Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
To think – the most profitable film franchise of all time started in the back of a Humvee, with Robert Downey Jr. being a dick. It’s been nearly twelve years since Iron Man hit theaters, becoming a bigger success than anyone – anyone – expected. Considering the ever-expanding scale and scope of the Marvel movies, it’s a bit odd to travel back to that Humvee. Far before Infinity Gems and any notions of a “cinematic universe,” all we had was Tony Stark (Downey), goofing off with soldiers in the middle of Afghanistan.
You already know what happens next: his convoy is ambushed. Stark, we learn, is a philandering playboy and also the United States’ top weapons contractor, a war profiteer with a heart of mold. Seriously, it’s a testament to Downey’s instant charms that we have any spec of sympathy for this guy when he’s captured and kidnapped by warlords wielding the very weapons he designed. Director Jon Favreau seemed to understand that his star was the key to this entire scenario – or maybe the whole thing was pure dumb luck.
Favreau – whose biggest hit at this point was Elf – wasn’t exactly the obvious choice to helm a 140-million-dollar blockbuster. Iron Man had been in development hell for nearly two decades, and the final feature boasts four credited writers, none of whom ever worked for Marvel again. When Favreau and company promoted the film at San Diego Comic Con 2007 – a mere ten months before the film’s release – the filmmaker told press that The Mandarin would be a key villain (in the final feature, he doesn’t appear at all). By all accounts, Favreau and Downey made things up as they went along, improvising much of the script and figuring out the story on a day-by-day basis.
It’s ironic, considering the Marvel movies are consistently taken to task for being formulaic. That’s not an entirely unfounded criticism, but to be fair, they found this (effective) formula through trial-and-error. In the end character is king: it’s as fun to watch Stark fly around in his fancy new suit as it is to see him banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, back when she still knew which Marvel movie she was in) James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard, before he was recast following a pay dispute on the sequel), especially thanks to the cast’s easy chemistry.
Though here, Stark’s arc has some real meat on its bones, too. After breaking out of captivity using a prototype suit, Tony returns home a changed man, and vows to stop building weapons. Downey channels his very real off-screen issues to effectively play a person struggling to come to terms with himself, and the consequences of what he’s done. Soon, Tony learns that his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) has been selling his weapons to the “bad guys,” too. Stane eventually gets his hands on a suit of his own, and the pair fight, in climax that’s mostly exciting – there’s a skybeam, but it only shows up for about seven seconds, at the very end.
Still, ideologically, Iron Man is a bit flimsy. The film never glances at the motivation of the “Ten Rings” – they’re really just “the bad guys.” I wonder, why would a group of people from Afghanistan hate an American war profiteer? Worse, Iron Man really has no problem with an American entering a foreign country and blowing a bunch of stuff up – as long as he does it “right.” On the one hand, these sequences show Tony taking accountability for his actions and the bloodshed he’s responsible for – on the other, they peddle the idea that America should be the world’s super-cop, we just need the right technology to do a better job.
Director Jon Favreau seemed to understand that his star was the key to this entire scenario – or maybe the whole thing was pure dumb luck.
But Iron Man wasn’t a hit because of its messy ideology, or even its action sequences. There’s a real baseline of quality around Downey’s performance: cinematographer Matthew Libatique (A Star is Born, Birds of Prey, and pretty much every Darren Aronofsky movie) gives things a clean look, and I’m also partial to composer Ramin Djawadi’s (Game of Thrones, Westworld) score. Everything moves right along, too, and at just a few minutes over two-hours, Iron Man never drags. Of course, stick around past the end of the credits and you’d catch Marvel’s first-ever post-credits stinger, which featured Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, promising something called “The Avengers Initiative.”
On release, these abstract plans were years in the future, and Marvel actually put its second attempt in theaters just a few weeks later with The Incredible Hulk, a film no one remembers, let alone enjoyed. Iron Man, meanwhile, felt ahead of its time – Downey’s mix of determination and charisma made a movie that could be enjoyed by kids and adults alike (the only semi-serious tone made it look like a cartoon next to the summer’s other big superhero blockbuster, The Dark Knight). Unlike in the Raimi Spider-Man movies, which stuck Tobey Maguire behind a static mask, Tony’s “costume” allowed Favreau to cut to his star’s face: it turns out, it’s just fun to see this somewhat-reformed asshole take flight.