In 2008, the superhero film was in full swing. The Spider-Man and X-Men franchises were bonafide successes, Spider-Man breaking many box office records. Batman Begins premiered three years earlier and showed the world that a hyper realistic approach to superheroes can work on many levels and the financial success of the Blade films (well, the first two anyway) was still fresh on Hollywood’s minds. Marvel characters were the beneficiary of many of these successes, but Marvel comics, the company, was left on the back end of the financial windfall as just a licensor.
While Spider-Man and the X-Men were critical darlings and money magnets, Marvel had no creative control over their own characters. Marvel had to watch as Daredevil, Hulk, Elektra and the Punisher were thrust into failed scripts and subpar productions. While money makers, even the third installments of X-Men and Spider- Man fell far below expectations quality wise, leaving a stain on the characters’ marketability. Marvel realized that to protect the integrity of their characters they had to guide the cinematic futures of their unlicensed characters themselves. Enter Marvel Studios and Iron Man.
Iron Man was a risk. He wasn’t considered an A-list character by many fans, in fact, he was not as well known as Batman or Spider-Man outside the Wednesday warriors who drive Marvel’s publishing success. The book had, at best, been a mid-range seller for decades, but Marvel was convinced the story of Tony Stark was perfect for their inaugural film.
Imagine if Iron Man failed. There would have been no Thor, no Captain America, no Avengers. The upcoming excitement and anticipation for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man would just be a fan’s pipe dream. Many people from fans to studio execs wanted previous superhero movies to be good, Iron Man was the first film that HAD to be good or the dream of a shared superhero film universe would have been dead.
To direct the film, Marvel turned to an unlikely talent. Jon Favreau began his connection with Marvel by playing Foggy Nelson in Daredevil. Favreau did not seem the likely choice for a movie that would be steeped in heavy metal action, but his quirky sensibilities and his ability to keep even the most fantastic narrative human made Favreau the perfect choice. Tony Stark would be another issue.
Stark was a complex character. A man of tremendous power and ambition with an almost god like ego. Yet, all these characteristics would need to be combined with a very human vulnerability. Previous Iron Man films had been connected to the likes of Tom Cruise. But for the right Iron Man movie, the Iron Man that had to be both human and larger than life. Marvel turned to Robert Downey Jr. Christopher Reeves will always be the actor most associated with a superhero, but Downey is now a close second.
Downey is not an impressive physical specimen, but Iron Man doesn’t need to be. Stark’s power is in his mind and, by extension, his armor. Downey portrays Stark as a man haunted by his past deeds, a man who sees greatness in himself and expects the world to be just as great as he is. Downey’s Stark, with his ego and his frailties, would become the relatable center of the Marvel cinematic universe. Iron Man would reignite Downey’s once bright acting potential and in turn, his charm and presence allowed Marvel to go beyond the confines of just one film.
Downey’s Tony Stark is complete character, filled with quirks and foibles. The film shows Stark as a man capable of building advance weaponry in a cave, yet he is afraid to be handed things by another human. He is part Howard Hughes, part Bill Gates, part James Bond and wholly Tony Stark.
Iron Man’s pacing is textbook. The first act deals with establishing Stark as a weapons designer who considers himself invulnerable. He is too driven and too sure of himself to see consequences and he feels the world only exists to serve his brilliance. The first ten minutes of the film establish this and the rest of the first act’s purpose is to tear this away.
Stark’s two most defining relationships are with Yinsin, the brilliant inventor who nurses Stark back to health and his personal assistant Pepper Potts. Through Yinsin, Stark learns why his path as a weaponeer is the wrong one and through Pepper he sees a future worth fighting for. Throughout the film, Stark carries a generous helping of self-loathing. It seems almost as if he considers himself unworthy of Pepper, despite his brilliance, so he puts on the veneer of the playboy to push her away.
This is deep character stuff for a movie that could have easily descended into mechs and ’splosions. Iron Man’s second act sees Stark abandoning his identity as a weapons maker as he becomes a responsible futurist. This brings him into conflict with his partner, friend of his deceased fatther, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Stane serves as the perfect foil for Stark. Obadiah Stane is proud of being an Iron Monger, a man who profits from death. Jeff Bridges brings Stane to life and Favreau defines Stark’s and Stane’s relationship not only through their rivalry but also through their past. Throughout the film, Stark and Stane banter like only two old friends can. Little, nuanced moments like Stane bringing Stark a pizza from New York makes Stane’s eventual betrayal that much more personal.
Favreau keeps all these conflicts grounded through the relationship of Pepper, wonderfully played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Tony. No matter how fantastic the action gets, a quick exchange between Pepper and Tony grounds the narrative, keeping everything human and relatable.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the first Iron Man was the sense that Iron Man was living in a bigger world, something confirmed by Samuel L. Jackson in the film’s post credit sequence. Throughout Iron Man, the script is peppered (no pun intended) with little references to some familiar aspects of the Marvel Universe.
S.H.I.E.L.D is introduced through Agent Phil Coulson who would, of course, go on to play a huge role in The Avengers. The terrorist group that kidnaps Stark in the first act is called The Ten Rings, a reference to the Marvel villain, The Mandarin, a bad guy who is about to make a huge impact in Iron Man 3. Fans know that Stark’s pal James Rhodes, played by Terrence Howard, becomes the hero War Machine, an event that is promised through Rhodes’ unforgettable line, “Next time, baby,” when he sees a prototype grey and silver Iron Man suit in Stark’s lab. There is the post credits sequence, where Nick Fury shows up and says the two words capable of sending fans into paroxysms of joy, “the Avengers.”
Yet, none of these things derail the story. These are subtle little moments designed to make the universe bigger without taking away from the film’s identity or voice. Iron Man was something that had not been seen before. It was a character journey fraught with personal peril and challenges. Stark undergoes the hero’s journey and transforms himself from a selfish egoist into an altruistic futurist. That is what the film is about, and the first Iron Man succeeds so well in establishing character and conflict that it set up the possibilities for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. This didn’t happen without Favreau’s perfect pacing or Downey’s charm, or the electric back and forth banter between Stark and Potts. This didn’t happen without a sense of realism and humanism combined with the fantastic elements of a comic book universe.
As fans look forward to entering phase two of Marvel films, let us not forget the brilliant and well thought out film that started it all, the film that opened fans, finally, to a larger world, Iron Man.
Den of Geek Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars