back when Iron Man 2 came out, Kate Mara was still a relatively unknown actress, which is probably why we totally forgot that she’s even in the film until we started doing research for this article! About 10 minutes into the movie, Tony Stark is served a subpoena by a U.S. Marshal played by Mara. As a little bit of added trivia, Tony asks Mara’s character where she’s from, to which she replies “Bedford.” Kate Mara was born in Bedford, New York.
Tony Stark shares some similarities with real life billionaire inventor Elon Musk, so it’s hardly surprising that the Iron Man trilogy contains several references to Musk, including a cameo! Musk appears in the Monaco restaurant scene in Iron Man 2 and upon meeting him, Tony Stark remarks that Musk’s Merlin engines, which are the propulsion engines SpaceX uses on its Falcon series of rockets, are “fantastic.’ Musk responds by claiming that he’s drafting a concept for an “electric jet,” something that he actually started working on in late 2015.
In addition to his cameo, Musk’s SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, California stands in for Justin Hammer’s factory; in fact, the people walking in the background are actual employees.
Larry Ellison Cameo
Elon Musk isn’t the only billionaire to show up in Iron Man 2. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, turns around the 10 minute mark during the Stark Expo scene. As he walks past him, Stark says, “It’s the Oracle of Oracle.” Ellison’s cameo is fitting, given that he’s a billionaire playboy who often draws comparisons to Tony Stark, and his company’s brand is displayed throughout the film, with the climactic showdown between Iron Man, War Machine, and Whiplash taking place at the fictional “Oracle Biodome.”
Justin Hammer’s Weapon Nicknames
It’s a crying shame that Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer wasn’t give a more prominent role in Iron Man 2 (and a straight-up crime that he hasn’t appeared in any subsequent MCU films), as he steals every scene he’s in. His best exchange is easily the scene where he shows off some of Hammer Industries’ less-than-impressive weaponry to Rhodey. He refers to a Minigun as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a reference not only to the movie and song of the same name, but also to Vietnam War. During the war, the Douglas AC-47 “Spooky” attack plane was armed with very similar Miniguns and soldiers gave them the nickname “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Hammer also makes a big deal out of his “Ex Wife” bullet, at one point claiming that, “If it were any smarter, it’d write a book, a book that would make ‘Ulysses’ look like it was written in crayon.” This joke is based in some truth, as Ulysses author James Joyce’s eyesight became so bad while he was writing the book that he had to start writing in large letters using crayon on giant sheets of paper in order to see what he was doing.
About 47 minutes into the film, Tony Stark is shown looking at a photo of Ivan Vanko being arrested. This an actual media photo of actor Mickey Rourke being arrested on drug charges when he was younger.
Iron Man 2 is widely considered to be one of the lesser films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a lot of that has to do with the film having to balance its central story with studio-mandated setup work for future films in the franchise. Many of these references are pretty obvious: Tony uses Captain America’s shield to build a reactor, there are news reports depicting the campus battle from The Incredible Hulk, and the post-credits scene involves Agent Coulson discovering Thor’s hammer in a crater. However, one MCU Easter egg you may have missed is the Tesseract, which would go onto to become an important item in both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. The powerful cube makes a brief appearance in the scene where Tony is watching old film reels of his father. In one of Howard Stark’s notebooks, there’s a sketch of the Tesseract, but drawn in the form of a so-called “Schlegel diagram.”
Iron Man 3
Tony’s Martial Arts Skills
Near the beginning of Iron Man 3, there’s a scene where Tony Stark strikes a wing chun wooden dummy called a mook jong. This is a nod to Robert Downey Jr.’s real life training in wing chun, a Chinese martial art emphasizing striking and grappling. Downey has trained under Sifu Eric Oram for years and showed off his skills prominently in Sherlock Holmes (2009). The actor has not only incorporated wing chun into some of his action scenes in recent years, but also claims that it helped him get over his drug addictions.
The Mandarin’s Tattoo
Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin sports a tattoo on the back of his neck that looks a lot like Captain America’s shield, but instead of a star at the center there’s an anarchist “A.” Another bit of iconography that you may not have noticed with the Mandarin is that on his right pinkie, he’s wearing the same ring worn by Raza in the first Iron Man movie, which helps to establish the connection between the Mandarin/Aldrich Killian and the Ten Rings.
Chinese Theater Attack
The attack that takes place outside of the Chinese Theater is significant not only because it results in civilian casualties and injures Tony’s close friend and chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), but because of where it takes place. At one point, the man who carries out the attack is sitting right next to spot that bears the hand-prints and signature of Robert Downey Jr. in real life.
Throughout Iron Man 3, Tony has to contend with several of Aldrich Killian’s Extremis-powered henchmen and although they seem like throwaway characters, each one is based on a minor villain from the comics with totally different backstories. Savin (James Badge Dale), a.k.a. the douchey guy who is responsible for putting Happy Hogan in the hospital, is based on they cyborg assassin Eric Savin, aka Coldblood, who does not have ties to any one particular Marvel comic. Taggert (Ashley Hamilton) — the guy who self-destructs and bombs the Chinese Theater — is based on Jack Taggert, aka Firepower, who in the comics is of African-American descent and actually has his own armored suit to fight Iron Man with.
Finally, Brandt (Stephanie Szostak) is based on Ellen Brandt, who in the comics is an agent of AIM and romantically linked to biochemist Ted Sallis. Unfortunately, things take a dark turn after Brandt betrays Sallis and attempts to steal his research, as Sallis ends up turning into the Man-Thing and gets his revenge on his former lover by burning her face with corrosive acid. In the film, Brandt has minor scars on her face as a homage to her comic counterpart.
The Vision Easter Egg
Tony Stark’s A.I. JARVIS (Paul Bettany) wouldn’t become The Vision until Avengers: Age of Ultron, but his transformation is subtly referenced in Iron Man 3. During the scene where Tony, Pepper, and Maya (Rebecca Hall) are in Tony’s house discussing the giant stuffed bunny sitting in the living room, you can see that Tony has hung a stocking for JARVIS. This Easter egg is pretty awesome in and of itself, but is made even better by the fact that the stocking is red, green, and yellow, the same colors as The Vision. We wonder if he still puts the stocking out at Christmas time …
Star Wars Homage
This Easter egg isn’t exclusive to Iron Man 3, but it’s worth bringing up because it’s great and we can’t believe we never noticed it until now. In a 2015 interview, Feige pointed out that every Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 movie features a character losing an arm. Apparently, this was initially unintentional, but soon became an homage to Star Wars and that franchise’s penchant for hacking off limbs:
- In Iron Man 3, Aldrich Killian loses an arm during his battle with Tony Stark.
- In Thor: The Dark World (2013), Loki cuts off Thor’s arm.
- In Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014), it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes lost his arm during his fall from the train in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
- In Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Gamora cuts off Groot’s arms during their initial fight on Xandar. Fortunately, he’s able to grow them back!
- In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ultron cuts off Ulysses Klaw’s arm while trying to buy vibranium from him.
- Finally, in Ant-Man (2015), Yellow Jacket loses one of his arms after it shrinks before the rest of his body begins shrinking uncontrollably while fighting Scott Lang.
- According to Kevin Feige, every Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 movie has an homage to the “Star Wars” series in the form of a character losing an arm:
Liverpool VS. Chelsea
Following the hilarious scene where Tony discovers that The Mandarin is actually a character played by an actor named Trevor Slattery (who is played by the fantastic Ben Kingsley), Slattery is shown watching a game of football between Liverpool and Chelsea. It is implied that Slattery is a Liverpool fan, as he cheers after Daniel Agger scores a goal and makes the score 3-0. This was a real game played between the two clubs but the film messes up the timeline a bit because it actually took place on May 8, 2012, whereas Iron Man 3 is set around Christmas time.