May 2, 2018 Iron Man – 10 Years After Taking Flight
Considering how large the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become, it is hard to imagine a time when its top heroes were relative unknowns. They may have had a cartoon series here or some good comic lines there, yet they did not measure up to the ones other studios had a hold of. In fact, Iron Man made a cinematic debut back on Friday, May 2, 2008, in what would become the first entry into the MCU.
Back then, a Youtube user called ItsJustSomeRandomGuy started a series of videos spoofing the “I’m a Mac/PC” adverts with Marvel and DC superheroes. With both Iron Man and The Dark Knight fast approaching theatres, they did five videos of Batman and Iron Man butting heads. Iron Man did well at the box office, bringing in approximately $585-million, but The Dark Knight trounced it by earning almost twice that amount at just over $1-billion.
In the final video, Batman pointed out why Iron Man had to settle for 2nd place: he was a more obscure character. Keen comic fans may have known Tony Stark’s metal suits just as well as Bruce Wayne’s cowl and cape, but others? Not so much. In his review of Iron Man 2 in 2010, Gainesville Times’ writer Jeff Marker said that “The first Iron Man shocked everybody by scoring huge box office returns and earning strong reviews,” even though “the Tony Stark/Iron Man character meant nothing to most moviegoers before the 2008 hit.”
It was not for lack of trying. In 1990, Universal Studios got the film rights and tried to have Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator 1984, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves 1997) make a low-budget film. Six years later, 20th Century Fox bought the rights and wanted Tom Cruise in the suit. In another attempt, they tried to put Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction 1994, Kill Bill Vol. 1 2004) in the director’s chair. By 2000, they had sold the rights to New Line Cinema. They tried to attach future Avengers film director Joss Whedon to the property before they sold the rights back to Marvel in 2005. It was only then that Marvel announced Iron Man as their first self-financed film.
One can only dream of an Iron Man in the style of the unreleased 1990 Fantastic Four film, or of a Tarantino-esque comic book film. Though, it is hard to argue against what viewers finally got: it was close enough to the original comics for the die-hards, and entertaining enough for the casual viewer with its down-to-earth approach, funny scenes and action sequences. Well, at least as down-to-earth as an Elon Musk-type fighting tanks in Afghanistan can be.
Director Jon Favreau (Swingers 1996, Daredevil 2003) cited this approach as “if Robert Altman directed Superman” in 2007 to Empire Magazine. He had wanted to make it the “ultimate spy movie,” akin to Tom Clancy’s novels or the James Bond franchise. Yet, between updating its 1960’s origins to the modern day, piecing together the final draft from two screenplays by 4 different writers (with a 5th adding polish), and taking advice from comics’ writers Brian Michael Bendis, Ralph Macchio (not that one) and Mark Millar amongst others, it did not turn out that way.
Not that it is lacking in spy intrigue: there is Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow: Seven 1995, Sliding Doors 1998) sneaking behind someone’s back to get some evidence, plots being carried out in secret, etc. It just takes a backseat to the crux of the story; one man having to reinvent himself after getting a harsh dose of reality. Some considered casting Robert Downey Jr. (Weird Science 1985, Richard III 1995) as the titular character a no-brainer when Iron Man’s alcoholism was brought up (and later explored in the sequel). However, Favreau told USA Today in 2007 that he was cast because “the best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark.”
Downey Jr. has done a lot to reinvent himself since his darker days. It is just that the real-life Downey Jr. may have done a better job of doing that than Tony Stark. Character co-creator Stan Lee said he created the character to see if he could get young people to sympathise with someone they would usually hate. In this case, it was an arms manufacturer who, on getting stuck in Vietnam, had to MacGyver his way out of there. In both the film and comic, he has help from a fellow scientist to build an armoured suit to break out of the prison camp and keep himself from dying from a piece of shrapnel lodged next to his heart. Just replace Vietnam with Afghanistan, and yellow-peril Vietcong with the ‘Seven Rings’ terrorist cell.
Once he gets back home he announces he is pulling out of the arms business. This almost tanks his company and irritates his army buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard: Hustle & Flow 2005, Empire series). He had been an enthusiastic collaborator with the U.S. war machine, and showed no shame in showing off his new deadly weapons to them. Of course, that changed when he ended up on the receiving end! So far, it sounds just like Favreau intended: Stark changing his ways and moving on to new ventures – like upgrading the armour suit.
At first, it seems like a hobby, like tinkering with his sportscars. Eventually, there is a scene where he fights off terrorists in Afghanistan by himself with his swanky new suit. This is his big heroic moment where he thinks of others before himself and saves the day, or does he? It does not seem too different to what he was doing before, except he is now keeping his technology to himself. In his “Between the Lines” video on the Avengers, film critic Kyle Kallgren cited Stark as an Objectivist hero. Stark’s villains either want his work for themselves or to turn it against him. So, the only way the world can be safe is if Stark’s tech stays in Stark’s hands and is policed by Stark and his vision alone; he traded in U.S. imperialism for his own.
Some say this makes Stark more like a villain by interpretation. Though by design it is more likely one (of many) character flaws. Downey Jr. imbues him with charm and wit, as well as arrogance, conceit and pathos. He is a confident character, and a bit of an asshole, but not an unrepentant one. After all, this was just the first leg of the journey. What happens to his vision when his judgment is impaired (Iron Man 2 & 3), when he clashes with other heroes (Avengers, Captain America 3: Civil War), or when it makes things worse (Avengers: Age of Ultron)? Does that make him the right man to give others advice (Spider-Man: Homecoming), or do the right thing once the world faces a new threat (upcoming Avengers: Infinity War)? Whether one loves the MCU or hates it, it does like to play with its character motivations.
Overall, as it celebrates 10 years, Iron Man has more going on under its hood than it looks, but it does not reach The Dark Knight‘s complexity. It was always going to be the popcorn-chewing rival, both back then and now. However, it seems that Iron Man has ended up having the last laugh through its ever-growing number of successors. Following up The Dark Knight was difficult enough for Nolan with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, likewise for Zack Snyder with 2016’s Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, which did better at the box office than with its audience. Yet, for better or worse, Iron Man and its formula took Marvel to new heights. So perhaps the Iron Man figure in that YouTube video got the last laugh after all!