Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
So since this is the first review in my Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon, I thought I would lay down some ground rules. There are currently 23 released films within the series, with many more already scheduled. I am attempting to get through these 23 films prior to the scheduled fall 2020 release of Black Widow, which I will also try to include in this series if the timing is right. Of the 23 films, I have seen all but four: The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. The first three were gaps I happened to miss before Marvel began to feel like appointment viewing and I saw all of the releases. The Spider-Man film may seem a curious omission, but to be honest, after the release of Endgame, I had some serious Marvel fatigue and I just missed it to this point. This marathon will not only rectify those omissions, but should also hope to re-examine the other 20 films with a finer lens, to connect all there is to connect, to explore all there is to be explored.
This is such a cinematic sensation that has basically changed the way movies are made and released (everything has to be an event film or else it might just push to streaming). I may not be a Marvel fanboy like we all know, but I am a fan of these films. For better or worse, they are very important for this era of cinema, and I often enjoy myself to varying degrees. They are not masterpieces, they are not quotation marks “important” films, but they’ve dominated pop culture and Kevin Feige and Marvel have constructed something very impressive and successful that I think is worth some study, even if at a very high level. We’ll see how it goes!
I am sure there is material out there that has chronicled the history of the MCU at depth, but I’ve not read it, so I honestly don’t know what the initial plan was. I’m sure it wasn’t for a 23 film epic over a 12 year span, but that’s where it led. But with that in mind, Iron Man seems like a curious choice to lead with, but it just works extremely well that Kevin Feige must have know what he was doing. Perhaps the argument could be made that starting with a “lower level” superhero like Iron Man is the low risk version. If it fails, you can jump ship. Starting with Hulk or Captain America, heroes more in the social consciousness, and failing might have made the MCU dead on arrival. Downey Jr. and Iron Man are a match made in heaven though, and kicking everything off with this duo will go down in history as one of the most impressive decisions in film history. Who knows where things go without it.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the playboy son of legend Howard Stark, a businessman whose weapons company has supplied the American military with cutting edge technology for decades. A true patriot. Tony, himself a wunderkind, has now taken over the company from Stark family friend Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who stood in as CEO until Tony was old enough. But after a roadside bomb in Afghanistan finds Tony a prisoner in a cave, fighting for his life against terrorists toting weapons his company helped develop, he uses his engineering prowess to develop a small arc reactor to keep him alive, and a militarized “Iron Man” suit to help him escape. His newfound moral compass spurs a new direction for Stark Industries, which creates tension between himself and Obadiah. With the help of his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military contact Rhoades (Terrence Howard), Stark confronts his former partner for control of the company.
Robert Downey Jr. is a huge star now, largely thanks to this singular role, but looking back it’s a bit of a miracle considering the state of his career at the time of release. Iron Man and Zodiac (2007) helped re-launch his career after a dead period. His history is well documented with troubled times mixed with great success, but at the time, the casting was not a slam dunk. But Downey Jr.’s sass and snark pair perfectly with the character of Iron Man, so much so that it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Tony Stark. And while these Marvel films would come to be massive ensembles full of familiar faces, as the first film, they really nailed the casting, rounding out the film with names like Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Potts is a sweet counterpoint to Stark who helps give his character heart; and Jeff Bridges, whose legendary status gives weight to the role of the villain Obadiah/Iron Monger, even if his neck beard/bald head is distracting. Even Terrence Howard (who would later be replaced by Don Cheadle) fresh off his Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow is astrong inclusion. But the A-list names stop there, making Iron Man feel much smaller (and much shorter, a less than 2 hour runtime) than the huge blockbuster films to follow that Marvel have become known for.
Watching Iron Man 12 years later, after so many more Marvel movies, was a really interesting experience. It hardly even feels like a superhero movie let alone a Marvel movie when compared to the rest of the filmography. It’s extremely small and features very little superhero-y things happening. I think largely because Tony Stark is essentially Marvel’s Bruce Wayne, a rich playboy who doesn’t have any natural superpowers, other than his riches and intellect, the film is extremely grounded. It even touches on current affairs with terrorists in Afghanistan playing a large role in the development of this American hero. The Iron Man suit and its capabilities are science-fiction which provide the comic book/superhero-ness we’ve become familiar with, but we actually get very little play within the suit. This element actually enhances the experience of these moments by making them fewer and far between. We’ve not seen this before, so getting to experience the technology and capabilities is a hell of a thrill ride, especially with JARVIS (Paul Bettany) there to help us through it too.
There are definitely some dated pop culture references as well, most notably a failed MySpace reference. But even Stark’s facial hair dates the film to a certain era, which is neither here nor there. I think seeing the film now as of a certain time is not a bad thing. We get the War on Terrorism as a backdrop which firmly places it in the mid-2000s. It doesn’t need to feel timeless, as the technology of the filmmaking alone has already advanced within the series of films. That’s fine, mostly because putting this film into the context of not only the series of Marvel films, but also as a document of 2008 filmmaking, it comes out as a winner. It’s effective in character building not just with Tony Stark (with a great central performance from Downey), but also with Pepper Potts, who we will see is an invaluable and very important element of Iron Man and his story.
Jon Favreau might seem like an interesting choice for director to lead off this series, but as we will see this is almost more of a producer (Kevin Feige) driven universe anyway. In this way, handing the keys to Favreau to start things off is very akin to Chris Columbus opening the Harry Potter series. A sure handed director who won’t mess it up, but whose limitations may keep it from being creatively impressive. It’s a workmanlike entry which is everything Marvel needed it to be. Favreau has proven himself reliable.
Iron Man has become one of the most loved Marvel characters in the franchise, and I think a lot of that has to do with Robert Downey Jr. in the role. The film itself is mostly good and solid, which will likely become a common chorus as I explore these films. I don’t think it transcends anything, I don’t think it reinvents anything, least of all superhero films. One of the most interesting things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and maybe my opinion will change by the end of this marathon, is that it seems to be much more than the sum of its parts. It’s more of an impressive accomplishment in serial filmmaking than it is individual. With that said, Iron Man is a great way to kick off the series. A solid, exciting, and somewhat fresh look into comic book characters, perhaps aided by the success of the Nolan Batman films around the same time.