This past weekend, millions of people went to their friendly neighborhood movie theater to finally see the other movie they’ve been waiting for other than Black Panther: Avengers: Infinity War a.k.a. Black Panther & Friends a.k.a. Thanos, Don’t You Dare Touch A Single Hair On Captain America’s Beard. But long before we got to see The Avengers, The Guardians Of The Galaxy, Spider-Man 3.0, and the King Of Wakanda with the Dora Milaje cross paths and team up with one another, there was one film that started it all and helped the Marvel Cinematic Universe become the unstoppable juggernaut that it is today.
No, I’m not referring to Blade, though it is easy for some people to forget and completely overlook how important and influential it was and still is to the success of comic-book movies today. I’m of course referring to Iron Man, which opened in theaters on May 2, 2008.
Created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck, Iron Man wasn’t exactly Superman, Batman, or even Spawn in terms of popularity and familiarity among people outside of die-hard comic-book fans who know that “Shellhead” is his nickname. But after selling the rights to many of their characters to other film studios in order to stay afloat, Marvel Studios came along and decided to use the characters they still had in order to start making comic-book films of their own after the success of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 in 2002 and 2004. And the first character they decided to use in order to make their presence felt was Iron Man.
Iron Man tells the story of brilliant inventor/scientist/weapons manufacturer/multi-billionaire Tony Stark (played by
Ghostface Killah Robert Downey Jr.) who is kidnapped by a terrorist cell known as The Ten Rings and held hostage in order to use his knowledge and create more weaponry for their ranks to use against their enemies. Despite the severe chest injury he suffers during the attack that led to his kidnapping, and that now requires his constant care and supervision, Stark decides to use his ingenuity to build his own weapon in order to escape: an extremely powerful suit of armor that greatly enhances physical abilities and also grants the power of supersonic flight. Once he is able to escape from The Ten Rings and make his way back home, he further develops and enhances the armor and uses it to protect those who need his help the most, including himself, as he soon learns that his mentor and close friend Obadiah Stane (played by Jeff Bridges) doesn’t have his or anyone else’s best interests at heart when it comes to his company and especially not when it comes to the Iron Man armor.
There are many things about Iron Man that work wonderfully (and all of those things should certainly be credited to director Jon Favreau, who skillfully knocks this one out of the park while he’s also onscreen playing Stark’s beleaguered chaffeur/assistant ‘Happy’ Hogan) and one of those things is how fascinating it is to see Tony in his workshop as he struggles to perfect his Iron Man suit. We’re all familiar with Tony’s famous quote from The Avengers where he describes himself to Captain America as a genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist, but in the scenes where we see him toiling away both in the cave in the Middle East alongside Yinsen and later on back home in his own workshop, we get to actually see his genius on display and how much work and thought goes into everything he builds. Much like Shuri in Black Panther, he believes that just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, and there is always something incredibly absorbing about seeing someone who is highly skilled at their craft carrying it out with skill, commitment, and exact precision (see also: the protagonist of every Michael Mann film).
It’s why we’re not checking our watches to finally see Tony suit up and go beat the bad guys. And yet when he does, we can’t help but smile from ear to ear when Tony uses his armor to not only destroy his company’s weaponry that is being used to inflict damage and terror on the home of his deceased friend, but also to see what his armor is truly capable of.
And then there are the performances, which also contribute to why Iron Man works so wonderfully.
Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane is terrific to watch as we see him going from longtime friend/caring father figure to steely-eyed, cold-hearted nemesis in the snap of a finger. His motivation seems to largely come from wanting to prove how much smarter and better he is at being Tony Stark than Tony himself (hence his infamous and instantly meme-worthy quote about a cave and a box of scraps) and will do anything to prove it.
Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes is every bit the playful troublemaker that his best friend Tony Stark is, but his Air Force uniform is what forces him to keep those tendencies in check no matter how much Tony wants him to cut loose. As much as I love Don Cheadle (and how could you not, especially when he’s shutting down trolls on Twitter and also trying quite hard to defend his questionable British accent from the Ocean’s trilogy to the lovely and amazing hosts of the podcast Thirst Aid Kit), Howard’s chemistry with Downey Jr. is amazing and on point, which makes it all the more disappointing that we never get to see him fulfill his promise towards the end of the film to wear the War Machine armor himself.
There’s a reason why losing Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil “Son Of Coul” Coulson in The Avengers hurt so damn much and also why he works so well as the lead in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Coulson’s presence is quiet and unassuming and completely by-the-book in almost every way imaginable.
And yet to underestimate him or think that he’s not highly effective in carrying out his duties and kicking ass if and when necessary would be a grave mistake for anyone who makes such an assumption, even though his duties of keeping tabs on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and convincing them to play nice with S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t always easy. Credit to Clark Gregg for being able to convey that without saying or doing too much in order to draw attention to himself.
Brilliant, hard-working, resourceful, refuses to act as a yes-woman to Tony and to not call him out on his bullshit, and incredibly easy on the eyes. All of these are qualities that Tony seems to value in the women that he’s attracted to, and Pepper Potts is definitely no exception. As much as she may not always like or support Tony in his role as Iron Man, she can’t help but understand why he does it and is still willing to help him and have his back when he needs it most. Gwyneth Paltrow is superb as Pepper and not once does she ever come across as anything but a crucial, irreplaceable, and three-dimensional part of Tony’s world.
And then there is the man upon on whose shoulders all of this rests: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Not too long ago, there was a time when it was hard to imagine that Downey Jr. would be alive and sober, let alone the center and heart of an entire cinematic universe. But after recovering from his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and appearing in episodes of Ally McBeal , and in films such as Two Girls And A Guy , U.S. Marshals, (a.k.a. the sequel to The Fugitive that none of us needed, wanted, or liked), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Charlie Bartlett (rest in peace, Anton Yelchin), Downey Jr. was given the opportunity to truly cement his comeback status in the role of Iron Man. And as he’s proven more than enough times, this role fits him like a glove that also acts as a pulse cannon.
Stark is someone who knows what he can do, loves what he can do, and especially loves being recognized and celebrated for what he can do, if only because that celebration and recognition makes it possible for him to keep doing what he does for his own benefit and for that of others. It’s easy to say that because Downey Jr. shares some of those same qualities that he’s only playing himself and not really acting, which certainly isn’t true. Playing a comic-book character and playing that character well is not always easy (see George Clooney as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman & Robin or Halle Berry as Storm in X-Men), and if Downey Jr. were simply coasting and not taking any of it seriously, it would be obvious and we’d be able to tell. But just from seeing his anguish at Yinsen dying in front of him, or the little smile that he has on his face when asking Jarvis to add a little fire-engine red to the Iron Man armor, and many other moments such as those are what convinces us that Downey Jr. takes what he does as Iron Man/Tony Stark very seriously. And why it will be damn near impossible to imagine anyone else in the role when the inevitable day comes that he steps down.
The supporting performances by Shaun Toub as Yinsen, who is held hostage by the Ten Rings alongside Stark and acts as his friend/conscience/person calling him out on his past bad behavior in the absence of Pepper and Rhodey while also wanting nothing more than to be reunited with his family again (think John Candy in Planes, Trains, And Automobiles), Leslie Bibb as Christine Everhart, a Vanity Fair journalist whose personal and professional conduct towards Tony and Pepper makes Pajiba legend/Vanity Fair journalist Joanna Robinson shake her head in so much disbelief, and the voice of Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony’s friendly and loyal artificial-intelligence butler who carries out his every request, and who was Alexa long before Amazon gave us Alexa, minus the creepy laughter and alleged eavesdropping on our conversations on behalf of the FBI, are also impressive and nothing at all to scoff at, despite their limited screen time.
The critical and financial success of Iron Man helped convince Marvel Studios to continue making small steps into creating and establishing the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their next film was The Incredible Hulk, and due to the fact that Edward Norton turned out to be difficult and problematic to work with when making the film and also when promoting the film, Universal Pictures and Marvel Studios decided to spoil the post-credits stinger (in which General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross is approached in a bar by Tony Stark and the two of them bust each other’s balls before finally getting down to business) and use it in commercials for the film so that Downey Jr.’s presence would entice more people to go see it.
It convinced other studios that audiences were willing to see comic-book movies that weren’t just centered around Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, and that with the right amount of care given to the material and also the right amount of marketing being done to convince people that the film being sold with little-known characters is one that’s very much worth seeing. It’s what convinced audiences to go see a film with a character who was always seen by most as a corny, uptight, and uninteresting goody-two-shoes (Captain America: The First Avenger), a film centered around a team of misfit antiheroes which included a talking raccoon and a talking tree (Guardians Of The Galaxy), and another film about a man who can shrink down to the size of ants whole also talking to them and controlling their actions (Ant-Man), resulting in the kind of brand loyalty from millions of fans that turns every Marvel Studios panel in Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con into a full-blown rock concert. (Granted, it also convinced Marvel Studios to introduce Doctor Strange, another character in their universe, with a film that was basically considered by many to be Iron Man with magic, and also some very controversial Whitewashing,” but nobody’s perfect. Not even Marvel Studios.)
The film’s final scene, in which Tony announced to the world that he actually is Iron Man, was enough to make many of us go “Holy shit!” in ending on such a shocking and ballsy note, but it’s the post-credits scene (the first of many to come) that did so many things right:
1) It gave us Col. Nick Fury.
2) It gave us Col. Nick Fury being played by Samuel L. Jackson, which meant that we were getting the Ultimate Marvel version of Nick Fury as introduced in the comic-book series The Ultimates.
3) Much like Jim Gordon’s conversation with Batman at the end of Batman Begins, Fury’s conversation with Tony brought up the very possibility of escalation and let Tony know that because of his presence and existence in the world becoming known to everyone, it would result in others coming out of hiding to make their own presence felt, and not always for the better.
4) With his final line of dialogue, Fury pretty much whetted our appetites and left us begging for more in terms of how this plan could and would end up becoming a reality.
“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”
And ten years later, the rest is history, thanks to Iron Man and all that it accomplished. Here’s to another ten years of seeing what Marvel Studios can and will do, and also shaking our heads at audience members who still get up and leave the movie theater before the end credits have finished.