The one that started it all, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, anyway. Looking back, it’s incredibly obvious that this was not meant to be the first entry in a sprawling franchise spanning fifteen years (at this point). Yet, that doesn’t mean that the potential wasn’t always readily apparent.
2008 was an interesting year when it came to superhero films. Spider-Man had recently crashed and burned (not financially, mind you). The fourth film seemed to have been placed in indefinite limbo. The X-Men film series was struggling to recover from The Last Stand (which, in retrospect, isn’t even one of the worst entries at this point. That doesn’t make it the best, but certainly not the worst). Even Fantastic Four, Marvel’s literal First Family, struggled to make a film people wanted to see. Frankly, with all of their rights in the hands of others, it looked grim for Marvel. But, finally, they managed to get their hands on the rights of one character – a C-Lister if you’d ever seen one – in 2005 and began to pave the way for their own film. Partnered with Paramount, of course.
They weren’t insane.
Jon Favreau, of Elf fame (I love it, you love, we all love it), was brought on to direct the feature, and he cast himself in the critical supporting role of Happy Hogan – Tony Stark’s man. The search began for a relative newcomer, under the explanation that Tony Stark was the star rather than needing to be star-driven. In every early entry, this decision was the clear guiding hand. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth were not household names at this point, but the men and women who surrounded them certainly were.
For Iron Man, we had Terrence Howard (James “Rhodey” Rhodes, in his only outing as the character), Gwyneth Paltrow (Virginia “Pepper” Potts), and Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane) is the epitome of reliability and affability, were well-known and well-respected actors. All three of them bolstered Robert Downey Jr.’s natural charisma in the role of Tony Stark. Hell, they manage to nab Paul Bettany to play J.A.R.V.I.S., an integral character who, by his own admission, did a handful of days of work at the most. Of course, the mark of a good film is often its supporting cast, who are allowed to be quirky, different, and unique, but all of those traits were emphasized by its lead more than the supporting players.
The rest of the supporting cast, who filled out critical, plot-relevant roles, were Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, a man from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (said word for word, and commented on time and again that they need a more accessible name), that is trying to debrief Tony Stark after his capture. Leslie Bibb plays Christine Everhart, a reporter from Vanity Fair who’s just dying to break into deeper, more investigative, and intense news stories. And finally, we have Shaun Toub as Ho Yinsen, a man who is held captive with Tony Stark and aids him in producing his first Iron Man suit. Each of them impacts Tony, and the path he ultimately chooses can be laid at each of their feet.
Whereas the initial burst of superhero films had to craft a mold that could carry them from sequel to sequel, Iron Man had the entire repertoire to look at before it made its leap. Unlike X-Men and its myriad sequels, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Elektra, Daredevil, or the others that came between them, Iron Man had Marvel backing it from the beginning. Aside from the properties they had sold off, they had the men and women behind some of the great storylines that they could pull on. Every character that was important to the story was at their fingertips, and they could execute the concepts and plot points they had first written in comic books to their heart’s desire. There was, in the beginning, very little to hold Iron Man back. And so the seeds were planted.
Iron Man begins in medias res, in the moments leading up to Tony Stark’s capture while he is in Afghanistan before it jumps back to a day and a half earlier, and we are privy to the reasons why he ended up in Afghanistan in the first place. Stark Industries is renowned for its weapons and technology, which have been used to profit off of wars for years. Yet, when Tony is ambushed and captured, he gets an up close and personal look at what his company’s tech can do – especially when it’s in the hands of those who would use it against the U.S. armed forces. Upon his escape from captivity, Tony begins to upend decades worth of corporate strategy and go from protecting the world with their weapons to protecting the world from itself and his weapons. The thing is, the weapons industry is a lucrative part of Stark Industries, and its numerous government contracts are critical to the company’s overall success.
Except, how do you directly question a man who has recently been held hostage by terrorists with the very weapons his company manufactures? While not, quite, managing to criticize “war for fun and profit,” Iron Man, existing in a world of superheroes and fantastical scientific discoveries, can take its time to peel apart the “why” without coming off as preachy.
Tony’s best friend is in the Air Force and has worked closely with Stark Industries because of his profession through their government contracts. Pepper, even when she is “merely” his assistant, is aware of the reasons why he might want to pull a 180, but she is consummately professional even while snarking at him left and right.
Before the reveal, Obadiah is clearly working on running damage control by keeping investors and board members satisfied that everything is well in hand.
Truly, Tony Stark is a fictionalized version of the kind of man we know and see today – Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and even Steve Jobs. No one can deny their intelligence, yet their eccentricities are numerous and obvious. Everybody around him covers for these eccentricities, though they are not one to stand in the way of that same brilliance. Except, of course, for the obvious.
As Tony begins to explore his brilliance unencumbered and take his initial, awkward design to the next level, the technology that an Iron Man suit encompasses is seemingly limitless. The middle of the film is spent with him practicing with his newfound creation, identifying the kinks – both critical and noncritical – so that he can continue to evolve the suit. As would become clear in each successive film that features Tony Stark, he never did quite find the “perfect” suit, and his near-obsession level need to find newer and better ways to expand his tech base would take a toll on his personal life in much the same way as his alcoholism did in the comics.
Iron Man, as previously stated, was not made to be the launching pad of a sprawling, comprehensive franchise. Look no further than multiple actors and the director himself, swearing up and down that the script was nowhere near complete by the time filming had begun – or while it was happening. Yet, save for the action set pieces, all of which were carefully planned out, the story as a whole blossomed naturally. This gave Iron Man some of the best dialogue interplays between its cast. Sure, somebody has to remember to shoehorn in Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, but everything surrounding it? Not so much.
One of the best things to come from the improvisation was the natural development of the relationships between the characters – this is best shown in how Tony Stark and Pepper are handled. At no point is it unclear that, without Pepper Potts, Tony cannot be the man he is – her witticisms aside, she is the woman behind the man who ensures that everything runs smoothly. As the film progresses, so, too, does their relationship. Pepper is reticent to his initial overtures, though she is not above purchasing a lavish gown as a birthday present for herself from him. Their relationship builds slowly over the two-hour runtime, which is one of the franchise’s mainstays. With the interplay between them, there is no doubt that their chemistry was natural, and it continued to build in a believable manner.
By the time the end credits rolled, you would be mistaken for believing it had all been planned out, but the true plan was developed over time.
Each successive Marvel film, except for The Incredible Hulk, which came out less than two months after Iron Man, has tried to recatch that lightning in a bottle. Some of them have been more successful than others, and the overall concept was eaten up by modern-day moving-going audiences. Countless studios attempted to replicate Marvel’s early success and the stranglehold that Marvel (and its parent company, Disney) has held onto with an iron grip since The Avengers dropped in 2012. On its own, The Avengers pulled in more than a third of the total worldwide reported grosses of the entire first slate of films. The other two Iron Man films account for almost another third on their own. If nothing else, it was clear that Marvel and Jon Favreau were right. Iron Man was the star, and the film, the character, and the idea all sprang from this oasis to build the most enviable film franchise of the modern era.
And it doesn’t look to be slowing down in the least, and it all started with a character who, at the time, only the die-hard fan had more than a passing familiarity with.