On May 2nd in 2008, Robert Downey Jr. declared “I am Iron Man” for the first time, and with those words not only launched a stunning career comeback, but also the Marvel Cinematic Universe….
It’s almost impossible to remember how unlikely the success of the MCU seemed before the release of Iron Man in 2008. If you’d have told people that the almost unknown Guardians of the Galaxy would not only be a monster hit, but a monster franchise, or that Black Panther would become one of the highest grossing films of all time, they’d have laughed in your face.
The character of Iron Man was originally created in 1963, but the movie shifted the hero’s origin story to modern times. While in Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration, Stark takes shrapnel to the chest and is kidnapped during an attack by terrorists using his own company’s weapons.
While being held prisoner, Stark is kept alive by a magnet implanted in his chest by a captive doctor named Yensen, and forced to build a weapon for the baddies. Instead, Stark upgrades his implant to power a crude armored suit and escapes.
Despite the success of Fox’s X-Men in 2000 and Sony’s Spider-Man in 2002, fans had plenty of reason to think such comic book hits would be few and far between. Warner Bros’ DC Comics films had run hot and cold for decades, even considering that they had the advantage of being part of a giant media company with its own film studio.
Looming larger in the minds of many was the notion that a company which had been under bankruptcy protection little more than a decade prior, was borrowing half a billion dollars from Merrill Lynch, forming its own studio, and would be making films on its own — without access to their two most successful Franchises in X-Men and Spider-Man.
And launching this new franchise with a lead actor who was then best known for his string of high profile arrests for substance abuse, culminating in an infamous incident during which police picked him up wandering barefoot in Culver City, California. It all seemed like a horrible idea. It’s also a textbook case of fortune favoring the bold !!
Ten minutes into the Iron Man film, you could see that they’d gotten it right. They’d nailed it, and have kept on doing that over the next decade…
Even if we give Marvel credit for having the foresight to see where they would be in 2018 back in 2008, it seems very clear in hindsight that this whole boondoggle could have collapsed immediately with a few different creative choices. It is sort of astonishing how little plot Iron Man has. It’s basically a character study with a lot of cool special effects (and they are cool; 10 years later, the original Iron Man suit still looks very good.) Until the final 20 minutes, this movie doesn’t even have a villain. A large portion of Iron Man is just watching a dude tinker in his basement.
This stuff only works because Favreau and Marvel picked Robert Downey Jr. to play the guy doing the tinkering, and he is such an incredibly charismatic actor that he can make soldering interesting.
Meanwhile, the rest of the movie sort of functions on autopilot, providing requisite story developments and character details to fill in this default “origin story” while the actors successfully breathe life into their otherwise conventional roles. As Stark’s assistant-cum-love interest Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow is given a few howlers of dialogue to deliver, but mostly generates real chemistry between herself and Stark.
Favreau merges the heart of a kids movie with the brain of an adult one, creating something that will thrill teens and comic fans, but not bore their parents, older siblings, or those typically disinterested. The movie’s excellent sound-track use of AC/DC and Black Sabbath is a striking case of Favreau’s genius.
Around the same time, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight also brilliantly initiated its own darker, more adult-oriented exploration of the hero myth essentially the “book” without the “comic.” But through Iron Man, Jon Favreau retained both that maturity and adolescent mischievousness, in the process creating one of the more tonally successful adaptations in the history of superhero movies.
Of course, Nolan’s Batman to me, is still a notch above. But this movie proved that both kinds of comic book genre can co-exist and paved way for the ‘grand’ MCU over the course of 10 years…
Jeff Bridges, playing the antagonist Obadiah Stane is given a pretty radical leap at the end of the film that some may have trouble buying. Otherwise, he’s mostly consistent and believable as a corporate shark-turned-megalomaniac, but the fault in this climactic moment seems to lie more with the writing than the acting.
Wall Street Journal journalist Ben Fritz recently tweeted that Marvel only started their cinematic universe with Iron Man because focus groups indicated kids were more interested in playing with Iron Man toys than playing with Hulk or Captain America or Thor toys. It was a fortuitous accident, like standing right under a radiation emitter as a spider descends through its poisonous beam.
Ten years later, Iron Man still holds up as one of the top-rated MCU films of all time with few signs of losing its high perch. The movie has aged incredibly well, barring the few now-obsolete references like posting on MySpace and Tony Stark’s phone with actual buttons on it !!
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