Iron Man: A Movie Retrospective
"The story of the man who forged the Marvel Cinematic Universe IN A CAVE, WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS"
Genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist Tony Stark, as immortalized on the big screen by Robert Downey Jr. single-handedly ushered in the modern age of superhero movies. 2008's Iron Man
, directed by Jon Favreau, paved the way for what we now call the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a massive, ludicrously ambitious project that spans multiple blockbuster franchises all at the same time.
In less than a decade, the critically acclaimed and extremely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe has completely changed the landscape of popular culture. Superheroes have never been as big as they are right now and it all started with a movie that no one could have predicted would be as huge as it turned out to be.
In honor of Captain America: Civil War
and considering Tony Stark's pivotal role in the movie's central conflict, we will take a look back at Iron Man's journey throughout the years - how he's grown as a character, as well as how crucial he is to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.
He may be among the most beloved and well known superheroes today, but back in 2008, Iron Man was far from a household name to anyone unfamiliar with the comics, and even then, he was not exactly a fan favorite.
It's a difficult character to bring to life on the bring screen, mainly because ever since his inception he was meant to represent everything readers didn't like. Stan Lee set out to write a superhero that embodied the qualities that young readers during the 1960s would hate - a wealthy industrialist that builds weapons for the military.
Four decades later, the concept of an insanely rich playboy that makes a living by building weapons of destruction is also not what you might call approachable. Tony Stark isn't like Bruce Wayne's whose glamorous lifestyle is just a carefully constructed facade to keep the fact that he's Batman a secret - Tony starts out fully immersed in that world and enjoying every second of it. The challenge of writing and playing him is in turning a character that was specifically created to be unlikable and difficult to relate with, into someone people admire and respect, someone they want to see redeem themselves and become a better person.
Enter Robert Downey Jr.
It's safe to say that Marvel has a fantastic track record of casting the right actors to play iconic comic book characters. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson are just some of the talented actors that have embraced their roles to the point where the characters are practically synonymous with them, much like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
That being said, RDJ is Tony Stark. He lives and breathes the character and did so from the very start. If there's anyone in superhero movies who could be considered absolutely, categorically irreplaceable, it would be Robert Downey Jr.
Stark's redemption was also RDJ's comeback, after a long and troubled history of substance abuse and legal trouble. In the summer of 2008, cheering for Tony Stark to pull his life back together and rise to the top was the same as rooting for Robert Downey Jr. to become the global superstar he is now. The meta-narrative of the movie that resulted from brilliant decision to cast him as Iron Man elevated an already great movie with a fantastic lead into the stuff of legend.
But what about the actual narrative of the movie? 2008's Iron Man
starts out with Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries, the world's leading weapons manufacturer, on the ground in Afghanistan to give a presentation of his latest project - the Jericho missile. As brilliant as he is frivolous, Tony firmly believes that the weapons he builds are necessary for maintaining peace.
However, when his convoy is attacked by a terrorist group known as The Ten Rings (a reference to classic Iron Man villain The Mandarin, who would later debut in Iron Man 3
), Tony is critically injured and apprehended. His captors want him to build a Jericho missile for their own use, and Tony is shocked to discover that they have access to a lot of his own weapons and supplies. Weapons that they use to kill soldiers and innocent people.
Tony builds an arc reactor to keep himself alive and also power the very first Iron Man armor. He then uses it to escape, and upon returning home, immediately shuts down the weapons manufacturing division of his company, despite a huge backlash. Having witnessed the destructive capabilities of his weapons if used in the wrong hands, Stark can no longer in good conscience support the industry.
It's a solid origin story and the groundwork for Tony Stark's characterization. Guilt, shame and the need to atone for all the years he wasted being oblivious are what drive Iron Man, even more so than the arc reactor - and the idea of tearing down what Tony thinks the world is like is present in nearly every movie he's in.
Back then, no one could have imagined that Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch and a trenchcoat, saying the words "I'd like to talk to you about The Avenger initiative" would be the start of something as epic in scope as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU owes its longstanding tradition of post-credits scenes to Iron Man as well.
The thing about the Iron Man armor? It's a weapon, and a damn good one, as much as Tony tries to deny it in both the first and second movie. It's one of the deadliest weapons ever made, but it's under his direct and personal control (he is Iron Man), thus minimizing the risk of it falling into the wrong hands - or at least that's what Tony thinks.
If Iron Man
is about shattering Tony's naive worldview and making him see the ugly truth, forcing him to take action, then Iron Man 2
is about showing him that even as Iron Man, he's not invulnerable. In the second movie, Tony's reverted to his old ways to an extent - inventing and using the armor gives him back a lot of the confidence he has in the beginning of the first movie. He is
Iron Man, and Iron Man is one of a kind. The technology is decades ahead of the competition, which means he's the one that dictates its future. Unfortunately, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is there to show Tony that he's absolutely wrong.
Iron Man 2
is widely considered one of the weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and there's a reason for that. Its a little too formulaic and familiar, focusing on being fun and laying the groundwork for the upcoming 'Avengers' film, as opposed to meaningfully growing the characters and the story.
It is a step forward, just not a very big one. Tony is once again reminded of his own mortality and by the end, he's relinquished both his duties as CEO, giving the title to the love of his life, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the responsibility of being the only one to use the armor, by letting his close friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) take the mantle of War Machine.
Iron Man 2
does further solidify the idea of The Avengers, by expanding Nick Fury from a minor cameo in a post-credit scene to a slightly bigger supporting role and also introducing Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The MCU was growing and both it and the world were gearing up for the arrival of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
was the mega-event that redefined what it meant to be a blockbuster and made every major studio scramble to put together their own "cinematic universe" as quick as possible. Expertly juggling characters from three separate franchises, their supporting cast, and a handful of other major players along with the expectations of a major summer blockbuster didn't really leave writer and director Joss Whedon with a lot of room for character development.
After all, it's a team up movie that's meant to showcase all of these superheroes working off one another and saving the world. There are plenty of meaningful character interactions and moments, such as Tony becoming close friends with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and butting heads with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) for the first time.
In the climactic final battle, Tony proves that he's willing to sacrifice himself by personally carrying a nuke through a wormhole to turn the tide. His heroism ends up saving the day, but it also sends him on a darker, more trobled path.
In the first Iron Man
, Tony Stark realized the consequences of his negligence. In Iron Man 2
, he understood that even his greatest invention was not beyond reproach - but it was the trip through that wormhole that really shook Tony to his core. There, he saw a threat to Earth beyond anything he had ever known, something bigger than both Iron Man and The Avengers - and it scared him.
In Iron Man 3
, Tony Stark is a mess, suffering from sleepless nights and frequent panic attacks. All he does is build more suits of armor, just to fill up the time and keep himself busy. He's more rattled in that movie than we have ever seen him.
Iron Man 3
was a bold new direction for the character and the franchise, and while opinions on the way the movie handles The Mandarin are sharply divided, the fact that was Marvel was willing to take such a big risk is admirable. It kicked off Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in style, letting audiences around the world now that Marvel was going to step up their game and shake up its characters like never before.
Tony eventually overcomes most of what troubles him and even destroys all the armors, reinventing himself in the process - however there's still an undeniable growing sense of paranoia and anxiety to the character that builds on top the guilt he's already carrying, culminating in the events of Age of Ultron
Director Joss Whedon has gone on record saying that in many ways, Tony Stark is the villain of Avengers: Age of Ultron
. The man who was so willing to protect the world, he created an AI that almost destroyed it. Tony's fear that he has not done enough, that he cannot do enough pushes him to new extremes.
Fortunately, The Avengers are able to stop Ultron before it's too late, but even Tony knows he's gone too far and he needs to take a step back, which brings us to Captain America: Civil War
The previews have made it clear that Tony is willing to play ball with the government, opting for more regulations and accountability for superheroes like The Avengers.
Iron Man's character development is a path of relinquishing control and atoning for the sins of the past. He is a brilliant, brave man that's driven by guilt and fear of failure. He was on a collision course with the idealistic Captain America since the very beginning, and Civil War
will be the culmination of that.