The birth of a Universe
And so it began.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the highest-grossing franchise in film history, an unprecedented piece of movie storytelling for both better and worse, began in 2008 with Iron Man. I was in college, so it occupies that strange temporal place in my brain of events that occurred in my adulthood and are easily-recalled memories, but also took place so long ago that the world from which it sprang seems unrecognizable today. I often think of the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States shortly after my 20th birthday as the first cultural or historical event that I properly experienced as an adult, but you could just as well pick the premiere of Iron Man.
Of course, no one knew what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would become when this movie debuted. So in some ways, it wasn’t a noteworthy event at all. It was just another solidly crafted and entertaining superhero blockbuster back when the genre still felt pretty fresh. Sure, it has a post-credits scene and a few references to a larger superhero galaxy, but they feel mostly like playful winks in context.
I should confess here that, as of the writing of this review, I have only seen 9 of 32 MCU movies. The last one I watched was Captain America: Civil War on an airplane. The last one I saw in theaters was Avengers: Age of Ultron eight years ago. So, I am a little bit outdated on exactly what constitutes an “MCU film.” Thus, I will try not to overgeneralize and prescribe too much until I’ve seen more of it.
Nonetheless, it’s striking to me that Iron Man at once feels quite a bit like what the series formula (as I understand it to be) would become, and also a bit different. I don’t quite dare call any of it edgy, but it doesn’t feel quite so boardroom sanitized as later films in the franchise. After all, the very first scene in the movie, and therefore of the entire MCU, is a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan. One of the film’s main theses is that the military-industrial complex is inherently unethical. That’s more of a stand than I can imagine Disney taking in 2023.
We follow Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a playboy billionaire genius running his late dad’s defense contractor company. After an introductory flashback, he is captured by terrorists called the Ten Rings, an obvious stand-in for Al-Qaeda, while promoting the effectiveness of one of his million-dollar “Jericho” bombs. The Ten Rings imprison him and force him to make a duplicate of his bomb for their own dangerous pursuits. Also, another imprisoned scientist, Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub), saves Stark’s life post-bombing by surgically implanting an electromagnet into his heart.
This early segment of the film is its weakest because it relies so much on wonky plotting. For example, the Ten Rings are perhaps the dumbest captors in history because they don’t notice that Stark builds himself a mecha suit instead of a missile. You’d think this would be obvious. There’s even a shot where one of the terrorist bosses looks at Stark’s blueprints and doesn’t really question it. Another eye roller comes after Stark uses his proto-Iron Man suit to blast his way out of the terrorist cell, and just so happens to get noticed by rescuers the moment he is about to perish from heat and dehydration. Deus ex helicopter.
Luckily, the second half of the film works quite well, and even that first half is pretty sleekly-executed by director Jon Favreau, such that you won’t mind waving away the plot hiccups.
The rest of the movie, post-Afghanistan rescue, centers on Stark butting heads with two foils: First, his military best bud James “Rhodey” Rhodes, played here by Terrence Howard. Howard gives the only outright dud performance in the cast, never really conveying any distinct personality or charisma, so I think Marvel was smart to aggressively re-cast Rhodes as Don Cheadle in future films.
The other apparent rival of Stark’s is his mentor, Stark Industries second-in-command, and dad’s best friend, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Following Stark’s life-threatening ordeal in Afghanistan, he gains a conscience and decides Stark Industries will no longer sell weapons. This, alas, is a major threat to the company’s big profits. Here is where I question the film’s reputation for rah-rah American patriotism; it’s pretty critical of the country’s ever-growing defense budget.
The film half-heartedly teases out some suspense for whether the ultimate betrayer of Stark will be Rhodes or Stane, who both seem deeply skeptical of Stark’s change-of-heart. Meanwhile, Stark replaces his electromagnet heart with a phlebotinum gizmo called an “arc reactor,” which is sufficient to power his newly-developed Iron Man suit, the one we’d come to know and love.
It doesn’t take all that long to become obvious that the film’s villain will be profit-hungry Stane, leading to a showdown where he inhabits his own Iron Man knockoff suit called Iron Monger, which is exactly the right amount of on-the-nose for a villain’s name given the film’s theme and tone.
The climactic action scene is a noisy, clanging Transformers-style set piece, but one that’s honestly legible and pretty exciting. It also doesn’t drag on too long; the film totals 126-minute runtime, which feels downright merciful.
In particular, the action scenes in this film are very high on fist-pump factor. There are a lot of cool moments of adrenaline rush — whether it’s Iron Man walking away from an explosion like a cool guy, emerging from smoky rubble with his iconic eye glow, or jetting around through sky like Toothless the dragon.
I was deeply skeptical of whether Iron Man would hold up, but I had a smile on my face for most of the duration. It’s ultimately a generic action blockbuster, but a solid and well-assembled one.
By far the biggest of the film’s strength comes in its casting. In particular, Robert Downey, Jr. is a home run as Tony Stark. He is very funny and scene-stealingly charismatic. He perfects the brash but lovable billionaire persona, injecting the character with immediate personality and wit, making every time he’s on screen (most of the movie) a delight. Apparently, much of the dialogue was improvised or rewritten during filming by Downey, Jr., Bridges, and Favreau — it definitely feels like Downey, Jr. helped craft the character in his image. Also much was made at release time that the film was a comeback for Downey, Jr., who was a notorious partier much like Stark.
Downey Jr. also hits the dramatic points in darker moments with the right touch: The conscience he develops over the course of the runtime is not exactly Oscar-level drama but it’s surprisingly effective and always believable, giving Iron Man an emotional backbone.
Most of the rest of the cast is solid, too. Bridges is another highlight, giving some intensity to the villain Iron Monger while still passing as the kind of guy who would be a beloved father figure. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the film’s love interest, Stark’s humble secretary Pepper Potts, who is supposed to be a contrast to the supermodels Stark dates. The problem is that Paltrow doesn’t have a frumpy bone in her body, and so she’s not particularly believable as a hidden beauty requiring Stark to look deeper, which is how she is written. But Downey, Jr. and Paltrow have very good chemistry, so it never bothered me too much.
It is easy to imagine an alternate version of the past 15 years of blockbuster movie history where Iron Man flopped, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe exploded on the launchpad. In fact, we won’t have to wait long to see an entry in the series with similar building blocks but a fraction of the overall charm. Iron Man didn’t build a multibillion-dollar cinematic juggernaut on its own, but it laid the foundational cornerstone and remains an excellent action-packed blockbuster with good polish, energy, and a world-class central casting choice in Robert Downey, Jr.
- Review Project: Marvel Cinematic Universe