Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Movie Franchise?: Reexamining Iron Man (2008)

(Image Credit: Marvel Studios)

Avengers: Endgame is set to premiere in a few days, the twenty-second film in the ever expanding (and fiscally dependable) Marvel Cinematic Universe, promising to shatter box office records along with serving as the culmination of multiple story threads that began with the first phase of the cinematic franchise. After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, in which the mauve menace Thanos snapped half of all existence into dust (spoilers, I guess?), the remaining heroes must rally together to defeat Thanos as well as bring their friends and loved ones back.

The remaining cast includes the original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor,  Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk along with additional Marvel heroes Ant-Man, Rocket Raccoon, blue android and daughter of Thanos Nebula, and (coming off of her billion dollar smash) Captain Marvel. These heroes will team up, do something with quantum realm, timey-whimey things, and “avenge” the fallen, stopping Thanos’ plan and keeping the MCU chugging along.

The Marvel franchise has been the dominant box office entity since the release of The Avengers in 2012, with other studios looking to co-opt the success of cinematic universe continuity, resulting in, ahem, mixed to terrible results. Lifting popular characters and storylines from a long comic book history along with leaning into continuity and shared worlds has become a profitable enterprise for Disney, the owner of Marvel Studios. Moreover, the Marvel films have offered the most consistent blockbuster entertainment for more than a decade, films guaranteed to be “ok” or “pretty good” at worst and accessible for a diverse audience.

While it is one thing to celebrate the quality of the Marvel films and the success of the franchise as a whole, it is important to remember that their consistency and bankability was not always a given. Before the release of the original Avengers, the moviegoing consensus questioned whether such an ambitious concept would be viable. Would all of these beloved characters mesh with one another in an organic way, each getting a proper amount of screen time and interacting with one another in an entertaining way? While we now see the critical and commercial success of the Marvel films, particularly the Avengers subseries, as inevitable, it was not always the case.

Ultimately, potential for a sprawling, cinematic universe owed to the goodwill built from the first Iron Man film (as well as the post-credits scene introducing Nick Fury and something called the “Avengers Initiative”). Though Captain America: The First Avenger is well made and well regarded, it along with the rest of the Phase One Marvel films (Thor and The Incredible Hulk) are largely jogging place, setting up characters before the big team up in 2012. Their narratives can only go so far, introducing characters we are supposed to care about but still make them work within a subsequent team up film.

Unlike the other Phase One films, Iron Man was made as a movie first rather than a cog in a cinematic machine. It centered on the now beloved Tony Stark, a former weapons manufacturer that survives capture in the desert, constructing an arc reactor to power a metal suit, dubbed “Iron Man” (despite the fact that the suit was made from various alloys rather than iron). He learns what it means to be a hero, manages to destroy weapons caches in the Middle East, and prevents the arc reactor technology from falling into villainous hands.

The film enjoyed great critical success and made good money, but was not nearly as financially lucrative as the successive films in the MCU. Moreover, the film was a significant risk, featuring an actor with significant issues with addiction in the past starring as a comic book character less well-known than the ubiquitous Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. The character of Tony Stark was significantly different from many of the comic book heroes that made their way to the movie screen. Rather than a teenager adjusting to superpowers or an alien learning what it means to be human, Stark was first and foremost a man, a man that had achieved great success but had to reckon with the consequences of war profiteering and the resulting violence and human suffering.

In 2008, well within the cinematic landscape of the 2000s dominated by fantasy franchises like Harry PotterLord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean along with the supposed “death” of comic book movies with the release of Spider-Man 3 (2007), Iron Man served as something new and different, a breath of fresh air that revived interest in the comic book genre (along with the subsequently released Dark Knight), resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, and promised something potentially grandiose with the Avengers Initiative.

The original Iron Man is fundamentally a character piece, following the transformation of an egotistic “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” to a hero looking to redefine his legacy and protect those he put in harm’s way. It may be the first film in the MCU, but it was first and foremost a movie about a singular man in a metal suit, a movie with modest but not outsized expectations. The hype for the original Avengers largely owed to the goodwill built from this original film, as the succeeding films (The Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain AmericaThor) had their moments and ranged from average to good but are hardly as memorable as the first Iron Man. Though the MCU has been on a run of steady quality throughout Phase Three, with films like Captain America: Civil WarThor: RagnarokGuardians of the Galaxy 2, and Black Panther achieving massive critical and commercial success (the latter of which nominated for and well deserving of Best Picture), this was not always a given within the franchise. When assessing the merits of the MCU, it is important to avoid determinism and view the entire experiment (and it is still an unprecedented experiment) as inevitable. The quality of one fairly risky film very different from what came before it marked the beginning of the dominating MCU that we have today, something far from a given at its outset.

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