There was a time when superhero movies were personal gems found on the deserted beaches of geekdom. Studios sporadic attempts to capture the market they just knew was out there. For every Batman (1989) there was a Phantom. Spider-Man had its Fantastic Four. In true comic book fashion there seemed to be villainous adversaries, poised to strike at the zeitgeist and ensure the general population would look at most comic book movies in the same way they looked at the funny pages. There were still the adaptations that went under the radar: Red, A History of Violence and Road to Perdition all seemed to come away unscathed from the nerdy apprehension that came with super heroes.
Then, following the success of Spider-Man and to a lesser extent X-Men, Marvel took a look at the properties still in their war chest and decided they could do what FOX and Sony/Columbia did with the franchises they had the rights to. Even better, they’d be completely in control and, if successful, their characters could share the universe just like the comics. Creating Hollywood’s first major independent studio since Dreamworks, Marvel secured a $525 million revolving credit facility with Merrill Lynch and began setting up the building blocks of what we would know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s easy to take the first Iron Man movie for granted nowadays, just like the Mk 1 Armour that birthed our hero from the cave. Years of multiple viewings, improved sequels (Iron Man 3, if not Iron Man 2) and dizzying interlinking timelines from other superhero outings have left Tony Stark’s breakout movie encased in its very own Hall of Armour.
If you’ve not donned the original Iron Man Armour for a while you’ll be struck with how the opening packs quite a repulsor blast. The raw riffs of ACDC’s Back in Black as the HUMV’s glide across the Afghan desert, pulls you straight into the hull while Tony mixes it up with 3 troops. It’s a brilliant introduction to Stark. It establishes his trademarked wit and hyper-verbalisation. Not only that, but while Tony shows off to the troops and chalks up the previous year’s MAXIM cover models, he also puts them at ease. It also lulls the audience, before we’re reminded of where we are and the danger it brings. No sooner are we grinning like we’re in the “FUN-V” that the vehicle in front explodes in a jolting blast. The discs special features show an extended scene that really pushes the chaos and percussion of the firefight. The final film succeeds in half the time by illustrating just how precarious a situation Tony’s in. The panicked concussion as Stark stumbles bewildered from the truck before we see him flat on his back, helpless, his life literally seeping out of him into his tailored shirt. If that wasn’t perilous enough, a sack is then whipped from his battered and bloody head and he finds himself front and centre of his own fundamentalist hostage video (or so it seems), while terms are harshly delivered and the kidnappers cohorts proudly brandish automatic rifles. Amidst the hustle of this intro, some if the impact may be lost that during this time we’d become used to the highlighted horrors of very real videos on real-life news. It’s an unsettling and brave prospect. The fledgling studio must have bitten off a few nails while they considered the controversy. Iron Man (MK 1), seemed to be all about brave choices…
Downey Jr’s spiral and phoenix-like resurrection is well documented, but Favreau was yet another brave choice for studio. Now one of the architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and credited as an Executive Producer, by 2008 he’d cut his directorial teeth with Made, a spiritual sequel to Swingers, delivered the surprise seasonal hit with Elf and then the under-performing Zathura. Perhaps, not the experience that other studios would’ve been willing to gamble on. However, John Favreau brings an impromptu (rather than improvised) energy to the proceedings. There’s a real feeling of Tony winging it throughout the adventure. Even the characters that orbit his charismatic sun all seem to be reacting spontaneously to him. Iron Man also set the template for the proceeding movies. Not just the hero’s fall from narcissistic heights to be humbled by a chance event and realise their errors, before trying to walk a higher path, but post-credit sequences and cheeky referencing. You just don’t know your bad guys if you haven’t figured out why the planes that chase Iron Man across the sky mid-way through are called Whiplash 1 and Whiplash 2. Even the most engrossed of us would have noticed the geekgasm of certain audience members when they noticed Captain America’s shield in the workshop.
Setting aside all the referencing, inside scoops and the kudos of knowing this was the genesis of the MCU, Iron Man is still an accomplishment. One that can stand tall, not only to those in its cannon but, to the majority of star vehicles or Friday-Night-Actioners. It still has its problems, though; the jittery narrative sometimes feels like it’s picking up strands its forgotten about, the obvious switch-and-bait villain and let’s not forget the fact that the MK 1 looks nothing like the missile Yenson and our eponymous hero were tasked to make! However, the successes drown out the problems. Tony’s have-a-go inventing of the upgrading armour while his mechanised helpers worryingly spectate is a delight. The cast too seem to commit to presenting a (hyper) real version of the characters. Paltrow’s Pepper certainly develops more as the sequels progress, but there’s enough here to be getting on with. Jeff Bridges predatory Obadiah Stane is a great villain, capable of persuading the characters around him he is what he presents, before exploding into the third act. One moment in particular is a wakeup call as he bellows “TONY STARK WAS ABLE TO BUILD THIS IN A CAVE – WITH A BUNCH OF SCRAPS!” As an audience we start to rub our hands for the moment Tony will have to go up against the Iron Monger.
At the time, there was a lot of talk about the Afghan sub-text or the metaphor of America’s exit from the middle east , but if anything, the climate at the time is used as a backdrop for the amoral rabbit hole our hero is in danger of falling in. To its credit, Iron Man isn’t trying to be that clever. If it doesn’t know quite what the finished narrative armour may look like, Favreau and Co certainly know what they want it to do. Just like the suit itself; the development is painful at times, but throw a little hot rod red in there and you’ll be hard pushed to find anything as cool.
4* – World’s Mightiest Douche Bag