MCU Retrospective: Iron Man

2008 was a pivotal year for the popular and widely successful comic book sub-genre of cinema and for Marvel Comics which possessed a largely obscure line of heroes, with the exception of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and 20th Century Fox’s X-Men. It, alongside the competition it faced from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which released the same year and a month apart both changed the way that we perceive superheroes and propelled them to greater heights. Iron Man, in particular though signified the launch of the widely attempted “cinematic universe” trend that multiple film studious such as Paramount, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox have all attempted to replicate with varying results. Overall though the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a breath of fresh air and creativity that rejuvenated the franchise model that a lot of multi-billion dollar had been using up until 2008.

Both Iron Man and The Dark Knight were representatives of the ideals of superheroes with one representing the lighter and more carefree side of comics while the other painted a darker, more thrilling, and grittier take on superheroes that hearkened back to the pulp magazine heroes of the 1930s like The Shadow and the deconstructive era of the 1980s. The common thread for both superhero outings ironically was that they had both originated from a similar characterization. They featured billionaires who technically did not have any powers except for their mind and their money to become a hero after a traumatic series of events changed them and set them on a specific track. Yes, The Dark Knight, as it stands on it’s own is an important film but in a way it was nothing new at the same time. We had already been made familiar with the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman and his story through various films and TV shows over the years and had a grasp on what Christopher Nolan was bringing to the table after Batman Begins released in 2005. Iron Man did something that no Batman film really has ever done through its own ingenuity, careful writing, and pure luck. It was a colossal risk for Marvel to throw all that they had into a B-list, but it is one that has undeniably paid off and has served as the crowning achievement for a multi-billion dollar franchise that has enthralled audiences ever since.

Iron Man was a film that was able to function through what can only be described as  unconventional means. It wasn’t reliant on a script like films have always traditionally done. The production was largely worked out from rehearsals and an outline by director Jon Favreau who already had some moderate successes with productions like Zathura before taking on the comic book project. Iron Man‘s story hit you hard and fast with very little exposition.  It hit the ground running and informed you of all of the important characteristics that define who Tony Stark is within the frame of two to three minutes compared to the amount of exposition utilized in Batman Begins in which the whole first hour or so largely was us learning who Bruce Wayne was despite the fact that the majority of audiences have a pretty solid grasp on their knowledge of the character. Stark can best be characterized as this charming and arrogant businessman with an arrogant demeanor yet we develop an attachment to him regardless because we got a cliff notes summary of who he is that we could tell would be built on and then changed over the course of the film. It was a unique and largely untested form of storytelling and character adaptation, but it paid off in spades because every comic book movie since then has taken notes from Favreau’s playbook. In some respects, you could argue he created a new methodology for how to bring these iconic characters to life just as Richard Donner did decades ago with the godfather of all superhero films, Superman: The Movie. 

Favreau like all directors, had to find a way to craft a smart, feasible, and practical  way to introduce a character like Tony Stark and his persona of Iron Man, who had largely been obscure to mainstream audiences. This challenge was one he was happy to meet and his efforts definitely paid. Of course, I do not think he would have been able to make this character work if it wasn’t bolstered by a stellar lead in Robert Downey Jr. who had emerged from years of obscurity to assume a role that he was obviously born to play. The funny thing about this though is that it was a casting decision that the studio was not initially supportive of and didn’t want at first. It took a lot of negotiating to get Downey Jr. into that classic red and gold suit that he’s grown accustomed to since then.

For the studio they had believed that Robert Downey Jr. would only serve as a liability that was far too big for them to take on. The source of their concerns was his well-publicized record of drug abuse and encounters with law enforcement over the years. He once said to a judge in court, “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.” This was indeed the person that Jon Favreau had entrusted with the colossal responsibility of carrying a film starring a second-rate billionaire superhero, but also the first independently produced feature from Marvel Studios. The studio was not willing to lose money on an undeniably controversial actor serving as the frontman who could affect its box office performance and critical reception when they pooled everything together to make it happen in the first place. Eventually, the studio budged and gave both Downey Jr. and Favreau the chance that they had been pleading to executives for.

The results of Downey Jr.’s performance were positive and many to this day could never imagine anyone else in the role. They couldn’t even envision Tom Cruise as Tony Stark anymore even though he had been considered for the role back in the 1990s when the film was first initially planned. Jon Favreau’s rationale for casting Downey Jr. was that he saw an immediate correlation between Tony’s life and Downey Jr’s. Favreau commented that, “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. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic book character having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl.” He had also believed that Downey Jr could definitely replicate that “likeable asshole” aspect that has always been synonymous with the character while being able to take us on an authentic emotional journey where he would go from being an irresponsible playboy billionaire to a mostly responsible superhero billionaire in a high tech suit of armor. This is a very familiar portrayal for Iron Man and Marvel fans in general who have read famous Iron Man stories that have dealt with the highs and lows of Tony Stark such as Demon In A Bottle, where the character struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

 

Iron Man doesn’t solely focus on Tony’s inner darkness as made evident within the early hours of the film. The audience does start out on a more lighthearted journey but it still has its dark and unsettling moments in between all of the humorous witticisms espoused by the protagonist. Tony Stark in some ways is a different take on the character of Bruce Wayne that ended up in a different place as a result of their choices. Both Stark and Wayne are portrayed as inherently selfish men who moonlight as these selfless heroes, but the difference is that Tony does not wear his ego as a mask like Bruce often does. His ego is something that he believes is authentic and he flaunts it alongside the billions of dollars he makes off of arms deals in full view of everybody. He acts unilaterally and impulsively with this weaponized suit and he makes sure that he is the only one in the world that can save the day. He wants to be the only guy in the room who has bragging rights to it and it is something he does with a trademark finesse that is all his. Tony isn’t just driven by the desire to complete the mission and being the good guy. He is this thrillseeker who wants to feel his heart race as he puts his life on the line, much to the chagrin of Pepper Potts.

At this point nobody can debate that Marvel Studios is not synonymous with success and joyous blockbusters that embrace the comic book roots of these characters, and while they occasionally and lightly tread into darker waters with them, they focus more on introducing us to likable characters, vibrant colors, escapism, and humor. Iron Man is the catalyst for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and anything that operates outside of that formula and tone such as The Incredible Hulk and Captain America: The Winter Soldier anomalies that divert from the standard MCU DNA as we’ve come to value it. Favreau was able to utilize the blueprints from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy with all of the catchiness, color, and action included, and furthered it by not only embracing the comics, but by soaring beyond the panels so the character can exist in a world with a few extra shades.

One of the most iconic and well recognizable moments in the film that Favreau used to call back to Spider-Man was when Tony was still developing the plans for his prototype armor akin to how Peter had sketched his suit before testing how it works and the early results aren’t exactly the best. Tony smashes into a wall and messes up all of his expensive cars and his underground lab which gives us a chance to laugh and learn the importance of not taking every failure so seriously. Eventually, he receives that balanced moment of flight that he was looking for and says, “Yeah, I can fly.” It’s a moment that instantly reminded the audience of that time when Peter started to really get the hang of web-slinging, but there’s an absence of gravitas to it. In its stead is a more cocky reaction to this new technological achievement, which is befitting for the character and establishes that divide that sets Iron Man apart from his contemporaries in the comics.

The charming ego of Tony Stark is one of the biggest advantages of the film and for the character himself. Tony isn’t someone who is restrained by hesitation, brooding, or uncertainty like how certain characters like Bruce Wayne or even Peter Parker are. He doesn’t seem to have that proverbial Achilles’ Heel, which may seem like a comforting thing since we have grown to like him so much throughout, but it can be boring to just have him be this unchallenged and infallible character. As expected with every great character defining origin story there has to be those moments where the character becomes unsettled by something that is going on in the world and that time of unsettling is when the hero is tested most and so is our love for them. We hope that they make the right choice with their newfound abilities, which at times have also been used to harm people. While Iron Man’s writing is smart enough to make us nearly forget some of the reprehensible things that Tony is responsible for before becoming a superhero and after it also makes us revisit it because those are center to the character and the plot. His weapons had been used by terrorists to massacre whole groups of people and now he’s using his weapons to do something similar with zero restraint and putting himself in harm’s way in the process. The story gets you to realize that there’s more to Tony’s one-man crusade against the world. You start to realize that it goes beyond the typical heroics of saving cats out of trees or turning a bunch of bank robbers into the police like the stereotypical superhero has always done. It’s a noble pursuit but not self-less. It’s an egomaniacal and semi-narcissistic effort for him to showboat who is bigger and badder, which comes with consequences. After all his Iron Man technology is eventually exploited by Obadiah Stane, who fully intended to sell it to the highest bidder.

 

In a post-9/11 world, there’s plenty of storytelling elements you can create from a catastrophic event and films such as The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and Iron Man are prime examples of that. The main villains in all three of those films were terrorists and the heroes had all arrived to similar conclusions about their roles in the world. They both concluded that all it takes is a single figure to act unilaterally to defeat the evils of the world, but through different means. The Dark Knight contemplated the darkness and destructive aftermath of that action with a treatise against illegal surveillance while Iron Man glances away from considering the aftermath of something because Tony is more of a gung-ho badass who wants to make sure that the “bad guys won’t want to come out of their caves.” He definitely cements that later on in the film when he literally flies out to some Middle Eastern country to do what he feels the the military won’t do when it comes to finding a solution for ending the War on Terror. It’s one of the most badass moments in the film that I could watch over and over again followed by the ensuing dogfight with some pilots, one whom he saves. If Tony Stark were real, it’s safe to say that he’d win every battle for the United States military and pop champagne bottles after every fight because every day would be victory day. Heck, they’d be an obsolete model, if anything.

One could argue about how both Marvel Studios and Jon Favreau never fully intended to make such a strong and compelling political statement towards the War on Terror, but it was and I don’t think that is a problem in the slightest. I don’t necessarily always agree with politics being meshed into films as it can tread into being overly annoying and far too preachy for comfort most of the time, but here it wasn’t and it made the film all that more interesting. You can tell that there’s something profound beneath the film’s rainbow colored exterior which adds to it and makes it a much stronger movie just like how comics have always been keen to throw in some subtle political commentary here and there over the years.

The execution and reception of the film as a whole was the chief concern for Kevin Feige who has overseen these films since the beginning and it is rather impressive how he was able to shepherd this universe with a film that didn’t even have a script. Yet the script was clearly a secondary concern for the studio as they had felt that the film should just get all of the coverage and publicity that it could while the editors and Favreau would work behind the scenes to polish the film during production, reshoots, and post-production. It was a bold maverick endeavour just like it was for Tony Stark to develop a powerful weaponized suit of armor that ended with both being quite successful at what they do. This type of loose development and bravado from Marvel Studios had the public thinking that this would have been another colossal dud in a time where very few comic book films were well-received by critics or the general audience. The audiences had still felt marred by Daredevil, X-Men: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns which gave naysayers a lot of legitimacy in dispelling any positivity for superhero-led media at that point. Nonetheless, it still did wonders though for it’s story and certain characters like Tony and his cartoonish but twisted father-figure turned villain Obadiah Stane, portrayed by the charismatic Jeff Bridges of Big Lebowski renown. 

Bridges’ Stane is perhaps one of my top favorite MCU villains and one of the strongest characters within the film aside from Stark because he was both a villain you could take seriously but laugh at too because of how over-the-top he would sometimes be. Some of the things that he does are straight up silly and playing towards the stereotypical mustache twirling villain. The dark side of Obadiah is particularly notable as the film builds towards his climactic confrontation with Tony, which I kept expecting to happen with every tense verbal altercation he had with him or with the terrorist who held Tony hostage earlier in the film. On the more cartoonish side he has files labeled as “secret” and “top secret” and “ultra secret.” You would think that he was auditioning for the role of  Ernst Stavro Blofeld in a James Bond movie. He utters iconically hilarious lines that only Jeff Bridges could pull off like “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” It is done in such an overdramatic fashion that you can appreciate because the film clearly set out to give us a more dynamic antagonist who could stand juxtapositioned towards the protagonist.

Iron Man had some nice unconventional touches made to it as well. You had Paul Bettany’s JARVIS as Tony’s unconventional artificially intelligent sidekick, and his relationship with his  fiery hot secretary Pepper Potts whose relationship is somewhat anticlimactic as they never kiss or take it to the next level by the end of the film like we were praying for. You could tell that Marvel Studios was happy to embrace trope-based storytelling to such a degree that they were well-versed in it while still showcasing their own signature touch. This touch would take the form of something that would be re-used repeatedly other films in the form of “hero fighting the darker version of himself.”

Above all else though was that Kevin Feige and Jon Favreau were both able to hone this film into something that would give us a sense that this film had a distinct personality and was not the whole picture, but rather a part of a bigger one. It was Marvel Studios’ biggest advantage over the distinguished competition and made it possible for the pieces on the board to get moved around and that is still the case to this day. It was a movie that was not crippled by hesitation. It took all of the right risks and showcased how distinct it was from the standard big budget films of the time by having a lead character get up and say “I am Iron Man.” By the end of his journey, Tony Stark is not the same man we saw at the gambling table at the beginning of the film. He’s someone with a newfound sense of responsibility, that’s more powerful, and has a sense of purpose, even if it is not always a selfless or rose-colored purpose. He isn’t someone who fits into that classic hero archetype box like Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman do and he doesn’t have to and nor should he be. That’s what makes Iron Man such a momentous film that showed how Iron Man and Marvel Studios were not to be underestimated when it comes to developing a smartly crafted, memorable, and lighthearted experience. They took on every naysayer in Hollywood who told them no and won without breaking much of a sweat as far as I can tell.

Now of course we know that this was not the end of the adventure. Not for Tony Stark and definitely not for the audience. We got provided with a lot more than what we were already told about when Iron Man was first announced years ago.

 

After the credits had rolled on Iron Man, you see a mysterious figure standing in the shadows lying in wait for Tony. This figure is Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson who says to Tony, “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.” He continued on to inform Tony that he was there to talk to him about the Avengers Initiative. This one little mid-credit scene would send ripples across the film industry and make way for an ever-expanding successful universe that started off from one of the biggest gambles in the history of filmmaking.

What did you think of this retrospective? Let us know in the comments section down below!