Note: This is part one of our ten day retrospective that looks back at Phase’s One and Two from Marvel Studios. Check in with us daily as we reflect over the cinematic journey that Marvel has taken us on before the release of the their highly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Iron Man (2008) was Marvel Studios’ audition tape and promise that they were planning on building something rather special for comic book fans and cinema goers. This first film would be the foundations of a sprawling superhero universe that would develop and build one large cohesive story-line. This ambitious plan meant that the studio could finally bring their extended arsenal of prized comic-book creations to life. If this worked, the future possibilities were endless.
2008 was a time when the superhero genre was cementing itself as a staple of the summer blockbuster season. While Hollywood embraced the ever growing popularity of these films with audiences, the overall execution of many of them left a lot to be desired (see The Spirit (2008), Fantastic Four (2005), Spawn (1997), Ghost Rider (2007), Elektra (2005), Catwoman (2004), Batman & Robin (1997)). One could argue that the only comic-book films that were worthy of both critical praise and fan adoration were Superman (1978), Batman (1989), X-Men 2 (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Batman Begins (2005). We also should remember that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was released several months after Iron Man. That too would change the game forever, but that’s another story.
With many underwhelming entries into the genre, superhero films could hardly be taken seriously on the whole. Until Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. helped to change all of that.
The casting of Downey Jr. as the billionaire, playboy industrialist Tony Stark, was an inspired merger of character and performer, and helped transform a career of potential and personal struggles, into one of super-stardom. Something that alluded the actor for the first twenty years of his career.
The film opens with Stark gleefully revelling in all of his wealth and celebrity importance. He flies on private jets, races exotic sports cars and beds a Vanity Fair reporter, all while he smugly promotes and sells his world class (and proudly American) brand of advanced munitions to the US army. It’s when he is captured and wounded by a terrorist group during his latest weapons demonstration in Afghanistan (of all places), that Tony is forced to rethink his role as a merchant of death. Thankfully, Tony’s crisis of conscience buys him enough time to create a suit of armour that enables him to blast his way out of captivity and back onto the safety of American soil. Or so he thinks.
With a radically shifted worldview and a prototype in mind, Stark uses his second chance at life to build a machine that would help protect the people he previously put in harm’s way. He’s still a genius weapons manufacturer, but now he’s utilising his skills and weaponry for the greater good. Thus asking a larger and far more prevalent societal question – can we ever justify the use of such instruments of war, even if we firmly believe we’re protecting the innocent?
The film is largely a character-driven origin story, and since its release, has proven to be one of the very best. Stark’s transformation from militant capitalist to willing superhero is given plenty of time to develop naturally throughout the film’s running time and Downey Jr. shines as a reformed war profiteer. The obligatory beta suit testing and training sequences are among the film’s best scenes and director Jon Favreau certainly knows how to switch between drama, action and comedy naturally to ensure maximum entertainment value.
Favreau also does a commendable job of surrounding the ego of Downey Jr. with an assortment of perfectly picked personalities. Gwyneth Paltrow is supremely likeable as Tony’s love interest and their flirtatious banter works incredibly well on screen. Jeff Bridges is also rather excellent as Tony’s power-hungry business partner turned nemesis Obadiah Stane. The Dude is nearly unrecognisable in his role and chews the scenery almost as well as Downey Jr. does. The duo just click.
Despite all of its surface level shine and carefree frivolities, Iron Man does pose some rather important questions regarding America’s militarism. Every single Marvel Studios film has been born in an increasingly paranoid post-911 America. A nation that is divided by their own questionable involvement in the war and whose economy has been crippled by it. Not only does Iron Man symbolically and allegorically comment on the War on Terror, but large sections of the film are actually set in the heart of the conflicted regions. Much of the film’s iconography explicitly replicate the same images and propaganda that flooded our screens at the time (and has continued to ever since).
Iron Man was an important and crucial first step for Marvel Studios that needed to land. With the film’s critical and commercial success exceeding everyone’s expectations, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s gamble paid off. The foundations were laid and secured a healthy franchise that was unlike anything we’d ever seen before was born.
The road to The Avengers had begun. And boy was it exciting.