The Marvel Movies Debrief: Iron Man Recap, Legacy and MCU Connections

We look back at Jon Favreau's Iron Man – an initially risky prospect that became the starting point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Iron Man (2008)

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This is the first article in a new series, where we’ll be revisiting all of the Marvel Studios movies over the next few months ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame. It contains major spoilers for Iron Man and the wider MCU.

“Truth is…I am Iron Man.”

Tony Stark’s blistering admission (infamously improvised by star Robert Downey Jr.) at the end of Marvel Studios’ first movie is arguably one of modern cinema’s most iconic closing lines. Little did we know at the time, it would also kickstart one of the biggest, most ambitious movie franchises of all time: the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe. But while Iron Man’s critical and commercial success seems like a no-brainer now, it certainly wasn’t back in the summer of ’08…

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Iron Man may have been one of Marvel’s most popular characters, but it’s fair to say he didn’t have the pop-culture clout of, say, Spider-Man or the X-Men. A movie adaptation had been in development as early as 1990 but despite the best efforts of three different studios (Universal, Fox, and New Line) and numerous directors and stars (Nic Cage, Tom Cruise, Joss Whedon, and even Quentin Tarantino all reportedly flirted with the property at some point), no one could quite make ol’ shellhead fly.

The rights reverted back to Marvel in the mid-00s, and Iron Man finally began development under the company’s newly installed head of production, Kevin Feige, with Jon Favreau as director and Downey Jr as the lead. At the time, that casting was also a bit of a gamble –  Downey Jr.’s star had fallen considerably, thanks to his well-documented off-screen troubles.

But Favreau went to bat for his leading man. “We didn’t want to just go with a safe choice,” the director said at the time. “The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark.”

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Luckily, it’s a gamble that paid off. Rewatching Iron Man with the benefit of hindsight, Downey Jr. was an inspired choice – and not just because of the art-imitating-life aspect of the casting. Tony Stark shouldn’t be an easy guy to like, what with his “laundry list of character defects” – entitled, arrogant, irresponsible. But RDJ channels every ounce of his fast-talking, quick-witted charisma from the start, making us warm to Tony even before his moment of reckoning.

It’s a crucial part of why the fall-and-rise story works – we want Tony to get back up. His kidnap at the hands of terrorists in Afghanistan is an experience that fundamentally changes him; he sees the error of his ways, and decides to set himself on a better path. It’s the ultimate redemptive arc.

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read more: Complete Guide to Marvel Easter Eggs in Iron Man

Iron Man is, at its core, a fairly simple origin story. But, thanks to Favreau’s handle on the character and unfussy direction, it’s one that’s as slick and pacey as one of Stark’s flashy cars – unburdened by some of the more labored universe-building of later MCU installments. There’s plenty of heart to go with the action, too, mostly thanks to two underrated performances: Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Tony’s loyal PA and love interest, and Shaun Toub as Yinsen, Tony’s life-saving cellmate who helps build the cumbersome Mark 1 suit and acts as the budding hero’s moral compass.

In fact, Iron Man’s weakest link is still its villain. While a bald and bearded Jeff Bridges is clearly having lots of cigar-smoking, scenery-chomping fun as Stark’s business partner turned Iron Monger, Obadiah Stane (check out the “BOX OF SCRAPS!” scene), he’s not given much in the way of development, mostly acting as a cipher to facilitate Tony’s third-act transition to fully-fledged superhero. It’s a problem that would go on to plague the series – after 20-odd films, you can still probably count the MCU’s memorable big bads on one hand.

What’s really striking about Iron Man, though, is how grounded it feels now. Yes, it’s a film about a guy flying around in a metal suit, but given the increasingly cosmic nature of Marvel’s output, there’s something charmingly lo-fi about the first big-screen adventure of the MCU’s elder statesman. It’s aged surprisingly well, too – keypad phones, MySpace references and all…

Standout scene: Tony’s first proper outing in the red-and-gold suit, as he touches down in Gulmira to save the hostages from the Ten Rings henchmen. It’s a short, sharp, punch-the-air dose of payback, as Tony faces off against his former captors. From the iconic sounds of those hand repulsors to the “He’s all yours” finale, it’s a belter of a scene; more ground-level than some of Iron Man’s more recent MCU dust-ups, admittedly, but all the more thrilling for it. A new hero is born.

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Best quip: Pepper Potts [to journalist Christine Everhart after a sleepover with Stark]: “I do anything and everything Mr. Stark requires, including occasionally taking out the trash…” A savage comeback from Ms. Potts, there – while Downey Jr. might win on sheer quantity of one-liners, Paltrow has a few real zingers of her own.

read more: Marvel Movies Watch Order – A Complete MCU Timeline

First appearances: This being the first Iron Man movie and the starting point for the wider MCU, there are a lot of key introductions (as with most of the Phase One movies). So, well as Tony and Pepper, other major characters making their first appearance are Clark Gregg’s SHIELD staffer, Agent Coulson; Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury (more on that below); advanced artificial intelligence JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany); and Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Tony’s best friend – played here by Terrence Howard but replaced in future instalments by Don Cheadle.

So long, farewell: Obadiah Stane, we hardly knew ye. His fall into the arc reactor is a pretty definitive end for the Iron Monger, confirmed when we learn Coulson is spinning his death to the media as a plane accident. More poignantly, we also say goodbye to Tony’s cellmate Yinsen, who makes the ultimate sacrifice to buy Stark some time to power up the Iron Man suit. “Don’t waste your life,” he tells Stark before he goes. Sniff.

It’s all connected: There are quite a few key plot points here that will be expanded on as the series goes on…

• Check out the newspaper clipping in the introductory montage, which reports the death of Tony’s parents, headlined: “Howard and Maria stark die in car accident on Long Island.” The date? December 17, 1991. That event is central to the plot of Captain America: Civil War.

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• “Next time, baby…” Rhodey decides to leave Stark’s discarded silver suit for the sequel, where he finally becomes the superhero – and future Avenger – War Machine. No next time for Howard, though – whatever actually happened between him and Marvel, Cheadle certainly went on to make the role his own.

• The terror group, The Ten Rings, is a nod to Iron Man’s comic-book nemesis, The Mandarin – a baddie who wears 10 rings that grant him a variety of powers, from energy blasts to high-speed vortexes. Favreau reportedly left him out of the film to keep the action more grounded, although he does sort of come into play later on…in Iron Man 3.

• “This isn’t my first rodeo,” Coulson tells Tony, as he project manages the cover-up of the finale’s fantastical events. Could the events of the ’90s-set Captain Marvel, which features a younger Coulson, shed some more light on his early hero-wrangling?

Credit check: “You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet…” Ah, the post-credits scene that started it all. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury shows up at Tony’s Malibu pad to talk to him about “the Avenger initiative”, in an epilogue that giddily portends the shared universe to come.

The complete schedule of upcoming MCU movies can be found here.

Are you a fan of Iron Man? Are there any other aspects of it that you love, or anything that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below.