Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

Ten years ago, a certain cinematic universe was born…

 

Iron Man 2008

In the beginning: Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Bridges head-up the cast of Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man’.

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway / 2008

What’s it about?

After escaping captivity and near-death in Afghanistan, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark builds a hi-tech armoured suit and embarks on a mission to thwart evil…

Retrospective

A surprise hit back in 2008, Iron Man was not only the first theatrical release for Marvel Studios but the Big Bang of the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A decade later, it’s hard to imagine that a feature film adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known (the rights to the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively) characters was considered a huge gamble and had the fate of a potential film franchise weighing heavily on its shoulders.

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures (Disney’s purchase of Marvel would take place in 2009), Iron Man would take the Howard Hughes inspired character created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber together with artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby (first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963), place him in the 21st Century and meld the core elements of billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark with the performance of lead star Robert Downey Jr.

An inspired casting choice, the once troubled Downey Jr was able to channel his demons into the role of Tony Stark – a character who had plenty of personal struggles in the comics – and turn in a performance that balances wisecracking quips with some hearty introspection.  Downey Jr is certainly a strong point and although this interpretation of Tony Stark differs somewhat to the more broody version comic book readers would be used to up to that point (writers such as Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis leaning him more towards the lighter, playful big screen version in subsequent runs), it’s a take that fits with what Marvel were seemingly going for with Iron Man – a colourful, fun action film with nuances of maturity, tucking in themes of redemption as the film’s protagonist seeks a more heroic and morally justifiable path.  When we first meet Stark, CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, he’s not the most likeable of people – a carefree and careless egotist who likes to drink, gamble and womanise in equal measure.  Yet, over the course of the film we grow to care for Stark as he reflects on errors of the past and embarks on his journey to becoming ‘Iron Man’.

 

Iron Man 2008 (2)

Robert Downey Jr: inspired casting for ‘Iron Man’.

The plot of Iron Man is fairly straightforward and functions well as an origin story and although it lacks the sophistication and artistry of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s entertaining and gets the job done.  Updating the Vietnam-era setting of Iron Man’s comic book debut to that of post 9/11 Afghanistan, Tony Stark is gravely injured by one of his own weapons and captured by militants where his life is saved by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who fits an electromagnet to Stark’s chest, preventing deadly shards of shrapnel from piercing his heart.  Put to work on constructing a missile, Stark instead builds an armoured suit, powered by a refined version of the electromagnet and escapes.  Having witnessed the horrors of war and how his weapons could be used for untold evil, Stark returns home with a change of heart, announcing the end of munitions manufacturing at Stark Industries, to the reticence of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  Frozen out by the rest of the board, Stark develops a new iteration of the armoured suit and sets out to destroy the cache of stolen weapons being utilised by the very terrorist group who held him captive.  Meanwhile, Stane has other plans for the future of Stark Industries and will stop at nothing to realise them.

Downey Jr is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Pepper’ Potts, Tony Stark’s trusted, often frustrated, assistant who non-the-less is always at her boss’s side.  Paltrow is solid in the part, gifted with some plucky lines and it’s only bolstered by the easy chemistry between herself and Robert Downey Jr.  Adding further to the star-power is Academy Award nominee Terence Howard, who makes his only appearance as Tony’s friend and military liaison to Stark Industries, Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes.  Grumbles over pay negotiations for the sequel would lead to Howard being replaced by Don Cheadle, who continues in the role to today.

As the big bad, Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to the role of Obadiah Stane elevating it above something that could’ve easily come off as too pantomime in less capable hands, resulting in one of the more memorable Marvel film villains.  Stane’s increasing mania as he builds an exo-suit of his own is fun to watch, leading to an explosive finale as Stark dons the Iron Man armour to face off against Stane and his formidable ‘Iron Monger’ suit.

Iron Man 2008 (3)

Tony Stark takes flight in the Mark III Iron Man armour…

Director Jon Favreau (who also appears as Tony Stark’s driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan) keeps things energetic and exciting, delivering slick spectacle without sacrificing the smaller and more intimate character moments.  The film’s design is commendable, the highlight of which is the Iron Man armour itself.  Based on the designs of comic book artist Adi Granov and created using a mixture of CGI and practical elements – implemented by the legendary Stan Winston Studios – it’s a faithful translation of the red and gold future Avenger from the four colour pages to the silver screen.

Iron Man remains a highly enjoyable watch, whilst Tony Stark’s Avengers outings are generally stronger and the character, along with Robert Downey Jr’s continued success in the part, has grown and matured.  The film’s positive reception cemented the plans of Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the wider superhero world teased by the inclusion of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson and a post-credits appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as the organisation’s director, Nick Fury) and instilled Marvel with the confidence to adapt other lower-tier comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange all of which would be well received by audiences and critics alike.

Geek fact!  An Iron Man feature film had lingered in development since the 1990s, with superstar Tom Cruise at one point mooted as a possible candidate for the lead role.

All images contained herein belong: Marvel Studios and used for illustrative purposes only.

 

17 thoughts on “Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

  1. Great review! The first Iron Man film is brilliant, really exciting, and action packed. Its also a lot of fun as well. Downey Jr’s casting as Stark / Iron Man is simply sublime, and he really makes the role his own. Iron Man paved the way for the MCU that we know and love today, and its still a terrific superhero movie in tis own right 🙂

      • Yes, the take on the character was quite different, but it worked out ok in the end. The first Iron Man film is still one of my favourites in the MCU, its so exciting, and loads of fun 🙂

  2. I’ve been heralding Stane as one of the better MCU villains for some time now, he seems to be the one that everyone forgets about. Tis good to know I’m not alone in that endeavour.

      • Absolutely. It really feels like a lot of Phase One has been somewhat forgotten amidst all the crossovers and spectacle of Phase two and three. It’s a shame considering how much good there is in those films.

  3. Wonderful throwback review, sir. I remember when this first came out and I was in high school. No one knew what an Iron Man was, but Marvel brilliantly delivered it thanks to great direction, great writing and great actors. It’s pretty crazy to think that a character like Iron-Man is what started everything (or some would say the Hulk movie was), but it’s nice to see how people checked it out and got sucked into the universe one movie at a time. What do you think Marvel’s plans are after Avengers 4? Do you think they’ll bring in the “diverse” variations of these heroes onto the big screen? Like RiRi Williams? Female Thor? Korean Hulk? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they went in that direction with how we tend to aim for “diversity” in every show/movie nowadays. And after that, maybe things will be settled with Fox to finally include the X-Men/Fantastic Four into the universe in maybe 5-10 years. 😮

    • Thank you my friend! I honestly didn’t like the film a whole lot on first viewing simply because the tone and the take on the character was quite different from the comics but I’ve grown to appreciate it over time and it’s impact can’t be overlooked. I certainly feel Marvel will go down the legacy route in the MCU. Diversity is such a hot topic and it’s great to see all facets of humanity being represented… but it can become a little silly when we start hearing whispers of things like a female James Bond and Indiana Jones.

      • I wasn’t mind-blown by it myself and had zero reference to any source material back in the day, but I definitely share the appreciation for the movie for what it delivered. Oh no dude, I’m not a fan of those kinds of movies. It already seemed ridiculous enough with the female-led Ghostbusters, and now a female-led Ocean 11! If they continue the trend with other classics, it’s going to be a tough cinematic future! I’ve heard rumours of a female-led Avengers movie with all the female Marvel heroes too. Don’t know if that will work out too well.

      • Yeah, there’s definitely a point where the diversity balance tips but hey it’s great that we’ve gotten films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther which would’ve been considered too huge a risk a few years ago.

  4. This review brings back memories! I didn’t think back then that this film would be so important. I was enticed with the idea of a larger cinematic universe when Agent Coulson said he was from SHIELD, but foolish me didn’t bother sticking around for the post-credits when Nick Fury appeared and the word Avengers was mentioned. Wow, who would’ve known? The film is not perfect but it is a great beginning for the MCU.

  5. Ah, this is definitely one I still love! The Marvel movies might be good now, but are really feeling formulaic and predictable. This was the beginning, and I feel this was handled really well.

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