an IRON MAN retrospective musing
Nothing in the superhero movie landscape was the same after the last line of 2008’s IRON MAN was uttered. “I am Iron Man.” In most superhero movies before that, the secret identity behind the mask was a crucial secret, only to be given to those whom were trusted most. IRON MAN flipped that trope on its head, leaving many in the audience extremely surprised by that choice. In addition to a public identity, IRON MAN also changed Hollywood, superhero movies’ tone and the public’s view of the genre.
Beginning in media res, a humvee carrying Tony Stark and other soldiers traveling from a weapons test in the Middle East is attacked by a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. The movie flashes back 36 hours, showing Tony’s unhindered playboy tendencies. It’s a reflection of Robert Downey Jr.’s early real-life persona, so it’s hard to imagine he had to stretch for this part of the movie. We’re also introduced to a reporter, Christine Everhart, who shows up in the rest of the film. Stark travels to Afghanistan to demonstrate his new weapons in front of military generals, and in a brilliant touch, Tony stumbles as the explosion shockwave hits the group.
After his capture, he proceeds to build the Mark I Iron Man armor (showing his true intelligence) with the help of another inmate, Yinsen. The conversations they have hold a lot of weight and sway Tony’s personality and how he views his work. That turn is also helped by a great visual of Tony seeing a Stark Industries missile during the attack. As Tony escapes, Yinsen dies. It’s sad to see that Yinsen doesn’t really play a part or is mentioned in later MCU films, since they seemed to bond and really change Tony’s outlook on life. Stark gets picked up later by his best friend, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, played by Terrence Howard. Due to salary disputes, Howard did not return for future MCU movies, replaced by Don Cheadle. The latter seems to have a better rapport with Downey, but I really wish there was an alternate timeline where Howard stayed. Throughout this film, Howard’s Rhodey is more tough and cool, while Cheadle plays him more silly but with tons of heart.
Upon his arrival, Tony ceases his company’s weapons manufacturing. Another Stark Industries head, Obadiah Stane, a pre-TRUE GRIT Jeff Bridges, and Tony clash throughout, before it’s revealed that Stane himself was the one who hired the hit on Tony. This was before the period where Bridges pretty much exclusively plays cowboys, so it was a bit jarring to see him like this and with a bald head. When Stane gets his own giant Iron suit, this is one of the many MCU films that portray the villain as a bigger/ more evil version of our hero. (Another trope I’m not really excited about when thinking of the upcoming BLACK PANTHER, but fingers crossed they do something interesting with it.) Stane doesn’t really get much character, other than he’s more interested in making money by devious means. His end game is hard to parse out, but if he can make riding a Segway while smoking a cigar look badass, more power to him.
Tony’s assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), literally gives him a heart, and the movie even calls it out through her gift. It’s a no-brainer that the gifted heart comes back later in the film, but it’s a great way to signify their bond is more than just boss-assistant. Tony truly appreciates everything Pepper does for him, and there’s no better moment to show it than in the Gala, when the camera doesn’t cut away from those tiny moments between them while they talk. This movie could have easily made her a damsel-in-distress, but thankfully, they choose not to. Her motivations and character isn’t defined by Tony. In CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), she breaks up with Tony offscreen (aka money disputes…), but returns for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) and she and Tony announce their engagement.
IRON MAN sets up the Tony Stark character very well, establishing his personality and motivations. He goes through a lot, and we still see shards of this past in future movies. Christine, the reporter, is looking at this from a piercing birds-eye view, but also indulges herself in Stark’s pleasures. She continues to ask leading questions and really dig into Stark when he comes back from Afghanistan, but he finally lets go of that in the final press conference. He looks directly at her when she continues to question him about the Iron Man and tells everyone there he is the superhero. It’s a big character moment for Stark, since it completes his arc and hits on the big theme: he is finally confronting his past and his failures, wipes his slate clean and looks forward to a brighter future all in one fell swoop/sentence. (I wish he wouldn’t have broken eye contact with her when the rest of the reporters stand up and not her. This would have played more into that theme, for me.)
It wasn’t the first movie to do a post-credit scene, but this set up the public’s demand/reliance on those. Samuel L. Jackson shows up (in an amazing nod to the Ultimate version of the Marvel comic universe) as Nick Fury to tell Stark that he is not alone, that he is starting the Avengers Initiative. Audiences were already surprised by the “I am Iron Man” reveal at the end, but this blew the doors open for the potential of what this Marvel Cinematic Universe can be, the stories it could tell.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK was released a month after this, expanding the MCU. On the DC front, THE DARK KNIGHT was another game-changing juggernaut, showing that superhero movies can and should be taken seriously, too. DC stuck to Nolan’s trilogy, delaying their DC Movie Universe until MAN OF STEEL in 2013, just after THE AVENGERS changed the game again. Universal tried to put their own Dark Universe together, using classic horror monsters as their superheroes, but failed with THE MUMMY in 2017. More franchises are expanding their mythology with this kind of multiple-movie world building, which has been done before, but never to this scale nor quality.
It’s quite amazing to see that 10 years and 18 films after IRON MAN, people aren’t tired of this genre. One major factor of that is the filmmaker’s willingness to open their movie to different genres within it. IRON MAN is essentially a grounded post-9/11 war movie that just happens to have a superhero, rather than have a crazy comic story. It’s more accessible for the general public, and really allows this movie to thrive and stay relevant.