Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I, however, have always been something of a sceptic when it comes to Marvel. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 2nd May 2008
MCU Phase: One
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
May contain spoilers.
The first shot in the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a desert in the Middle East. Before long ‘Back in Black’ starts playing and quickly we learn the basic characteristics of the man who will anchor much of the world’s biggest film franchise – Tony Stark. He’s smart, witty, flirty, and arrogant – all things Robert Downey Jr. is great at. A weapons developer and billionaire, Stark is a genius businessman with the personality of a rockstar.
That is until an attack on the army truck carrying Stark happens and he almost dies. Captured by terrorists but saved from death by a kindly fellow prisoner, he begins to develop something of a conscience, and here begins the story of Iron Man. The man who put his intelligence to use only on weapons in the name of ‘peace’ with scarcely a thought for where they may end up or who they may hurt, now uses it to create a suit of armour with enough gadgets to put Star Trek to shame. Like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark is not super-powered, he’s just a driven individual with technology, and a lot of money, on his side.
It was a smart move, perhaps, for the MCU to begin with Iron Man, as the lack of gods and monsters gives the film a more grounded feel. Kicking off the whole MCU, masterminded from day one by Marvel supremo Kevin Feige, among others, this film had a very important job. Few people could have predicted how big the franchise would become, meaning that Iron Man had to pull in audiences purely because it was entertaining, without the safety blanket of being a necessary piece in a much bigger picture.
Thankfully, it works really well as a standalone film. It feels self-contained and localised, with the first action set-pieces having very little to do with superheroes and flying suits. It also helps that the villain of the piece is local and personal rather than an intergalactic ne’er-do-well. Jeff Bridges makes a good baddie as Stark’s shifty business partner Obadiah Stane, who is more than a little jealous of the Iron Man suit.
The plot mechanics do not really matter, however; what really matters here is that the film has a moral and emotional core. In Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. the film gives us a leading man charismatic enough to root for. Someone to guide us through future films who we feel an early attachment to.
The film as a whole has a good thrust to it and the action thrills are well-paced. For the most part it is properly funny too, helping craft a superhero film that has a sense of giddy fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Some of the quips are frankly annoying, coming off as try-hard attempts to fill a gap in the action, as if someone in the writers’ room said ‘we need him to say something clever and funny here so he looks cool’. Not a fan, I’m afraid. But when the script isn’t trying too hard, it is smart and funny.
The overall story arc and ending can’t be said to have shattered my expectations, providing the final transition into Iron Man and easy vanquishing of the bad guy you saw coming before the film had really begun. Yet without reinventing the wheel, director Jon Favreau proves to be a safe pair of hands. He has made a film that ticks all the boxes of quality blockbustering.
That’s the film itself – what about how it fits into the MCU? Here, Iron Man impressed me, bringing in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) as an indicator that something bigger is at play, but doing so unobtrusively. The story never felt like it was stretching to be a franchise-starter. The likes of Rhodey (Terrence Howard) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who serves us as the only woman representing more than eye candy to Tony, are well-played and engaging enough for us to want to see more of them later on. Hopefully they’ll get more to do next time.
Since its inception the MCU has been famed for its post-credits stings – extra scenes hidden away several minutes after the film supposedly ‘ends’. The first one is the most overt attempt in Iron Man to plant the seed for an MCU fanbase. With the hard work of making an individually enjoyable film done, now Marvel can reel you in. All that really happens here is Tony Stark meeting Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) for the latter to announce a little something called the ‘Avenger Initiative’. Probably not important though.
Where it Ranks
Ordinarily this will be where I slot today’s film into an ongoing ranking of all MCU films. With this being the first film in the series, it will take the first, last, and only spot. One can only imagine how the current Hollywood landscape might look if this film had been terrible. Iron Man’s job was to start a franchise and be a good blockbuster ride in its own right; it manages to do a pretty good job of both. For now, at least, its a good one to beat.
- Iron Man