Welcome, True Believers, to our new monthly blog series! This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so we’ll be taking it on one film at a time, asking questions like: How do these movies stack up after a decade of the MCU? How was cinema’s first connected universe built? And what even is a superhero film?
We’ll be starting, unsurprisingly, with the very first MCU movie…
SECOND FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Tim: I think Iron Man still holds up really well. It’s very much an origin film, and the villain isn’t super compelling, but anchored around Robert Downey Jr’s performance, it’s still something I enjoy watching.
Having Iron Man as the launchpad of the Marvel Cinematic Universe probably wouldn’t be anyone’s first pick in a world where they had the rights to all their characters – but I think it works well enough. The Marvel Universe has always had a slightly technological/science bent to it, so it works well to establish a base reality.
Alex: What I was kind of amazed by, going back, is how grounded in reality it actually feels. Which was a bit of a watchword of superhero cinema at the time – Iron Man came out the same year as The Dark Knight, after all – but it comes out here in a very different way to Nolan’s detail-fetishism.
It’s conversant in pop culture in a way that now feels very MCU. The Mad Money cameo is dumb, but for me it roots this film in the real world far more than Batman and his ten factories for each costume component.
There’s plenty of the other kind of realism as well, though. I was actually amazed at how long it stays in the ‘arms dealer rethinks his ways’ military thriller groove. Up to about the one-hour mark, it could branch off a different way and be something closer to Lord of War, the Nicolas Cage movie.
Tim: Yeah, I was very struck by how ‘War on Terror’ it all felt – and how little examination there was of that, even once he decides he doesn’t want to be an arms dealer any more. The thing that shocks Tony isn’t seeing his weapons in action and realising the physical results of his theoretical engineering. It’s seeing them used on American soldiers.
There’s an unspoken undercurrent that weapons are only bad because the ‘wrong people’ can get them, rather than, ‘hey, maybe don’t build something that can slaughter hundreds of people with the push of a button’.
Alex: The film kind of combines two big American fantasies of the early 21st Century: The Righteous War on Terror, and The Tech Billionaire Who’s Going to Save Us All.
It’s interesting to see now how much this Iron Man plays on the fantasy of the sexy billionaire, almost as much as it does the superhero – something that’s never really done with modern Bruce Wayne. There’s the cars, the tech, even the weapons…
Tim: The fantasy of being Tony Stark is as important as the fantasy of being Iron Man, if not more so. When we’re introduced to the house as the reporter wakes up, there’s almost a James Bond-esque sting on the soundtrack. Tony is almost like a Bourne or a Bauer, and yet not at all beholden to a government. That ties back to the whole Magical Billionaire thing, and to the general cynicism around governments which would be prevalent in 2008.
One final point on the Dark Knight versus Iron Man comparison: it’s interesting that both in the film and in discussion of the film at the time, there was a lot of space given over to how Bruce Wayne uses a mass surveillance tool during the climax of Dark Knight. Yet I can’t remember anyone talking about the fact that, during his escape, Tony Stark breaks out the flamethrowers and commits an actual war crime. It feels like a very on-the-nose example of where political concerns (for white people) were at the time.
Alex: I suspect the reason for the differing treatment is simply that Iron Man is ‘just’ a ‘light’ ‘fun’ movie, but I do feel like the film treads a very thin line with this stuff, where it starts to address these concerns, and with Obadiah Stane even makes them its villain… but it never fully commits.
Tim: You could ask, then, why touch on it at all? I suppose one answer is that Iron Man as a character has to be rooted in real-world issues. Not making him an arms dealer would kind of undermine his whole character arc. But I think part of it is also that we still weren’t comfortable making a straight-up superhero film, so it pulls in a lot of tropes from action/thriller/revenge movies. For the first two-thirds or so, it’s, you know, Bill Gates in Death Wish.
Tim: To me, one of the fundamental pillars of ‘superhero’ as a genre (if it is one) is saving people, and Iron Man doesn’t really do that. There’s his mission in Gulmira, but that feels framed as revenge on his captors rather than a humanitarian mission. He saves some passers-by during the final fight, but that’s not the reason he’s fighting.
Alex: The Gulmira scene goes quite heavy on the family he saves, with the kid running into the arms of his dad, but there’s definitely some ambiguity there. The entire second act is a slow fade between the two types of film that are being stitched together – the military thriller and the superhero blockbuster – and this is the meeting point. The crossover between the two sides of the genre Venn diagram.
Tim: I think it’s an extremely interesting choice that, when he first powers up the Mark 1 armour in the cave, there’s a short sequence before he really emerges into the light and we get a good look at him, and it’s filmed almost like a horror sequence, with Tony as the monster. It puts us, suddenly, in the shoes of the Ten Rings fighters confronted with this extraordinary force.
It feels like a subversion of the film’s whole narrative for a brief moment, but it’s over almost as soon as it begins, and we’re back to cheering for him as he shoots them.
Because it’s straddling genres, the film is definitely serving two masters, though honestly none of them are particularly known for their complex morality. But when it reaches for something more complex, this means that it’s pulled in different directions. The superhero side wants a more traditional ‘comic’ villain, so we get told that the Ten Rings aren’t the real bad guys, or at least not the main bad guys – it’s Jeff Bridges in his big robot suit.
Alex: I feel like that transition between villains just about holds together because it’s handled as a misdirect. The bald Ten Rings guy is set up as if he’s going to be the Big Bad – he’s got the scarred face of a Bond villain, which gives him a bit of shared origin with the hero – but by the time Iron Man reaches its climax, it has left behind the kind of film where he would be the villain.
Not just because Stane is the one with the superpowers by that point, but because he’s the guy who’s close to the hero. That’s something I think the Spider-Man films especially had established as a key part of superhero films by this point, with Osborn and then Octavius.
Alex: One of the things we’re talking about is whether the MCU works as one big story. Does Iron Man feel like a beginning to that story – and does it make Stark the protagonist of the entire universe, as I’m sure his ego would attest?
Tim: I think as the first character in place, it’s always going to feel like the universe is built around him to a certain extent – but I also think he works better for that than, for example, Thor would. Like I mentioned earlier, the Marvel universe in the comics has always centred itself on science fiction, and Iron Man is the least fantastic route into that.
I think you can definitely trace a clean line from Iron Man to Civil War, bringing in all the military-industrial stuff we talked about earlier. But at the same time, that thread doesn’t really touch on the likes of Thor, Guardians and Ant-Man.
Alex: That’s something to keep an eye as we continue our journey into MCU-ery. For now, I think it’s fair to say we’ve got a compelling protagonist who can touch on a lot of different worlds. Both Tony Stark and this film balance war, spy, sci-fi and straight-up superhero genre stuff, which is going to prove very useful as the universe starts to fill out.
The film also does a good job of setting up these other characters, like Rhodey and Coulson. Their inclusion feels relatively organic and they each have stuff to do in the film, but there’s clearly room for them to come back and maybe even get their own movies.
Tim: I think it’s easy to look at it now and see it setting up the MCU, but everything that’s set up in this film could also easily be contained to a single film series. We can spot how the Ten Rings sets up a potential Mandarin, we know SHIELD is a big deal, but to your average moviegoer, they don’t mean a lot. If the MCU hadn’t taken off, it’s just a way to give Iron Man some fun spy shit to do in later films.
It’s only really the final scene with Fury that begs for a wider world beyond one that just contains Iron Man.
Alex: That post-credits sequence feels feels so mild now. It’s just a dude (admittedly, a dude who happens to be Samuel L Jackson) saying the word ‘Avengers’.
Tim: Yeah, it manages to be very brief and to the point, but also kind of explodes out the whole universe. I can still remember that moment in the cinema, and it felt huge. I think it was just understanding the scope of their ambition, or having it confirmed, for the first time.
Alex: For me, the scene which feels like the moment the MCU was born is the pre-credits final scene – or, as it would have been known before this film put the idea post-credit stings on the map, the final scene. That final line: “I am Iron Man.”
It’s explosive, and I think it makes you want to come back for more of this vibe, but more importantly it feels like a statement of intent.
Right before that scene, Iron Man actually hits probably the biggest Superhero Films of the Early 21st Century trope in the entire movie: Tony Stark picks up a newspaper dubbing this mysterious new hero ‘Iron Man’ and basically goes “oh yeah, that’s pretty good, I might have to use that name”. That places the film right next to Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and then a minute or so later it takes this other key tenet of superhero fiction – the secret identity – and completely upends it.
It feels like the film saying: superhero movies can be all different kinds of things. Which kind of becomes the motto of the MCU.
Alex: Another thing we’ll be talking about as we go is how much the accepted idea of a ‘Marvel formula’ carries through into these films. How much does this film set up a pattern for the others to follow?
Tim: I think as far as a ‘house style’ goes, this film definitely establishes the look of the MCU – the cinematography and the colour palette, that sort of thing. Given that it was filmed prior to this coming out, I think we’re definitely going to notice that Incredible Hulk doesn’t look like a Marvel film.
Alex: For me, the formula that Iron Man establishes on a more foundational basis is: Compelling charismatic lead who is (hopefully) just as interesting out of their costume as in it. Pulling from other genres of cinema, especially in the front half. And a slightly dodgy blockbuster climax.
On that ‘Marvel last half-hour problem’, because I know it’s a thread we’re going to be coming back to… It’s definitely the film’s biggest weak-point, but I have to say, the climactic fight scene actually fares better than I remember.
Maybe it’s just a cause of seeing it done on a much bigger scale in those later films, but it’s not as drawn-out as I remember. And it feels more part of the whole too, thanks mostly to a couple of nice pay-off moments: Rhodey bringing back the “just a training exercise” line, the high-altitude freeze-up as a way of beating Stane. I just kind of wish the fight ended there, rather than dragging on for another five minutes.
Tim: The ice moment would be such a nice climax, and ties back to Tony being the genius and Stane just being the businessman.
Alex: It feels like Tony beating him with a cool unique solution that grows organically out of what we’ve seen so far. It’s reinforcing that difference between the characters, that Tony is a hands-on guy who’s done all the testing himself, something which is actually nicely backed up in the designs of the two suits. Stane’s is much bigger and clumsier, which also helps differentiate them visually, so the audience doesn’t have the Transformers problem.
Tim: There are a couple of things that I think make the rest of that fight more worthwhile.
I found it interesting that, when the Arc Reactor overloads at the end, we get a big old column of light up into the sky. Makes me wonder if the Tesseract portal in Avengers was deliberately mirroring that.
But much more importantly, it means that Pepper is the one who actually defeats Stane. It’s nicely in line with her earlier espionage mission. It establishes her competence and her cool head, without turning her into a ‘Strong Female Character’ who does one bit of karate then goes back to being a damsel-in-distress.
Alex: That scene you mention, with Pepper in the office downloading files as Stane walks in, is the most exhilarating part of the entire conclusion for me. The tension of ‘is he going to know she knows’ is perfect – and again is lifted straight from a different kind of film, in this case a spy thriller.
Let’s talk about Pepper a little, as she’s one of the supporting cast who continues to pop up in various MCU films. And, more to the point, the MCU’s first – and at this juncture only – female character.
Tim: I feel like a lot of what makes Pepper great in this film is down to Paltrow improvising stuff, making her feel a little more human, and giving her a bit more backbone. People criticise Iron Man 2 a lot, but I think it actually does a hell of a lot better in regards to her character.
Alex: I think Pepper is another case of the film treading a very thin line, and just about managing to stay on the right side. The scene at the charity gala where she and Tony dance, and he starts out by negging her, reminding her he’s his boss and, having reminded Pepper he could fire her, says “am I making you uncomfortable?” That scene is very much not on the right side of that line.
But the film is very careful to show that Pepper is the one going in for the kiss afterwards, which suggests they’re aware of the fire they’re playing with. It’s 2008’s social awareness in a bottle, I guess.
Tim: One thing I would say in the film’s favour here is that I don’t feel like there was any especially egregious male gaze in the camera at any point, which suggests that Tony’s sexism is more a character trait than a function of the film’s attitude towards women.
Alex: To wrap up, I want to talk about a couple of moments each which we think sum up our feelings about the film, for good or bad.
Having talked about how the film slowly fades into being a superhero film, I want to pick out a couple of milestones along the way for me. The first is when Tony flies for the first time, in his garage. It’s rooted in realism by the found-footage presentation, and there’s a healthy dose of physical humour, but it gives me those special butterflies in my tummy that only superheroes really can.
Meanwhile, the first moment where it really feels like A Marvel Blockbuster, and not necessarily in a good way, is Rhodey looking at the second suit and going “hey, next time, baby”. At that point, every trace of the film Iron Man was at the outset has been completely wiped clean, and we’re into new territory. New territory which, sadly, mostly consists of two giant robot suits beating the crap out of one another.
Tim: Yeah, it’s kind of the first sign we get of Marvel’s most common sin, which is the promise of deferred reward, rather than any actual reward in the moment.
For me, the moment when Pepper is helping Tony remove his old arc reactor is a standout. It demonstrates the easy chemistry that Downey Jr and Paltrow share, and the almost improvisational rhythm to the dialogue that is certainly one of the calling cards of this series, if not the MCU as a whole.
Also, the special effects used here, with the prosthetic chest allowing Paltrow to physically reach in while Downey Jr is there acting, holds up fantastically and shows to power of physical props and effects. Like with the initial flight scene you mention, there’s a tremendous sense of realism created by the physicality of the scene, without the need to explain away every bit of super science and drain the wonder away.
As with so much of the film, it’s a deft balancing act, but it’s one that, even 10 years later, it manages to pull of pretty successfully.
- The first sound we hear in the MCU is AC/DC, which I think is pretty emblematic of the kind of ‘cooler older brother’ tone that the universe tries to nail.
- Speaking of music, we also get a cameo from Ghostface Killah, the Wu Tang member who also goes by Tony Starks, Ironman and occasionally Starky Love. Sadly, though he originally had a bigger part, Mr Killah only appears in a music video playing in the background – the full cameo ended up as a deleted scene.
- Stan Lee’s cameo, where he’s mistaken for Hugh Hefner, is unfortunately apt in 2018, but not for any reason the filmmakers would like.
- Now canon: Tony Stark is a Burger King man. When he’s back on US soil and looking for an “American cheeseburger”, it’s the King that Tony turns to.
- This just in from the IMDB trivia section… “In an interview with Britain’s Empire Magazine, Robert Downey Jr thanked Burger King for helping him get straight in 2003, with a car full of drugs. He had a burger that was so disgusting, it made him rethink his life, and dump the drugs in the ocean. He repeats this, with his impromptu sit-down session with the press, upon his return from captivity.”
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane rolling in on a Segway, chewing on a fat cigar and wearing a pinstripe suit. New conceptions of wealth meet old, but also more importantly… it’s A Look.
- Hey, It’s Definitely 2008 – Tony is worried about his picture showing up on the soldier’s MySpace page, and his phone still has physical buttons.
- For the film that kicks off the MCU, it feels kind of strange that we never visit New York. If it was a case that we didn’t arrive in modern-day Manhattan until Cap wakes up, and then Avengers is our first real film there, arguments could be made that this is an intentional effect. But, as we’ll see next month, The Incredible Hulk is about to arrive and totally invalidate that…