“I don’t want to see this on your MySpace.” With that single line in its opening scene, Iron Man lets you know just how long a decade really is.
As the first entry to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, there was a lot riding on director Jon Favreau’s 2008 origin film. Audiences weren’t in-the-know to producer Kevin Feige’s movie-linking master plan, so there were no grand public expectations for it to succeed. Had it tanked, we may not have gotten one of the biggest moneymakers in history.
It’s all good though. It made over half a billion USD worldwide on a $140 million budget, making it the 2nd biggest film in the US that year.
Apart from the filmists who experienced the majesty of 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (directed by Shane Black who would go on to helm Iron Man 3), general audiences of the time weren’t crying out for more Robert Downey Jr. He had a pungent past that lingered around the public nose like a thick fart, one he successfully blew away thanks to his dominating role as Tony Stark.
Downey Jr chars the screen with his charisma, adding extra jabs to every punchline in a script full of them. He also wasn’t like the other big heroes that made a comeback to screens. Batman Begun, Superman Returned, and Spider-Man Three-ed – all of whom featured decent men wanting to make a difference.
This is not Tony Stark. The douchebag playboy Bruce Wayne pretends to be is what Stark actually is – arrogant, selfish, reckless, misogynistic, it’s a long list. Above all else, he’s a manufacturer of war weapons, naively believing he’s trading for a better cause.
“My old man had a philosophy,” Stark recalls “peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” He lived by that saying, assuming war is an inevitable part of human existence, until he’s kidnapped and experiences the full extent of his company’s dirty business dealings.
Because of this, he cuts his ties to weapons production for the US army and develops a conscience – as well as an arc reactor in his chest and a metal suit that kicks a diverse range of ass. Rather than being better at war, he wants to end war. To do that, he also needs to take his weapons away from the non-American side, leading to the film’s best action scene…
The Iron Man vs Iron Jeff Bridges climax isn’t as impressive. However, it serves as a good counterexample to the “bigger stick” philosophy by having the bigger ‘bot lose. The closing shot of that scene, a zoom in of Stark’s chest as it flickers with light, cleanly highlights the film’s message: even the biggest cock wheeze can grow a heart.
There’s also a thematic seed planted in this scene that grows throughout the MCU. It lies in something Iron Bridges says…
This isn’t the first time Stark’s attempt as a solution sparks a bigger problem as we later see when he accidentally invents a genocidal robot (Avengers: Age of Ultron), breaks up The Avengers (Captain America: Civil War), and gives a child his own mega-suit of death (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
In the closing scene, Stark even admits: “I’m just not the hero type.” He’s not exactly wrong, but what he does is certainly heroic, giving him a moral underdog status that makes you root for the lead in a way we typically didn’t in previous superhero films.
Also bucking the trend, he straight-up admits he’s Iron Man in the film’s final seconds. Because fuck humility and secret identities. I’m still Tony Stark, bitches! *bust out a Black Sabbath solo*
Iron Man is a great flick with its fair share of flaws. Iron Bridges is a pretty weak villain, there’s a literal “hack into the mainframe” sequence, and a poorly aged scene of a boss taking advantage of his reluctant PA. There’s also an unintentionally hilarious moment of Terrence Howard’s Rhodey looking at the War Machine outfit and predicting a false future (Don Cheadle then replaced Howard in Iron Man 2.)
Iron Man wasn’t even the best superhero film of that year – that goes to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Though perhaps it’s a blessing that Iron Man didn’t raise the bar too high. Four years later, both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises came out but only one of those Fosbury Flopped beyond its personal best.
Speaking of The Avengers, I can still remember the elation I felt sitting through the credits of Iron Man and ending with the sight of Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury. My friends and I often hung around after the credits just chatting about the film, so we didn’t even know there was something at the end. When he says “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” I nearly stained my seat.
It’s that extra little treat that would become a staple in future Marvel films, but expectations have greatly diminished their impact. It truly was the last great stinger in cinematic history… until M Night Shayamalan came along and matched it with Split.