Iron Man (2008) – The Road to the Avengers
This article is part one of an ongoing feature on my blog, “The Road to the Avengers“, which hopes to convey my thoughts on the current films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating on my thoughts of The Avengers when it is released on Friday, May 4th.
Iron Man (2008) came out of nowhere for many people. While comic book fans know Tony Stark quite well, Iron Man had never enjoyed the kind of success that, say, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men had enjoyed up until 2008. However, the film released with an electric buzz, drawing even those with no love for comics into the theater for the thrill ride. Its success makes sense, looking back at it. Iron Man is a perfect vehicle for sleek, sexy technology (special effects) and the casting of Robert Downey Jr. ensured we’d be in for a ride with a charming and witty Tony Stark.
The film really encapsulates the “billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” that is Tony Stark and it provides a pretty compelling origin story as well. Robert Downey Jr. brings a sense of comedy and wit that wasn’t necessarily prevalent throughout the previous comic books, but it’s so fitting that recent Iron Man comic authors have brought that aspect of Stark into the fold. But the casting of Downey Jr. was questioned when the film was in pre-production. Could he really carry an action film? I believe he does so with flying colors, although a lot of the heavy lifting in the action department is certainly done by his CGI counterpart. I really think the character arc written for Stark in this film is beautifully constructed. We start the film seeing his rock-star status in the “Funvee” (not the “hum-drumvee”) and at Caesar’s Palace with his complete and utter neglect for the accolades being given to him at an event he’s not even attending. However he hits rock-bottom upon awakening in a cave with an electromagnet stuck to his chest and strapped to a car battery after witnessing his own Stark Industries weapons kill those that he sought to protect. The film ends with a Tony Stark that has learned a lesson… for the most part. Of course, he feeds Leslie Bibb’s character the line about him being a super-hero and he of course wants to claim that title, so he reveals himself as the “Iron Man”. Tony gets taken down a notch when he’s stuck in the cave, so much so that it changes who he is fundamentally. While he remains a playboy and a sly joker through and through, his defense-contracting roots are ripped out from beneath him when Obediah Stane starts dealing with foreign insurgents under the table and it’s a beautiful journey. Downey Jr.’s performance completely sells the story, despite the fantastical idea that one could wear an iron suit and demonstrate more mobility than most athletes and the creation of a superior energy source “IN A CAVE! WITH BOX OF SCRAPS”.
Speaking of Stane, the film’s villains are neither the strongest or the weakest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, the “terrorist” villains serve their serviceable part. The “Ten Rings” and their leader, Raza, essentially offer no competition to Stark once he has the power of the Iron Man Mk. I and III on his side, but they provide the perfect oppression to Stark as he formulates his escape plan and invents the most technologically advanced exoskeleton on the Earth. The strength of the Iron Man comics has never stemmed from its rogues gallery. Most of Iron Man’s worthy adversaries present themselves in their own technological suits much like Stark’s himself, but the insertion of Iron Monger into this film makes a lot of sense. Stane’s desire to take Tony’s latest creation into his own hands is pretty thoroughly thought-out, abducting the Mk. I suit from Raza and modifying it to have the “umph” that Stark couldn’t give it with his limited resources. Iron Monger puts up a good fight and certainly gives Tony a run for his money, but his death is a bit of foreshadowing of the cop-out to come in Iron Man 2… but we’ll talk about that later.
As said above, Iron Man has a lot of robotic/technological suits that he battles in the comics as well as some mystical forces (e.g. Mandarin), but I think the success of “Batman Begins” and the (at the time) upcoming “The Dark Knight” really gave director Jon Favreau the idea that the more grounded the villian/universe, the more serious people will take the film. The summer 2008 movie schedule was probably a godsend for Iron Man as its successes could’ve been quickly discounted by critics and audience alike after the powerhouse that is “The Dark Knight” was released. As number 8 for the year of 2008 in worldwide box office, Iron Man certainly saw the success that it was owed, despite sharing a year with the biggest comic book film to date. Note that the date of this article is still before the release of “The Avengers”.
This film also saw the first groundwork for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “The Avengers”. Although he was never present in the comic book universe, agent Phil Coulson’s presence in the film offers an early tie into the Avengers. After Stark returns from being abducted in Iraq, Coulson speaks to Pepper Potts about debriefing Mr. Stark about his recent experience (more notably his iron man invention) for the “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division”. Of course, there’s also Samuel L. Jackson’s surprise cameo as SHIELD Director Nick Fury at the end of the film’s credits, asking to speak to Tony about the “Avengers Initiative”. It’s absolutely brilliant that the roadwork was being laid six or so years before an “Avengers” film would even happen, and I’m ecstatic that Marvel Studios stuck by their plans.
Iron Man (2008) is a thrill ride with fantastic character development, serving as a brilliant introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a fantastic first step towards the Avengers. While origin stories can be over-written and dull, we see a well-formulated transition in Stark’s life while witnessing the birth of Iron Man himself. Jeff Bridges’ “Obediah Stane” offers a fairly serviceable villain but all of the performances and writing in this film provide a great baseline for developing a character-driven yet action-packed series of comic book films without taking itself too seriously.
Check back tomorrow for a writeup on 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk”!