The Marvel shared cinematic universe first came online with 2008’s “Iron Man.” There’d been many other Marvel Comics properties adapted as films (“X-Men”, “SpiderMan”, “Hulk”) but “Iron Man” was the first that was deliberately designed to be part of a greater whole.
It’s a universe that (10 years and 19 or so movies later) shows no signs of winding down anytime soon. In fact, with this year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” , “Black Panther”, and a sequel to “Ant-Man” (“Ant-Man and The Wasp”) just released theatrically this week, there seems to be no end in sight. But “Iron Man” was the first, and remains one of the best.
“Iron Man” smartly eschewed the heavier, morose tone of other superhero movies that were very popular at the time (Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight trilogy) and adopted a more nimble playfulness that captured the best of the Marvel books that I used to read as a kid back in the 1970s.
Last night, my wife and I put “Iron Man” on the blu-ray player for old times’ sake, and it was as entertaining as ever, still holding up with the even the best of the current Marvel crop.
**** IRON MONGER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD ****
* The Story.
Tony Stark (the role Robert Downey Jr. was born to play) is a genius engineer and filthy rich playboy who makes the bulk of his Stark Industries fortune in the arms trade.
Following a successful demonstration of the new Jericho missile system in the Afghanistan desert, Stark is captured when his return convoy is ambushed. Stark is almost killed when tiny barbed fragments (from his company’s own weapons) nearly pierce his heart. The captive Stark’s life is saved in an Afghani cave, with the aid of a kindly professor named Yinsen (Shaun Toub, in a memorable performance). Yinsen surgically embeds a crude, car battery-powered electromagnet in Stark’s chest cavity to prevent the barbs from entering his heart. Stark later refines Yinsen’s design into an ‘arc reactor’, a scaled-down version of his company’s own energy creation technology. The self-sustaining arc reactor in his chest allows the injured Stark some measure of physical independence.
Under the thumb of a brutal local warlord (who happens to be a Stark Industries client), Stark is ordered to create a new Jericho missile in exchange for life. Realizing he’ll be killed anyway, Stark crafts a plan to escape; he and his faithful ally Yinsen will appear to work on a Jericho missile while actually creating a crude prototype for an “Iron Man” suit. Stark will use the suit to escape, and free Yinsen in the process. Things don’t quite go as Stark timed, and Yinsen is killed. A vengeful Stark then mows down his captors and uses the suit’s rockets to propel himself from the caves into the open desert. Utterly exhausted, Stark is then rescued by US forces led by his longtime Air Force buddy Rhodey (Terrence Howard).
Upon returning to the United States, Stark has changed. To the shock of everyone, he holds a press conference to announce that he wants to get Stark Industries out of the arms business after seeing how easily his works fall into the wrong hands. What he doesn’t yet realize is that his longtime business partner Obadiah Stane (a vaguely Lex Luthor-ish Jeff Bridges) is double-dealing with the very people Stark escaped from.
With his loyal aide/associate and budding love interest Pepper Potts (a disarming Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark begins working on newer, more streamlined versions of his Iron Man suit. The Mark II suit’s test flight over the evening SoCal coastline is a moment of pure, unbridled comic book joy.
Stark eventually settles on a suit with a bright candy apple red paint job, and gold-titanium highlights (!). Even Stark’s self-aware computer system JARVIS (think Batman’s Alfred downloaded into HAL9000) drily quips on its ‘inconspicuousness.’
As their relationship begins to gain momentum, Pepper gifts Tony with his now glass-encased mini-arc reactor that he used to escape from the Afghani desert (now superseded by a more advanced version). She teases that it’s a reminder that he does indeed have a heart.
Stark, as Iron Man, flies back to Afghanistan to free the captive Afghan town of Gulmira; the hometown of his deceased ally and friend, Yinsen. He leaves the fate of the brutal, captive warlord in the hands of Gulmira’s now liberated townspeople; “He’s all yours.”
Returning to US air space, Stark is nearly killed by Air Force jets until he calls Rhodie and confesses that he is the ‘bogie’ in their sights. The jets call off their attack after Stark rescues an ejected pilot.
The incident is then quickly covered up as a ‘training exercise.’
A conflicted Pepper realizes the man she cares about is now playing world vigilante with his newfound technology, but she reluctantly agrees to help him when she realizes that it was Stane who engineered Stark’s capture in Afghanistan, so that he might permanently run the company without interference (or ethics).
Stane then goes full-on maniac at this point; immediately killing off his Afghani warlord client (who was in danger of double-crossing him), and then stealing Tony’s mini-arc reactor right out of his chest after using a sonic stunning device to temporarily paralyze him. Stane needs Tony’s reactor to power his own much larger version of the suit (the “Iron Monger”) in a final bid for personal power.
Without his chest’s arc reactor, Stark nearly dies until he finds Pepper’s gift and shatters the glass. The older, cruder prototype arc reactor doesn’t have the power of the more advanced stolen unit, but it’ll have to do.
What happens next is a high-flying Iron Mano-a-Mano battle all over Los Angeles, with Stane’s bulkier, “less conservative” suit taking on Stark’s nimbler, smarter design. Brains wins over brawn (“Icing problem?”) as Tony, with Pepper’s invaluable help, destroys Stane by sending him Emperor Palpatine-style into the exploding core of the full-scale arc reactor at Stark Industries. The explosion saves L.A, but causes a temporary citywide blackout in the process.
At a press conference designed to give him an alibi regarding his whereabouts, Stark (against the advice of everyone) outs himself to the world; “I am Iron Man.”
A post-credits coda sequence has Tony meeting an eyepatch wearing Samuel L. Jackson as “Nick Fury, director of SHIElLD”, and an expanded Marvel cinematic universe is born.
What still works about “Iron Man.”
* The tone.
“Iron Man” was quite different from other cinematic superhero films of the time. Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (2003) was very brooding and dour. Despite Ang Lee’s flourishes (i.e. the comic book-panel editing effects), “Hulk” was surprisingly unentertaining. Nolan’s excellent Dark Knight trilogy was also very dark in tone, which seemed to fit that particular film series. But “Iron Man” was the first superhero movie since Disney’s wildly underrated “The Rocketeer” (1991) that seemed to genuinely enjoy itself with a bare minimum of brooding.
Yes, there is that heavy, almost Christopher Nolan-feeling first act set in war-torn Afghanistan (a change from the 1968 comic book’s Vietnam), but once the movie returns to the States, it hops back into the Funvee. Multiple screenwriters tackled the script (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway) yet it all flows together seamlessly under director and “Happy Hogan” actor Jon Favreau (“Chef,” “Swingers”). The flirtatious dialogue between Pepper and Tony has a bouncy, 1930s screwball comedy feel to it, with overlapping Robert Altman-style line delivery that feels almost improvised at times.
* Characters and casting.
Robert Downey Jr. simply is Tony Stark. The Oscar-nominated actor (1992’s “Chaplin”), armed with his trademark lightning-fast quips & effortless charm, sets the tone for so many heroes in the subsequent Marvel films. His charisma comes not just from his cockiness, flirtatiousness or smarts; it also comes from his vulnerability.
Tony Stark makes mistakes. He trusts the wrong people (Obadiah), and he occasionally screws up (Yinsen’s death, his misfires with the early suit prototypes, his insensitivity towards Pepper). Despite his engineering genius and his glib humor he is capable of error, and that vulnerability only serves to make him all the more appealing. Stark isn’t Superman, or even Bruce Wayne.
Gwyneth Paltrow (an Oscar winner, for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love”) makes the character of Pepper Potts a memorable one. What could’ve been a thankless ‘loyal secretary’ role is realized as a full character. Pepper has her frustrations, but she is gifted with a competence that can handle just about anything Tony Stark throws her way.
Paltrow’s scenes alone with Downey’s Stark are downright electric and have all the crackle & chemistry of a Hepburn/Tracey comedy classic.
Jeff Bridges (yet another Oscar winner, for 2010’s “Crazy Heart”) as Obadiah Stane also gives the typical ‘villain’ role a bit more than it might’ve otherwise merited. While his Lex Luthor-look certainly telegraphs villainy, there are moments earlier on where you sincerely feel Stane’s frustration at Stark’s capriciousness and devil-may-care attitude. One can understand how working with such a partner would easily erode Stane’s patience. There is also a paternal vibe between Tony and Stane which Bridges really sells. It’s quite possible to imagine a pre-woke Stark trusting Stane as a father figure.
Able support is also provided in Shaun Taub’s Yinsen. He is played with a quiet dignity, deep intelligence and sadness reminiscent of Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Itzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List” (1993). It’s not hard to see his character having such a life-altering effect on Stark.
Marvel cofounder/writer/demigod Stan Lee also has a cute, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him turn as Hugh Hefner.
If there is any misstep in casting, it’s arguably Terrence Howard’s version of Rhodey. The fraternal bond between he and Downey isn’t quite there, for some reason. And even if there hadn’t been the behind-the-scenes drama that led to Howard not returning to the role in the sequels, it was a wise idea to bring Don Cheadle in to take over as Rhodey. Cheadle’s own warmth and humor is a much better fit with Downey’s. It’s just a shame that he wasn’t in the role from the start. But my issue with Howard is a relatively minor nit in an otherwise flawlessly cast film.
* Relevant political/social commentary.
Surprisingly, we’re still in Afghanistan ten years after this film was released (far longer than the Vietnam war of the comic book’s origins), and the power struggles between the elected Afghani government with the various warlord factions is similarly ongoing. The issue of war as grimly profitable business is every bit as relevant (sadly) now as ever. Former US president (and former World War 2 general) Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the dangers of an out-of-control military-industrial complex still rings true.
In that regard, 2008’s Iron Man could’ve just as easily have been released this year. Only Tony’s clunkier-looking video phone would give it away.
While there are a few real-life Tony Starks in our world (Elon Musk comes to mind) and cleaner hybrid (and even all-electric) cars are dotting US highways, there isn’t anything quite as revolutionary as Stark’s arc reactor on the US energy production landscape just yet. If anything, our current leadership is skewing backward towards the dirtier energies of coal and petroleum, so that dream seems to be dashed for the present. A real shame.
* Keeping it simple.
Upon rewatching the film last night, it’s surprising to see how relatively uncomplicated the film is compared to the later Marvel cinematic universe. This streamlined plotting allows for many smaller, quieter moments that we don’t quite get enough of in later Marvel films. This isn’t necessarily a slap at the newer movies in the series, just a sigh over their increasingly burdensome complexity. Anyone can jump right in to watch “Iron Man”; not everyone can so easily jump right into “Avengers: Infinity War.”
* Movie physics.
Even for a superhero film, some of the ‘movie physics’ of “Iron Man” are more than a bit ridiculous. Tony Stark is essentially an ordinary man under his super-powered suit. Yet we see him repeatedly slammed into (and even through) walls without so much as a bruise, let alone any broken bones. While testing his suit’s thrusters, an unprotected Stark is slammed into one of his lab’s concrete walls. In anything close to the real world, such an impact would’ve likely left him paralyzed.
Stark also flies to very high altitudes that cause his suit to ice over, yet he is perfectly warm inside (?). The form-fitting metallic suit also doesn’t seem to offer much in the form of protection, insulation or even basic life-support. Jet pilots have to wear oxygen-masks at such altitudes. Yes, oxygen can be liquified for compacted storage in life-support systems, but the suit shows no apparent room for any such life-supporting apparatus. Stark flies directly from California to Afghanistan, which is roughly 7,500 miles (12,070 km) away, yet he seemingly flies there nonstop (to and from) with little-to-no life support. Oh well.
Sometimes you just have to accept the fantasy, and move on.
For a movie as entertaining as “Iron Man,” I am perfectly content to suspend my own disbelief. As the title song to “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” reminds us to repeat to ourselves, “I should really just relax…”
Post-“Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” (a quasi-sequel to director Ang Lee’s disappointing “Hulk” of 2003) was released a month later, and it would also tie in to the then-embryonic Marvel cinematic universe. Having two related movies released only a month apart from each other was very ambitious for typically risk-averse Hollywood, especially in those days.
“The Incredible Hulk” wasn’t as successful as “Iron Man”, but the combined haul of both easily paved the way for more Marvel movies to come.
The Iron Man sequels.
I won’t go into the entire post-Iron Man Marvel franchise (I don’t have patience or time enough to do that in a single post), but suffice it to say that the two direct sequels to “Iron Man” manage to keep the rest of Marvel’s Avengers more or less out of the action. The same can’t quite be said for some of the other Marvel properties (“Thor Ragnarok” and “Captain America: Civil War” come to mind) as their increasing interdependency becomes an asset or a handicap, depending on one’s preference.
“Iron Man 2” is a muddled, unfocused mess of a movie, saddled with a standard issue wronged-bad-guy-seeking-revenge story that doesn’t fly quite as breezily as the first film. Tony’s descent into alcoholism is an interesting development borrowed from the graphic novels, though it’s resolved a bit too easily. Don Cheadle’s recast Rhodie is certainly welcome, as is the character of “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson) into the Marvel cinematic universe, though her potential in IM2 is largely wasted. Not a big fan of the one-note portrayal of Russian big bad Ivan Vanko (aka “Whiplash”) though Oscar-winning actor Mickey Rourke was excellent in 2008’s “The Wrestler.” Fellow Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell is also wasted as a comically corrupt senator. Tony’s inventing an entirely ‘new stable element’ is a bit much, even for a comic book adaptation. Entertaining in fits and starts, but more consistently disappointing.
“Iron Man 3” (cowritten and directed by “Lethal Weapon” scribe Shane Black) gets a lot of flack over its controversy regarding “The Mandarin,” mainly that the popular villain of the comics was split into two separate characters (neither of whom are Chinese). This was indeed a questionable choice, though I’ll admit I kind of enjoyed the misdirection of it (and Ben Kingsley was hilarious). I also liked the idea of the hero losing everything important to him in the middle act, and having to claw his way back up. His scenes with the young midwestern boy Harley (Ty Simpkins) ground both the film and the Stark character. Giving Stark an acute case of post-tramautic stress disorder (following the events of 2012’s “Avengers”) was a compelling idea, even if it’s disregarded a bit too conveniently. The Air Force One rescue is arguably the movie’s showstopper sequence. IM3 is arguably better than IM2, though it’s not entirely successful either.
Neither “Iron Man” sequel is as solid as the inspired original.
Summing it up.
The original “Iron Man” works just as well today as it did when it revolutionized the superhero movie genre ten years ago. The film’s lighter, more humorous tone is the template which so many superhero movies followed. It’s hard to believe that the prevailing attitude for superhero movies in the pre-Iron Man days was ‘darker is better.’ The opposite seems to be true today. Take a look at the steadier success of Marvel’s films versus the more problematic box office of DC’s darker efforts.
I’m not knocking an edgier approach (2008’s “The Dark Knight” is one of my favorite comic book adaptations, in fact), but “Iron Man” proved that every once in awhile it’s okay to go to a superhero movie to simply have a good time. The movie struck that near-perfect balance, providing enough gravitas to feel epic and worthwhile, while never forgetting to simply entertain and have some fun.
With pitch-perfect casting of its leads, streamlined action, still-relevant commentary on the dangers of a runaway military industrial complex and served with a generous helping of charm, “Iron Man” still remains a favorite of mine from the Marvel stable.