In the mid 2000’s, comic book films were largely becoming accepted as massive box office draws that had the potential to make or break an actor’s career. Ben Affleck was trying to distance himself from his role as Matt Murdock in the critically panned Daredevil, Tobey Maguire was hanging up his Spidey-suit for (seemingly forever) and even Chris Evans was scarred from his role as Johnny Storm in the disappointing Fantastic Four series. And before we saw Affleck dawn the mantle of the world’s greatest detective, before Tobey swung his way back into the spotlight, and before Evans would secure his role as one of the most iconic superheroes of all time- Marvel was SERIOUSLY in need of some movie maintenance.
See, with the super-hero movie genre being the new “it trend” in Hollywood since the early millennium- Every studio in town was looking for usable comic book IP to adapt in live action. This includes studios like Fox producing a large gallery of X-Men flicks, and Sony to capitalize on their goldmine of spider-man material. But what about the company that CREATED all these colorful crusaders? What about Marvel?
For those that don’t know- Marvel wasn’t always a multi-billion-dollar corporation with endless resources and Mickey writing checks. In fact, Marvel was in such dire financial straits at the time that they resorted to selling their IP film rights to various studios. This is, of course, how all of the Marvel films we had at the time were made- Marvel would sell a popular IP to the highest bidding movie studio and that studio would make the movie (for better or worse) and collect millions of dollars. And for the uninitiated, movies generate much more money than comics. And Marvel wanted in on some of that sweet sweet dough. Now, because Marvel had previously sold all their best-selling characters to multiple different studios, they themselves were not left with the film rights to characters that were known to non-comic book readers. At this time in the mid-2000’s, the public wasn’t hip to the world of superhero content. This was a time when the Guardians of the Galaxy were not a household name, and nobody knew (or cared to know) anything about characters like Vision, The Falcon, or Captain Marvel.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Marvel was struggling to find the right path to take for their live action entries.
But then- one character, one decision, one giant risk- led to the most successful and widely-known comic book franchise of all time…The MCU.
But how did we get here? Well, true believers, it all started with a movie that nobody saw coming. A movie that serves as the starting point of the entire MCU. A movie that (had just ONE thing gone wrong,) would’ve been nothing more than another failed experiment in marvel movies. And that movie is 2008’s Iron Man. And the big question today is- how does this movie hold up 15 years later? Let’s find out in today’s episode of Marvel Revisited.
IRON MAN was directed by Jon Favreau and stars Robert Downey Junior, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, and Gwenyth Paltrow. It’s the origin story of Tony Stark as Iron Man. Tony is an egocentric billionaire weapons dealer with a love for fast women and good times. But when Tony is kidnapped and nearly fatally injured by a terrorist organization, he builds a suit to keep him safe, while being a total threat to anyone else. But will this invention save Tony’s life or put a target on his back for the greedy Obadiah Stane- Tony’s second in command who aims to kill Tony and sell the Iron Man technology.
Now, if you don’t know, Iron Man was created in 1963 by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber, Don Deck, and Jack Kirby. He made his first appearance in the science fiction comic book series “Tales of Suspense” but 5 years later got his own comic book series.
The film was a wild card for Marvel, this character wasn’t necessarily a best seller and in fact, at this time he was a mostly unknown character to anyone that wasn’t interested in comics. But John Favreau had a vision for the character and an angle to introduce this new kind of hero to cinema. At one point in the late 90’s, there were talks and some development on a live action Iron Man film that was set to star Tom Cruise as Stark. And Cruise was considered for YEARS even on this production. The role of Iron Man ended up going to a newly sober Robert Downey Junior, who had previously been forgotten by Hollywood after a history of drug use and other legal issues. And to this day, Iron Man serves as the movie responsible for Downey Junior’s comeback. For real, this movie is directly responsible for Robert Downey Junior becoming the highest paid actor in Hollywood at one point. You might say he was no longer LESS THAN ZERO- ya know?
So, when this movie was made, nobody knew it would lead to the greater MCU as we have it today. But, it was always the goal. While this movie stands as a kick ass and punk rock action adventure on its own- It’s also the movie that planted the first seed for the Avengers. According to Jeff Bridges, there was no official script for the film. This means that any easter eggs for the greater MCU were thought up and added to the movie as they filmed. Marvel had faith in John Favreau as a filmmaker and knew that if this movie went well, there would be other characters being introduced in their own movies that would eventually cross-over in one revolutionary film.
And to start off that revolution, we get Tony Stark.
Tony is the CEO of Stark Tech which produces military grade weapons for the government. Tony inherited this business from his late father Howard Stark, who we don’t learn much about in this movie, but we do get the full Howard Stark treatment across later films. Tony is more than just a spoiled young billionaire though, he’s also a literal genius. He’s a brilliant engineer with money and resources to help fund his appetite for creating new defense tech. I like the way this movie is paced in general, but I really love how quick we get into the good stuff in the first act. We’re quickly introduced to Tony, and we’re flooded with context clues to tell us what kind of person he is. He’s drinking, partying with strangers, and seemingly unconcerned with his responsibility. But he’s also charming and quick-witted in a way that makes us like him right from the start. We also meet his BFF James “Rhody” Rhodes played here by Terrence Howard but later replaced by Don Cheadle who continues to play the role. Rhody is a high ranking military official, and he’s presented as the more… mature of the two friends.
Now, early on in the movie, Tony is captured by foreign terrorists who want Tony to build them a nuclear weapon. While in captivity, Tony meets Yinsen, a fellow prisoner who saves Tony’s life when a piece of shrapnel is lodged in his heart. This is where we get some good character development for Tony- Yinsen brings out some of Tony’s humanity and helps him realize that selling these
weapons makes Tony responsible for war. Tony has a moral awakening and it’s not even halfway into the movie. AND IT’S BELIEVABLE. That’s some damn good character work.
So, instead of building his captors a weapon, he builds a mark 1 version of his suit. Unfortunately, this is the end of the line for Yinsen. Tony is fully committed to his survival at this point and he’s ready to break out. And the Iron Man is born.
This suit design looks incredible and it’s a perfect homage to the original design of the iron man suit in the comics. Love it!
Tony escapes captivity but just barely. His suit gets him past the bad guys, but it can’t take him home. But Tony is saved by the US military, and he makes it back home to Malibu. With Tony having the experience he did, he comes home a new man. He decides that his company is no longer going to create weapons, but resources. Tony wants to rebrand and truly do something that makes a difference for the good and when he reveals this at a press conference- it kicks off the beginning of Old Obediah Stane’s plan to take Tony out, so he doesn’t lose control of the company.
This movie really is punk rock. The soundtrack has some heavy hitters on it such as “Institutionalized” by the Suicidal Tendencies, and a ripping score by Ramin Djawadi.
Now, these days seeing Iron Man suit up is par for the course. He can just tap a button on his arc reactor and the CGI nanotech does the rest. But seeing Tony slip into his first proper Iron Man suit in this movie STILL gives me the chills. The filming for Tony’s first suit up and his entire testing montage was mostly done practically with less digital effect than we end up seeing later in the MCU. I’d say this is one of the best and most memorable montages in all of the MCU. We get to feel like we’re part of the crew building this incredible sequence and the even more incredible payoff.
We also see that Tony has his eye on the terrorists that kidnapped him, while also growing closer to his assistant, Pepper Potts. Who we later know to be Iron Woman and the mother of Tony’s Daughter. Again, these are little qualities that make the movie shine, and it still just feels fun and exciting.
Tony’s first flight is also quite the spectacle. Jon Favreau made the genius decision to get a shot from inside the suit with tony. I love the immersive feeling of seeing Iron Man fly. Adding a reverse POV shot makes us feel like we’re inside of Tony’s helmet, and then the wide shots immediately put us back on the ground looking up. It’s so much fun. I miss being this excited.
So, Tony gets his revenge on the kidnappers (awesome scene) but meanwhile Obi is having Ralphie from A Christmas Story attempt to build a new version of Tony’s reactor.
But eventually, Obi meets with Tony’s surviving captors and gets the information he needs. I’m not a huge fan of the villainy we get in this movie, but I want to be clear- I love Jeff Bridges. I just don’t love the Iron Monger idea. So, Obi nearly kills Tony by putting some frequency blaster in his ear and it makes for a rather disturbing visual. Up until this point in the movie I’m loving what I’m getting.
I think the visual effects of this movie will prove to be absolutely timeless. After seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Favreau hired Industrial Light & Magic to work on the visual effects. When you compare the visuals in this movie to something like Daredevil, which we recently covered, the VFX are much sharper and more detailed in this movie. Personally, I think it even looks better than MUCH of the CGI that Marvel is producing today. PAY YOUR EMPLOYEES MARVEL. DO IT!
So, the final conflict (to me) is underwhelming. I respect the incredible achievement that this movie is. I think it has amazing writing, inspired direction, and very stylish visual language. But, it’s kind of like just watching a robot get beat up by a bigger robot on a dark rooftop. There’s some villainous dialogue from Obi and some heroic dialogue from Tony, and just when you think Tony is toast, he reminds Obi why he’s in charge and outsmarts him. It’s fine, like it’s not BAD. I just find this final act to be a bit of a let down to the amazing momentum built in the first half. But I DO love this teaser for War Machine right here.
Iron Man is one of those movies that stands out. It’s colorful, it’s got flare, it’s visually dazzling, witty, rugged and F***ING Intense. It was just the breakout success that Marvel needed in order to continue building their universe. This is proved by the post credit scene that showed Nick Fury approach Tony for a special project. A project intended to defend earth from any threats too big for the military. A project called- The Avengers Initiative.
If you love comics, or if you love movies, or if you love comic book movies- Iron Man is a movie for everyone. Following the success of this movie’s $585 Million box office run, Marvel began scouting for potential stars and unknowns to bring their other (at the time) obscure characters to life. Since Iron Man’s release, we’ve seen some forgettable features like The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton, but also some incredibly memorable movies like The Guardian’s Trilogy. It would be impossible to praise any of Marvel’s works since 2008 without tipping your hat at this iconic starting point.