Ten years is a long time. Ten years ago the global financial crisis was only just starting to affect us, privileged people of the world, no superhero movie had cracked the half-billion mark in gross sales, and Tony Stark was making quips about MySpace. That’s right. MySpace.
By the end of 2008, however, a man was on his way to getting an Oscar for playing a comic-book villain, nerds argued over who was richer between Stark and Wayne and the second-largest movie franchise ever had begun. The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And for such an unorthodox universe, approached in unorthodox ways, what better way to start would there be than to introduce us to a smart-arse genius/trust-fund billionaire who spends the move more concerned about protecting his intellectual property than he is about the terrorists who kidnapped him in the first place?
Now, I’m a massive nerd. My first computer games were on a Commodore 64, my childhood hero was Albert Einstein and I can quote the entire script of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Still, I was never massive into comic books, primarily because they were expensive.
I knew of Marvel. I was a fan of the X-men in both their nineties cartoon form and their more recent movies from Fox. I enjoyed Tobey Maguire’s first Spiderman movie. I even knew that there were characters like Thor and Hulk. But I had never heard of Wakanda, didn’t know the difference between Vibranium and Adamantium, and certainly had no interest in a Batman-wannabe, especially with Christopher Nolan making the Dark Knight look better than ever. Besides, Marvel had been letting me down lately, what with X-men 3 and Spiderman 3 both being movies barely on par with George Clooney’s “Batman and Robin”. I did not expect anything great from “Iron Man.”
I was wrong to expect so little. Today, after eighteen MCU films, “Iron Man” is still the standard I use to compare all other superhero films.
So why did this movie about a lesser-known character work? They got a “has-been” actor to play them and put a man at the helm who had previously only been known for the Christmas comedy “Elf”. How could it compare to Nolan’s dark and gritty tale filled with Oscar-winning actors?
To best understand why Iron Man did so well, and why it was the perfect place to start the MCU, let’s look at these hindering factors again:
It was a lesser known character, so it could surprise us. Everyone knew the story of Spiderman (kid, bit by spider, uncle killed, something something great responsibility). We thought we knew what we were getting with Tony Stark. After all, he is a billionaire child of billionaires, creates his own gadgets and has no powers. So….Batman-lite. Right? Right?
If I was to describe the relationship between Batman and Bruce Wayne, I could say that Batman, the vengeful vigilante, begrudgingly accepts that sometimes he must pretend to be a rich playboy in order to protect those close to him.
As for Tony Stark. Well, as he puts it… “I AM Iron Man.”
Tony is an arrogant womaniser who does not apologise for being the smartest person in the room because most of the time he is right. He loves to party and he doesn’t believe in hiding. He isn’t a hero because of some personal tragedy. His kidnapping didn’t even appear to cause any serious emotional trauma. No, the Iron Man comes from a belief that “If I can help, I have to help” mixed with a tinge of guilt for profiting off war in the first place. This is a very different “hero”.
Then there is the actor.
Robert Downey Jr is now being paid two hundred million dollars to ensure he appears in Infinity War (and its sequel if the character survives). He is not expendable. But how did a washed-up drug-addict come to be in this position?
Well for one, people forgot that the wash up is a damn fine actor. An Oscar-nominated actor who was making a comeback with stunning performances in movies like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”. He might not have had the draw-power of Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp, but he had the ability to make a movie-goer actually empathise with an arsehole.
We did. We couldn’t help but believe that he felt remorse for his weapons being in the wrong hands and that he didn’t trust the government or anyone else to do the right thing with his technology. We believed that this arrogant bastard was, in fact, a flawed genius just trying to do the right thing.
Then there is the director, who not only pointed RDJ in the right direction but framed some of the most explosive scenes of the year and brought colour back into a darkening comic-book world.
Jon Favreau (who we all now recognise as Stark’s “right-hand man”, Happy) found just the right mix of action and comedy. He made comment on the military-industrial complex without preaching to us about it, and he made impossible science easy to believe. With just the right look of “spare car parts” and “high school electronics kit”, he made us believe that you could make a mechanised suit in a cave in Afghanistan, and with incredible designers and an awesome montage (I mean, even Rocky had a montage), he made us believe that it could be upgraded into a believable but incredible “Iron Man”.
Most importantly, Favreau recognised what Marvel was aiming for. This new era of Superheroes wouldn’t try to be realistic. They would joke, they would party. There would be violence, but not blood, and protection would be more important than vengeance. Most of all, there would be colour. They don’t even hide it, openly pointing out that the suit was designed like a sports car; it wasn’t just a weapon, it was a beautiful one.
Ironman sets itself up as the beginning of something bigger than itself. Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. lets us know that there is a lot more to the world than we think. And the now-traditional after-credits scene introduces us to Director Fury, and “The Avengers Initiative”. At this point, there are no “Infinity Stones”, no Easter Eggs of other heroes. There is just an ending that tells the audience “We have just started.”
Yes, the plot was dull, Jeff Bridges was under-utilised and you have to really ignore the ridiculousness of an electromagnet stopping shards of metal from ripping up a human heart. Despite all that, the movie works. It’s clever, it’s fun, and it ushers a new way of looking at Superheroes.
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany.
Rank: 7th out of 18.