Aug 17, 2021
Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Iron Man (2008)
On May 2, 2008, history was made: that was the day Iron Man hit theaters in the United States. Up until then, superhero movies had sporadic success as standalone films and self-contained franchises, and seldom did a spin-off ever succeed.
And then Iron Man happened.
While we look at the character of Iron Man now as a heavy hitter, a money-maker, a tremendous franchise that moves merchandise, very few people in my circle of friends expected the film as being worthy of being taken seriously. Only five years earlier, we had Ang Lee’s mediocre Hulk (admittedly, some things worked, but overall it fell flat), and when I heard Robert Downey Jr. was going to play Tony Stark, I was pretty skeptical. This was a man with a history of substance abuse problems; I remember ten years prior seeing the Tommy Lee Jones film US Marshals, co-starring Downey, and all I could think of during Robert’s scenes is whether or not he was high while he filmed them. Casting an actor with a history of drug problems as an alcoholic superhero seemed ironic and a recipe for disaster.
So no one was more surprised than me when the trailer dropped…
…and I was utterly blown away. The production values were obviously top-notch, Downey was charismatic, and the plot was implied without being given completely away (unless you read the comics, in which case you already knew what 90% of the story was going to be). What further sold me was the MK 1 on display at one of the comic conventions that year.
Look at it. It is amazingly, gloriously ugly. It looks like something a guy built in a cave out of scraps. Did I dare hope that Marvel had its act together? That we were going to get a seriously awesome movie after almost a decade of what was on average (bear in mind I do mean “on average”; I’m aware there were good Marvel-based movies here and there) a collection of mediocre films from an assortment of different studios? May ’08 arrived, my ass was in the theater seat, and I was shocked. Iron Man was not the movie I was hoping for; it was better.
And really, it had to be. Iron Man had to hit more than just a home run for the Marvel movieverse to kick into gear. It had to make people believe Disney (which acquired Marvel the following year) was ready to invest a great deal of time and effort into one of the boldest cinematic experiments in history: a shared superhero universe unlike anything ever seen before. In a few scant months, we’re going to see the net result of that universe when Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters with the might of a thousand Mjolnirs and give us the culmination of a story that’s been building since we saw that golden gauntlet hanging in Odin’s trophy room.
So for the next few months, I’m going to look at every Marvel Cinematic Universe film in order of release and discuss what worked and what didn’t, and for some fun I’m going to look at what was going on in the comics at the time the motion pictures were released, and note some of the differences we saw in the adaptions and the thinking behind the changes the writers and producers made when adapting the characters for the big screen. So without further delay…
We start with Tony Stark: genius, visionary, American patriot…
…as he insists on a field test of his latest weaponry in Afghanistan. It turns out to be a big mistake, as the convoy he’s riding in is ambushed and he’s seriously wounded and captured by the Ten Rings terrorist organization. His life is saved by fellow prisoner, Doctor Yinsen…
…who fashions an electromagnet to keep the shrapnel in Stark’s chest from reaching his heart. Stark, realizing the terrorists will kill him after he builds them a weapon, comes up with a daring escape plan for himself and Yinsen, which involves the construction of a weapons system that will prove to have lasting effects on his life and the future of the world.
Redemption stories aren’t anything new, and in fact, as we look at the Marvel movies, we see it’s a recurring theme. Marvel characters have more often than not been portrayed as flawed individuals who must sometimes learn humility before changing for the better. It’s a good tale and I don’t mind seeing it again and again provided it’s done well, and arguably it’s done best here with Iron Man. Downey does a spectacular job of dropping all pretense of being an arrogant prick when in the hands of his captors; there’s no longer a smarmy smart-ass, just a man stripped of everything and finding himself in the unfamiliar position of being utterly powerless and in fear for his life, with his existence depending upon the device(s) keeping him alive. It can be hard to create a character that’s both annoying yet likeable enough for you to care about his journey; make him too irritating, and you find yourself wishing somebody would just kill him to put you out of your misery.
Fortunately, Downey has charisma to spare. Yes, he comes across as a jackass, but he’s so personable you can understand why he still has friends like Rhodey and employees like Pepper who put up with his crap. You can see why Robert has gotten so many second chances over the years, because he has the acting chops to make people believe he’s worth the investment. And to be fair, it seems Downey really has come around in the years since Iron Man. Anyone who’s heard about his taking kids to the movies on their birthdays, or presenting a prosthetic arm to a boy and becoming honestly happy when the kid calls him Robert instead of Tony shows that in a way life imitates art; Robert Downey Jr. is that self-entitled prick who almost lost it all and is now a changed man. Huh, I guess it’s almost like he was born to play the role of Tony Stark.
As to the plot, running it like a traditional superhero origin story does seem like an overly safe choice. We saw this format with Donner’s Superman, Lee’s Hulk, Raimi’s Spider-Man, Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Shaq’s Steel. But I don’t think it could have been done any other way. We needed to see the progression of Stark’s transformation, and we also needed to see the evolution of Iron Man itself in the armors, from the Mark I…
To the Mark II…
To the Mark III.
The evolution of Iron Man’s armors is an integral part of the character, and to show it out of sequence or to not give it the attention it’s due would have been a gross disservice to fans of the character.
As for the rest of the cast, let’s start with Terrence Howard. His replacement by Don Cheadle was a controversial decision, with some saying he and director Jon Favreau didn’t get along, and others saying Downey interfered with his contract negotiations. I don’t know the story beyond, well, the stories, but for me I really don’t have a lot to say about Terrence Howard in regards to his performance in the film. I have nothing against him, but his Rhodey is a little bland. I think ultimately it was a smart move to replace him with the more charismatic Don Cheadle.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts proves to be a strong counter to Stark’s overwhelming ego.
She’s intelligent and competent, able to banter with him, support him, and when called upon put her life on the line to protect him. As a rule, I don’t mind modern heroines and their tendency to be able to trade blows with men because they’re movies and it’s escapism (although I found Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde to be awesome in large part because her action sequences felt raw and gritty and looked refreshingly realistic compared to, say, Milla Jovovich in one of her husband’s films), but it is nice to also see not all heroines need to be action-oriented. Pepper’s strengths are her brains and her courage and ability to keep cool in a crisis. And I have to say I feel that Paltrow and Downey have an amazing chemistry, and I love the back and forth dialogue the two characters share. Their growing relationship didn’t feel at all forced to me.
Jeff Bridges as Obidiah Stane is pretty damn awesome. In the comics, Stane just feels like a Lex Luthor clone without a great deal of personality outside of his hating Tony Stark. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, seeing as he was created by Denny O’Neil of DC Comics fame. (O’Neil’s run on Iron Man was a mixed bag. The man loves to make rich characters poor, such as Blue Beetle and Green Arrow, and outside of Stane, none of the bad guys were really all that memorable. But O’Neil is responsible for putting Rhodey in the Iron Man armor, which would ultimately lead to War Machine, so there’s that.)
Stane is not a very interesting villain in the comics, but fortunately, Bridges does give us a bit more meat, turning him into a man who’s lived in the shadow of this brilliant but shiftless little bastard, kind of like the relationship you see between composers Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus (which, from what I understand, is largely fictional: biographical movies are a tool of education, not a replacement). It’s bad enough Stane has to rely upon Stark’s genius to maintain the company, but he has to do the day-to-day stuff to keep Stark Industries afloat.
Which I guess is one major drawback to the film’s plot. Why does Stane want to kill Stark now? Has Stark reached some sort of creative dead end? It’s entirely possible. The boozing, gambling, and womanizing Stark we see at the beginning of the film seems a far cry from the person who graduated summa cum laude from MIT. Perhaps Stane feels that Stark has simply outlived his usefulness? It can’t be because Stark wants to stop producing munitions, because that doesn’t happen until after the abduction. Some have also wonder why Stane puts the Ironmonger armor on in the first place. The answer is, what testosterone driven man wouldn’t want to strap themselves into this?
Clark Gregg is fun as Phil Coulson, and starts one of the main threads that tie these films together. Frankly, I’m shocked he didn’t pop up in Incredible Hulk later that same year.
There isn’t a lot to Phil, but I like the fact that despite his being a government “suit”, he isn’t saddled with stereotypical stupidity. He actually believes Pepper when presented with evidence, and he moves pretty darn fast to act on it.
Wow, a movie where a government agency is portrayed as being pretty competent and are on the side of right. Mind. Blown.
Shaun Toub’s Yinsen is Tony Stark’s Uncle Ben, and his death is the catalyst for the creation of Iron Man.
Perhaps without his death, Stark would have still gone the route he did, with shutting down his company’s weapons manufacturing division. But I think that it took Yinsen’s sacrifice to really drive home the fact that Stark had been wasting his life and potential and that he was responsible for a lot of death, the latest being the man who had saved his life. For Iron Man to be born, Yinsen had to have died.
The film’s pacing is spot on. Jon Favreau has to balance action, drama, intrigue, and romance, as well as throw in a little humor for good measure.
It’s like watching a guy successfully juggle five chainsaws and make it look easy. The action sequences are especially effective, starting with the opening shootout to the Mark I lighting things up, to the Mark III’s dramatic debut.
And the final battle with Stane was well done, with Tony at a gross disadvantage and having to out-think his opponent to win (with a little help from Pepper, of course).
Oh, and the part about the Ten Rings terrorist organization? Man, I was so thrilled when I heard that. I knew that was the precursor to the appearance of Iron Man’s most famous adversary. I was so stoked, knowing at some point we were going to see Stark go toe-to-toe with the Mandarin.
If I have any objection to the movie, it’s the soundtrack. I own it, but I don’t listen to it often, and when I do, usually it’s to hear “Mark I” and “Fireman”. Ramin Djawadi does a credible job, but honestly, the music doesn’t feel very epic or memorable, and I think maybe producer Kevin Feige realized this and went for more traditional soundtracks for the later Marvel films. I don’t think the music is bad, and when I rewatched Iron Man to write this article, I found it did compliment the movie. Apparently, Favreau is the one who steered Djawadi in the direction he went in on the musical arrangements, so if there’s any blame that the music falls short, it’s on the director. The music isn’t bad; it just isn’t great. I do credit Favreau’s use of rock and roll, a decision that other MCU directors would emulate down the line.
During this time in the actual Marvel comics, Iron Man was involved in some high profile stories. He and Captain America were the principal characters in Civil War, and by 2008, Stark was head of SHIELD and either the world’s most important hero or most despicable villain, depending on who was writing him. Seriously, on the one hand you had a man who was a straight-up hero in the pages of one Avengers comic, but at the same time hunting unregistered teammates in another.
And then there was the incident where, after launching Hulk into space (more on that story in a later article), he had been using Jennifer Walters, She-Hulk, to take down her cousin’s rogues gallery. Stark slept with her, then revealed what he had done to Bruce, and then when she took the news poorly, he injected her with nanites that neutralized her powers. So to say there was some inconsistency in how Iron Man was being written is understating it. In terms of sales, Iron Man had four titles on shelves during this time: Invincible Iron Man, Iron Man, Director of SHIELD, Iron Man: Legacy of Doom, and Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas, the lattermost having a cover you’d never see coming out of Marvel these days.
Combined with his appearance in an Avengers title as well as being featured in a storyline in Captain America’s title, one could argue old Shellhead had achieved Wolverine levels of oversaturation. Still, you can’t blame Marvel for striking while the iron was hot (cue rimshot!).
Next time: I’ll be looking at Marvel’s second go around with a certain green goliath.