The Bard once wrote, “What’s past is prologue,” and that certainly applies to our pop culture landscape. It’s always important to reflect upon and reevaluate what has come before. Doing so can help us to better appreciate something new, or possibly unlock some hidden meaning in the past that we never considered. To understand where we are, we have to know where we’ve been. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at…
Iron Man (2008)
Captain America: Civil War signifies the enormous success of an experiment nearly a decade in the making. Though we’re in the thick of cinematic superhero dominance today, it wasn’t the same world back in 2008. While there had obviously been superhero films that hit the mainstream in a big way, there was never the idea that these films would be anything more than their own self-contained stories. The concept of replicating a comic book universe on film was unprecedented.
Enter Jon Favreau. The director of Elf and Zathura was obviously a talented filmmaker, but did he have the chops to step into the blockbuster arena? He’d need something truly special, something that anchored his take on one of Marvel’s most iconic and storied characters. He’d need an actor that could sell the world on the idea of Tony Stark.
It’s hard not to think of Robert Downey Jr. as one of America’s most beloved actors, but that was exactly the case before the release of Iron Man. He’d been known as a self-destructive wild child until Tony Stark changed all of that. Looking at the film today, it’s incredible to see how fully formed Tony is right out the gate. Introduced in transit from a weapons demonstration, a boom box blasts AC/DC’s “Back in Black” to signal the return of one of our true movie stars. Downey oozes charm from the very first scene, playfully cavorting with the soldiers assigned to protect him. It’s no wonder that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would become known for its humor and charisma when this performance set the bar.
At the same time, Iron Man also approaches its story and characters with utmost sincerity. There’s a clear effort to set Tony Stark in a world just a smidgen away from our own. It’s this lack of overt style to the world that helped solidify the Marvel Cinematic Universe as something mass audiences could believe in. The indulgent fantasy of Tim Burton’s Batman or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man had no place in this iteration, and while that has led to some people criticizing the MCU films for feeling samey, it’s hard to deny that the intended effect — making us believe in a world where Iron Man could exist — works like gangbusters. Iron Man knows when to be silly and when to be serious, and it does so without fumbling its tone.
Not everything about Iron Man is a complete success; the villainous Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is a pretty boilerplate bad guy. To be fair, Bridges plays the part deftly and injects a lot more character into Stane than what was probably present on the page. The MCU films also get accused for having a villain problem and it’s a fair observation. Marvel is much more interested in making their heroes stand out instead of their antagonists, and that approach is certainly present in Iron Man. Stane is by no means a terrible villain but he’s not a very interesting one. His fights with Tony as the Iron Monger are enjoyable in terms of pure spectacle, but there’s very little heart behind the punches.
Still, Iron Man does so much right from the get-go that it becomes a lot easier to understand how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come together. At the end of the film, Tony refutes the established comic story of having Iron Man’s secret identity be that of an unnamed bodyguard, setting a guideline for the kind of subversion of expectations the MCU has become known for. By the time Iron Man 3 came out, the filmmakers felt bold enough to take a huge deviation — and a brilliant one — from the comic book canon with their interpretation of the Mandarin, and that kind of surprise wouldn’t have been possible without Tony’s bold declaration of, “I am Iron Man.”
And of course, who could forget the real catalyst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phil Coulson. Coulson’s unassuming and persistent SHIELD agent seems like nothing but a bit of fan-service at first, until a post-credits teaser that made the post-credits teaser a mandatory part of superhero cinema. Out of the shadows steps Nick Fury, uttering the words, “the Avenger Initiative,” and forever changing the landscape of movie history.
Iron Man is still as solid as it ever was, and while its legacy will ultimately be as a stepping stone to something far more expansive, it more than works as its own exciting endeavor. The Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn’t have started off any better.