It all started so innocently.
I’m not sure if many of the young fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe today can truly understand the ways in which Iron Man was a surprise. Every indicator was aligned against it at the time. Marvel Studios was a non-entity at the time, and Marvel Comics had only recently found success on the big screen. Ten years ago the DC characters – specifically the decades-spanning iterations of Batman and Superman – were the titans of comic book adaptations. Spider-Man and the X-Men had done well, but they were Marvel’s two biggest properties. Blade had been a surprise success (kicking off the modern age of comic book movies in its own weird way), but few outside hardcore fandom realized he was a Marvel Universe character.
And then a new studio made a movie about a C-list hero starring a washed-up old partyboy… and everything changed.
Yeah, Iron Man was a nobody before 2008. His mainstream claim to fame was that he had become such an alcoholic that he had been forced to turn the suit over to his best friend in the Demon In A Bottle storyline, an example of Marvel’s long-running urge to include real world social issues in their funnybooks. But that was a defining story for Iron Man – he was a boozer, sporting three day stubble under his golden helmet.
And Robert Downey Jr? It’s almost impossible for a young person today to grok this, but Downey was DONE in 2007, when this movie started its real life. His history of substance abuse and acting out had landed him in jail; he was considered such a risky hire that he couldn’t get the proper insurance to work on movies.
Maybe the only marquee element in Iron Man was the director, Jon Favreau. And even Favreau wasn’t what he had been a few short years earlier; a warmly received actor, his SWINGERS was a cult phenom, but his leap to blockbusters – Zathura, a movie I quite enjoyed but maybe no one has seen – was a disaster. On the outside it looked like Marvel, this nascent studio for the first time taking control of their own properties, was getting people on their way down. But Kevin Feige, whose name is going to end up on the wall alongside people like Barry Diller, Michael Eisner and maybe even OGs like Louis B Mayer, saw that he was getting people who had something to prove.
And they proved it.
What’s remarkable about revisiting Iron Man today, ten years later and a few weeks before Infinity War, the third Avengers movie and the NINETEENTH Marvel Studios film, is how good it is. Marvel built its cinematic brand on a number of things, but at the core of them all was an interest in quality. This isn’t to say that all the Marvel movies have been good, but most of them have been, and a few are actually pretty great. Iron Man is one of those.
Opening in media res with Tony Stark and his convoy being ambushed in Afghanistan before flashing back to reveal the 36 hours that got our playboy billionaire industrialist in that position, the script for Iron Man is very nimble with the exposition. The dou duos of Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum and Matt Holloway aren’t establishing a universe here, even though this movie would launch one (more than one, if you count the way everybody else has tried to copy the universe model, with no real success so far), they’re simply telling a story. And they’re telling a very good origin story, one that doesn’t feel like it’s been a hundred times before.
One of the things that Iron Man does that’s fairly novel for comic book movies at the time is that it respects the source material; most previous comic book movies had been made by people who didn’t grow up with comics, or didn’t care for them. It wasn’t until the 21st century that a generation that took funnybooks seriously (perhaps too seriously?) was in charge of bringing them to the screen. Marvel Studios understood the quality of the storytelling in the best Marvel comics, and they really understood the quality of Tony Stark’s origin and the arc upon which it set him. So they just went ahead and used it.
The opening of Iron Man is truly terrific, and I think it illuminates why Downey is so good in the role of Tony Stark. At one time Tom Cruise was up for the part (in a different, non-MCU iteration), and I don’t think he could have brought what Downey does – a deep vulnerability. It’s right there in the opening attack, when Stark’s charm and bravado melts away completely when bullets begin flying. He’s not just afraid – Cruise is good at being afraid, it’s how he sells his stunts in the Mission: Impossible movies – he’s traumatized. Watching these young men and women die in front of him is transformative for Stark in that moment, and Downey – whose life experience involves some truly humbling and perspective-shifting moments – embodies that. Even if Tony Stark hadn’t ended up in that cave, he would have been impacted forever by this moment.
But he does end up in that cave. One of the very smart things that Iron Man does is that it walks in the door with all the scifi technology in place. The arc reactor and repulsors exist; Tony just has to figure out a way to miniaturize the reactor to power his first exoskeleton. This is really clean, narratively speaking – Tony doesn’t need to invent a new thing while in a cave in the desert with a box of scraps, he just needs to improve a thing he has. This speaks to some of the film’s themes, which include shifting perspectives – from the attack through his first flight through his new understanding of Obadiah Stane and especially through his new understanding of his place in the world, Iron Man is all about gaining new perspectives, new views on existing situations. Nothing actually changes for Tony except his heart is injured; he doesn’t gain any special powers or learn any esoteric information in the cave. The wound in his emotional center allows him to see things that are already there and work to improve them.
This is common in people who go through traumatic situations, and the generalized arc for Tony Stark is of a man dealing with PTSD. It’s the main motivator for every action he takes in every Marvel movie, and it all begins in that cave – wounded, vulnerable, weak and afraid he creates a armor that he can wear to get him through the crisis. Because this is a comic book movie that armor is quite literal, but it’s also metaphorical. In that cave Tony goes from the carefree playboy to a guy who is obsessed with control, with protecting first himself, then his loved ones and eventually the whole world.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves! Let’s save that for Age of Ultron. In Iron Man Tony is still dealing with the immediate repercussions of his PTSD, and on top of that he has to be begin dealing with the consequences of his own past actions.
Breaking out of the cave is, comparatively, easy. With the help of Yinsen (Shaun Toub, who I love in this role. It’s a pleasure to see him again in Iron Man Three. Yinsen is a weird character, in that he’s a minority who sacrifices his life for Tony Stark, a plot device that is a no-go just ten short years after Iron Man came out. But I think that Yinsen is unique in that Toub gives him an inner reality that is complete – he’s not cameoing in Tony Stark’s story, Tony Stark is the guest star at the end of Yinsen’s story) Tony is able to blow past the terrorists of the Ten Rings and get back home. His second action upon returning (after getting burgers) is shutting down the arms manufacturing arm of Stark Industries.
That’s a great move, inspired by seeing his own name of the side of the bomb that riddled his chest with shrapnel. But it soon becomes clear that it’s not enough, as Stark weapons are still being used to kill innocents in theaters of war. This plays out, in my opinion, as a bit of a cheat – Tony finds out that Obadiah was secretly selling weapons to both sides in Afghanistan. I think it would have been more effective for Tony’s longterm arc if he had been complicit in these sales; between this and Iron Man 2 we end up with a lot of movies where Tony is dealing with the consequences of the actions of others.
On the other hand! There’s something interesting in the idea that Tony represents US – the people of the United States who are happy to profit from all the ways our country abuses its power across the globe. This is a reckoning that is overdue, and while Tony did not actively sell the weapons, he never bothered to find out where all that money was coming from. In fact, over the course of the Iron Man movies we see that Tony wasn’t particularly curious about any aspects of the company’s past (and often present).
That’s a perspective shift – seeing your position in a new context and understanding your role in things you thought unconnected to you. This is the first step in a larger moral awakening – caring about the impact you have on the world around you, and taking that into consideration before your own profit.
In that perspective lies heroism. I think we see Tony come to this in one of the film’s surprisingly few action scenes; after having flown back to Afghanisan to confront the terrorists using his weapons to conquer a village he is confronted with US warplanes. I argue that Tony’s actions in the village aren’t particularly heroic; he’s acting out of anger that comes from his ego being bruised – how dare these people use my tech to kill others! – and he lashes out with extreme violence. How Favreau shoots this is interesting; when terrorists have a bunch of women and children held hostage and Iron Man targets their heads, killing them all in one fell swoop, it could be played as AWESOME. Instead, Favreau shoots the whole thing with an air of menace, and the reaction of the mothers – covering the faces of their children – hammers home how brutal Iron Man is in this sequence.
In 2008 we were still in a strange place in regards to our never-ending Middle East war. Iron Man was released at a time when we were still Never Forgetting 9/11 and honoring our men and women in the service while also studiously ignoring most war reporting and feeling very uneasy about the moral mathematics of the whole thing (and yes, some of you, like me, were against it wholeheartedly from the beginning, but I’m speaking on a larger cultural level here). Iron Man’s intervention – a mix of very cool action and frightening attitude unlike any we’ve seen from Stark before – speaks to the confusion we felt at home.
But Iron Man’s solution – throw the terrorist leader to the townspeople to decide his fate – probably speaks to a more conventionally familiar and comfortable idea of American power projected overseas. Get in, beat up the bad guy a little and then let the locals figure out what to do with all the debris. But again, it’s hard to watch this sequence and feel that it’s so clean; ten years on I’m curious what those children who were held hostage, who saw the overwhelming American force of Iron Man (the movie goes out of its way to align Stark Industries with American patriotism and American interests) in deadly action, are up to now.
At any rate, there’s limited heroism here. Iron Man is never in danger, and he’s putting his own needs – to clean up the Stark weapons – ahead of everything else. But on the flight home he gets to be slightly more heroic, when he accidentally destroys an American fighter jet scrambled to intercept him. He’s still unknown to the authorities, so he’s a strange bogey that must be investigated… and shot down.
In the scene the pilot of the jet bails out, but his parachute is stuck. Iron Man, still being targeted by the other jet, has to risk his own life to save the guy. What’s interesting is that he does it by deploying the guy’s parachute, not by actually catching him. There’s a little bit of a capitalist approach to charity at work here – teach a man to fish, etc. Tony’s not just doing handouts, but he’ll give you a hand up.
We can spend time looking at the fact that the one time that Tony puts his life on the line is to save an American (I still don’t believe he felt in danger at any moment in that village), but maybe let’s save that for another revisit in ten years. Instead let’s focus on the fact that Tony’s heroism in this scene comes only when he’s not just risking his life – he’s being open with Rhodey. Post-Afghanistan Tony is armored up physically and emotionally, but it’s when he can let those emotional barriers down that he’s actually effective.
In Iron Man 2 this all comes to a head – his emotional barriers are higher than ever, and he tells Rhodey he doesn’t need a sidekick, that he wants to go it alone – but the basics of it begin in Iron Man. He’s angry and isolated when attacking the terrorists in the village, but he’s open and heroic when dealing with the jets. He’s trying to be a solo hero when fighting Iron Monger, but he’s only able to actually defeat him when he works in concert with Pepper Potts. If we wanted to go back to the metaphor of American force projection, this makes Iron Man an argument against unilateral action. But I think the metaphor is more personal, and likely rooted in Downey’s own experience with recovery – you can’t do it by yourself. Isolating and shutting others away may feel safer in the moment, but as Tony learns in Iron Man 2, the armor can kill you.
On the subject of Pepper Potts: revisiting Iron Man now it’s fascinating to see how she’s portrayed. In the post-#MeToo world this relationship would not fly, but more than that, Pepper is shown to be an exasperated and kind of nagging woman. Later films course correct this, making Pepper a competent and capable titan of industry, but in Iron Man Gwyneth Paltrow is given some weird moments and lines.
None are weirder than Pepper’s introduction, kicking Leslie Bibbs’ Christine Everhart out of the Stark Mansion. Everhart asks if taking care of Tony is Pepper’s job description, and Pepper replies “Sometimes I have to take out the trash” (paraphrased). Man, that’s nasty. It’s Pepper’s intro and it’s a moment of naked and unpleasant jealousy (and, I guess we could argue, slut shaming). I think Paltrow makes it work – she’s so charming, and she’s able to riff against Downey effortlessly – but it’s pretty gross from a modern perspective. It’s one thing for Pepper to be desensitized to Tony’s continuous paramours, or for her to feel for these women who fall under Tony’s spell for a night, but this disgust is intense. Possibly Pepper is responding to her as a journalist… but the again, this is probably a bad way to talk to a journalist you’re worried is going to write an expose.
Christine Everhart is the only person we ever see Tony Stark get busy with, by the way. Even Pepper and Tony basically just kiss like teenagers in all the films. It’s also one of the few moments of explicit sexuality in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s how unsure Marvel Studios was of their brand in 2008 – they didn’t know just how profoundly chaste all this shit was going to get (personified in the eternal virgin, Captain America. But more on him another day).
Pepper may not have the solidity she gets in later films, but she’s got gumption. She’s definitely an evolutionary form on the way out of the “hero’s endangered girlfriend” stereotype, and she will grow across the rest of the films. The stuff with her that feels wobbly in 2018 will probably be downright retrograde come 2028, but hopefully people will still be able to see Paltrow’s glowing star power through it all.
The other big star turn comes from Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, the first of the MCU’s Bad Dads. Howard Stark’s partner and friend, Stane is more of a father to Tony than Howard ever was. That’s what makes it so painful when Tony learns all of this shit, starting with the ambush, was part of Stane’s plan to get Stark Industries away from the feckless overgrown child and bring it fully under his ruthless control.
Talk about consequences: Stane’s attempt to kill Tony brought Tony to a place where he would not only kill Stane, he would actually take real control of Stark Industries and impact the bottom line.
Bridges is so good as Stane. It’s an underwritten role – his heel turn happens in an unconvincing reveal – but Bridges sells Stane both as jolly dad and evil stepfather. His bald head and booming voice make him more threatening outside of the Iron Monger suit than inside of it; watching the CGI suits battle at the end (with effects processing Bridges’ voice) you understand why previous superhero movies worked so hard to get the hero’s masks off for the big battle. You lose Jeff Bridges at the end of this movie, just when you really want him the most.
The battles of Iron Man are fascinating in how primitive they are by modern Marvel standards (that’s setting aside any CGI complaints one might have. This movie was mid-budget, and it was ten years ago). Hell, one of the movie’s set pieces is just Tony learning to fly and accidentally icing up – classic adventure material, not action material. Rather than a non-stop cavalcade of set pieces, Iron Man serves up each action sequence individually, with plenty of character time between them. The movie feels almost slow paced by modern standards, a drama with a comedic edge, punctuated by action at times.
I like that feeling, and I think that the future Marvel movies used this as sort of a blueprint. There’s more action in the later Marvel films, but the stuff we always remember are the scenes between characters. It’s the characters and the actors who play them that create the solid foundation of the MCU, not the pre-viz artists and FX whizzes who bring the superhuman stuff to life. In fact Iron Man sets the MCU standard that the third act is always the least interesting part of any MCU movie (with a few exceptions, like Civil War). Acts one and two of Iron Man are rock solid and well-constructed; act three is perfunctory and, while fun, has a quality of pointlessness driven by the fact that Tony achieved his arc for this movie before battling Iron Monger. He doesn’t have much else to learn in the end, just a couple of lessons to implement.
But now I’m getting nitpicky. Yes, there are hiccups and shortcomings, but as a whole the first Iron Man is simply marvelous. It doesn’t do a great job of establishing the MCU – Howard Stark’s involvement in Project Rebirth is omitted, SHIELD is brand new, SHIELD agents are basically the Men In Black and are kind of goofy – but it does a phenomenal job of establishing what the MCU movies will be. They’ll be respectful adaptations of the source material that put the characters first, that rely on the charisma of the stars to paper over a lot of stuff, that will always juggle light and heavy tones, often within a scene, and they’ll always have intriguing themes predicated on the idea that Marvel heroes have feet of clay.
Most of all Iron Man is fun. We like these people, we like this world, we like that suit. It’s a joy to sit through this movie, which is light on its feet and has a lot of heart for corporate synergistic content. That, in the end, is what the changing of the guard means most for comic book movies, as evidenced by this film. The people who grew up on comics didn’t feel the need to show up and elevate them, as Christopher Nolan did with his Batman films. They didn’t feel the need to look down on them, or not take them seriously, as pretty much every previous non-Richard Donner superhero movie did (let’s argue about how much Burton took Batman seriously another time). With Iron Man Marvel Studios announced a new era where the source material would be not just respected but appreciated – there was no need to distance themselves from four color storytelling. Nobody involved in the making of Iron Man saw themselves as better than Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. They saw themselves as keepers of these characters and these stories, and their willingness to rely on what had worked before allowed them to be very, very successful here. And for the next ten years.