The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be a juggernaut today, but once upon a time it was merely an idea that debuted in a single film based on what was then considered to be a B-level superhero, Iron Man. The first “Iron Man” film not only kick-started the MCU, it also helped redefined the superhero and comic book movie genre in general. While the original “Spider-Man” films and the first two “X-Men” films were responsible for breathing new life into a genre that had been mostly a niche in past years they’re presentations was more akin to the over-the-top comic book worlds these characters originally inhabited. We loved them because they were, at the very least, good if not great. Their popularity gave rise to even more standalone superhero series many of which failed to spark interest from audiences and proved that the formula of cheesy, cartoonist presentation was starting to lose it’s luster. “The Punisher”, “Ghost Rider”, “Hulk”, “The Fantastic Four” and even the third “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movies all lacked substance and, in many cases, focus or grit. But, in 2008 Marvel redefined itself with “Iron Man”, a film that felt grounded and blended character development, world building and action into an engaging two-hours of cinematic fun. Even for a movie like that though, ten years is a LONG time and it’s always fun to look back at how well it holds up to this day. So as part of Marvel Month 2.0 I wanted to roll out a new feature called “Flashback Review” where I look back at a movie at least ten years old and explore how well or how poorly that film has aged. So, let’s flash back to the origins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Iron Man”.
“Iron Man” was released in May of 2008 and explores the origin story of mechanical genius and billionaire Tony Stark and the exoskeleton suit that makes him the titular hero. Throughout the film Stark experiences a personal evolution as he sees first hand the destruction his weapons cause. He survives a kidnapping at the hands of a terrorist group called the Ten Rings after he builds an arc reactor to keep shrapnel from pushing into his heart as well as the first model of the Iron Man armor which is powered by the reactor. He decides to put his focus on creating technology that will help the world instead of feeding conflict and builds a more advanced Iron Man suit for him alone to use as a defender of society. The film also features the first major villain in the MCU, Obadiah Stane, who creates his own armor becoming the Iron Monger in an attempt to usurp Stark as the head of Stark Industries. The film was directed by Jon Favreau, who also plays Happy Hogan in the movie and is well known for his use of motion capture which helped bring the Iron Man suit to life. It also served as the start of a career resurgence for Robert Downey, Jr. who was cast in the lead role after suffering career setbacks in years prior due to a series of bad life choices and his struggle with substance abuse, life experiences that would become vital to his understanding of the Tony Stark character throughout his evolution in the MCU.
After its release in 2008 “Iron Man” went on to gross over $585 million at the global box office and even earned two Oscar nominations for visual effects and sound. But it was heavily overshadowed by another superhero film that year, DC’s “The Dark Knight” which some argue is the best superhero movie ever made and went on to be the year’s highest grossing feature. So, at the time “Iron Man” was popular but nowhere near the dominant force that future MCU movies would become. In my opinion, even for a $585 million grossing movie, it was highly underrated. While Marvel has continued to push the envelope over the years there are numerous tropes the franchise has leaned on and almost all of them debuted in “Iron Man”. Post credit scenes, the hero’s transformation from one person to a new one by the end of the journey, and even the hero fighting a bad guy with equal or comparable abilities were all first presented in “Iron Man”. The cool thing is while these ideas feel dated today, at the time they were relatively new. Sure, we had seen heroes go up against similarly powered foes before, like Spider-Man and Venom and Blade and the vampires, but in “Iron Man” it felt like a natural challenge to help push the main character forward and realize the risk of abusing their abilities. Thor, Captain America, Hulk, and even Black Panther have all since faced villains that are meant to represent their polar opposites. This is one of the coolest, if overused, themes in the MCU, the hero having to face someone or some thing that represents how their powers could be wronged, thus making them look even more like the hero in the process despite their own flaws. As for the post credit scenes, Marvel has used them ever since to tease future films and even troll the audience because of how expected the scenes have become. “Iron Man” isn’t just a good movie, it’s a trendsetter and a standard-bearer for everything that has followed in the MCU and it’s important to remember that, especially seeing how far the franchise has come.
Even over ten years later “Iron Man” remains one of Marvel’s most grounded and solid theatrical features in the MCU library thanks in no small part to Robert Downey, Jr. who has become inseparable from the Tony Stark persona. Downey had a career resurgence thanks to this role, and he went all in to bring Stark to the big screen, capturing his look, mannerisms, and personality. That shouldn’t be too much of a shock though because RDJ was a longtime fan of the comics even before being cast in the role, which, fun fact, was originally going to be given to a lesser known actor. Downey quickly became a leading figure and possibly the most iconic hero (second maybe to only Captain America) in the MCU canon even becoming essential to films that aren’t Iron Man-centric. What’s even more impressive is that Iron Man wasn’t exactly the most famous Marvel hero when the film came out. Yes, he was well known, but he was often considered a B-level hero below the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Captain America and even The Hulk in terms of popularity. So not only did an “Iron Man” movie have to be good, the character of Tony Stark had to stand out and boy did he ever. Almost overnight RDJ made Iron Man and Tony Stark icons in the comic book world all over again lifting Iron Man from the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel canon to one of it’s most popular and cherished heroes and tragically complicated characters. It also helps that Downey was handed a capable cast to assist in bringing the story to life. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and, yes, even Terrance Howard, who would be replaced in subsequent films, are still fun to watch on screen today as everyone works off each other well and seems to have a whole lot of fun with their parts.
There’s a good reason for this too. “Iron Man” went into filming without a finished script allowing the performers to make up lines on the spot. This played well into not only Tony Stark’s often off-putting and immature personality, but also how the rest of the characters perceived these one-liners and responded helped build on their personalities as well. It’s common knowledge now that Gwyneth Paltrow found it difficult at times to respond to Downey’s adlibbing which made the awkwardness and frustration between the two all the more believable in the final product. This is especially notable today when compared to more recent films where the scripts are more complete and even more attention is put on story than character than ever before. In recent years that natural chemistry has been set aside for more planned dialogue which hasn’t been bad by any means, but it only makes the fun banter of the original “Iron Man” movie that much more enjoyable years later. On the flip side though some of the dialogue is extremely dated, but in the grander scheme of the MCU it works because “Iron Man” is meant to have taken place in 2008 and not just released that year. MySpace and other dated references have, likely unintentionally, made “Iron Man” a time capsule of 2008 while some of the dialogue, especially the lines from Obadiah Stane, are admittedly just plain cheesy and typical of the standard comic book villain. Not everything lands as well as it did in 2008, but I still commend “Iron Man” for having some of the most enjoyable and colorful dialogue in the entire MCU canon.
Let’s stay with Obadiah Stane for a minute. A lot of criticism of the MCU over the years has stemmed from its lack of great villains, but in my opinion Stane remains the best villain in the “Iron Man” trilogy. I even went so far as to include him on my list of the best Marvel villains in film last year and I still stand by that opinion. Stane was a great start for Marvel’s cinematic universe because it presented a villain who meant something to the protagonist. In the film Stane is close to Tony. He’s a father figure who took over after Howard Stark’s death and seeks to usurp the young Stark as the head of the company. In his efforts to do so he unwittingly gives rise to the hero within Stark by orchestrating his kidnapping and later event trying to lock him out of his own company, exposing his war mongering ways. Stane eventually builds armor of his own with the intent of eliminating Stark from the equation. While a lot of Stane’s scenes were cut from the film Jeff Bridges still does a magnificent job bringing the villain to life making him complex and intimidating in all the right ways while allowing him to remain relatably human. I do wish we got to see more of what makes him tick. Maybe even an exploration of his relationship with the Starks in later films and flashbacks would have served that purpose. Then we might have had a bit more understanding as to why he is heartless and relentless as he is, taking what he wants from whoever he needs to for the sore purpose of achieving power. Even without a proper backstory however, while better villains have come around since Stane he remains one of the best standalone baddies in the MCU’s early solo film ventures and a fitting foe to push Tony Stark even closer to being the hero he is meant to be.
Surprisingly one of the most impressive aspects of “Iron Man” remains the special effects. They have held up REAL well over time and I dare say are actually better than more updated representations of the Iron Man armor. While I can appreciate the suitcase suit, Hulkbuster and the nanotech suit, it’s really hard to top the original. The Mark II presented in “Iron Man” looks cool, functional, and stylish and even to this day the combination of CGI and motion capture effects still shines as some of the best visuals in the entire franchise. Outside of the suit everything from the battle scenes to the test flight and beyond feels more carefully designed with fun choreography and set pieces as well as a style that feels futuristic but also remains grounded in its time period making Tony Stark feel like that much more of an outlier compared to the rest of the world. A lot of more recent films have incorporated more action and over-the-top technology which is nice and feels like a natural evolution of Stark’s technology and its uses, but I have a soft spot for the relative simplicity in what we see in “Iron Man”. It really felt like everything Stark had and invented could someday be reality. It comes off as the beginning of something great yet also looks well refined on its own.
Even after nearly eleven years “Iron Man” remains one of the most solid origin stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and watching it again after everything that has come around sense I found myself pining for the simpler days when superhero films were able to balance story, character and action in a way that felt more grounded. Don’t get me wrong, the chaos and events of the MCU have warranted the upgrades and changes we’ve seen over the years, but when compared to the second and third “Iron Man” films as well as standalone entries that have come around since 2008 “Iron Man” is still superior to many with few flaws even to this day. It’s fantastic to see how far things have come over that time, but with “Iron Man” we’re shown the humble beginnings of a hero that would come to define the MCU and the Avengers team so it’s appropriate that it leaves so much room for growth and yet does so much to establish what we were to expect from the future of the franchise. “Iron Man” might feel a bit dated in some ways, but for the most part it continues to stand out as a highlight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s early days and beyond. It’s not only the start of Tony Stark’s journey but an incredible introduction to the MCU that set a standard almost every superhero origin film has worked to achieve and improve on ever since. Whether you re-watch it to explore the MCU’s beginnings or just to experience a great superhero movie “Iron Man” remains an undeniable comic book classic.