[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
2008 is the most important year in superhero films, which also makes it one of the most important years in modern movie history. It’s the year that launched superheroes to a new level, and ultimately led to “movie universes” thus pumping steroids into the traditional franchise model. 2008 would also solidify the landscape of how geek culture would view superheroes by creating two distinct tones originating from a similar character.
Iron Man was released on May 2, 2008. The Dark Knight was released on July 18, 2008. Both have come to define modern movie superheroes with one representing the lighter, happier side of comics and the other driving for a darker, grittier aspect grounded in reality. These two sides originate from the same character—a billionaire who technically doesn’t have superpowers, but who uses his wealth and genius to become a superhero after he’s personally affected by a negative event. While The Dark Knight is a singularly important film, Iron Man, through ingenuity, risk, and dumb luck, lit the fuse on a remarkable cinematic achievement that still has audiences captivated.
For a movie that worked from an outline and rehearsals rather than a script, Iron Man hits the ground running and tells you absolutely everything you need to know about Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in less than two minutes. He’s fearless in an oblivious way, he’s quick-witted, he’s a lothario, he’s arrogant, and we love him immediately. And then terrorists attack his convoy.
Director Jon Favreau crafted smart, economic way introduction to the character and inadvertently set the template for a Marvel Studios movie: It’s fun and light-hearted but also thrilling and unique, and then carried by absolutely perfect casting, although in the case of Iron Man, it’s a casting the choice the studio didn’t want at first.
Casting Robert Downey Jr. was a huge risk because he was basically uninsurable. He had too much history with drug abuse and even said in court to the judge, “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.” This was the guy, talented as he was on screen, who was being entrusted to carry not only a second-tier superhero, but also Marvel Studios’ first independently produced feature.
Try to imagine another actor in that role and you can’t. Some may not even call the performance that much of a stretch since Downey tends to act like Tony Stark in interviews. He’s gregarious, charismatic, personable, but with just a twinge of cocky arrogance that’s somehow endearing. He was perfect casting, and Jon Favreau knew it, not only from seeing Downey’s performances, but also the actor’s personal life. He was a talented guy who had fallen low and was trying to make a comeback. The first shot we ever see of Tony is with a drink in his hand, which hints at arguably the most famous Iron Man story from the comics, Demon in a Bottle.
Iron Man sets that darkness aside for his debut and launches into a far more colorful tale, although it still has an unsettling tone if you look beneath the flash and glamour. Tony Stark is Bruce Wayne without the brooding, and there’s a refreshing honesty in that. Both heroes are selfish men masquerading as selfless heroes, but at least Tony’s ego is in full view. He has the honesty to make sure that his weapon—one he uses unilaterally—is the only one that can save the day and he’ll do it stylishly to boot. If Tony really only cared about “the mission”, he wouldn’t throw in the “hot-rod red”. For Tony, it’s all about ego, but because of Downey and Favreau, we find that ego endlessly captivating.
Marvel movies have become synonymous with joyous blockbusters that don’t shy away from their comic book origins, and while they occasionally dip their toe into darkness, they’re more about likable characters, bright colors, and lots of humor. Iron Man sets the tone for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and anything outside that tone (i.e. The Incredible Hulk) feels odd. Jon Favreau created a movie that’s poppy, catchy, and continues the evolution of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 by embracing the comics, but breaking through the four-color world to exist in one with a little more shading.
One of my favorite superhero movie moments is Tony testing his repulsors to fly. After smashing himself into a wall, messing up his classic cars and his laboratory, he achieves a nice level of flight, and says, “Yeah. I can fly.” It’s akin to when Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) starts swinging with his webs, but there’s a bit more attitude and cockiness to the achievement, which fits the character and signals a distinction between Iron Man and every other hero.
The charming attitude is one of the film’s various lovely tricks. In many ways, Tony Stark is a much darker figure than Bruce Wayne because Tony doesn’t brood. He doesn’t hesitate. His certainty isn’t an Achilles heel, but it’s comforting and disturbing in equal measure. Iron Man is just crafty enough to let us forget that Tony kills people without hesitation and goes far beyond defending one polluted city and turning its criminals over to the authorities. He’s taking on the world, killing people at his discretion and answers to no one. While there is something somewhat noble in Tony’s mission—trying to clean up the mess he’s made, and technically putting himself in harm’s way to do it—it’s also egomaniacal.
The Dark Knight gets a lot of credit for being a post-9/11 film since its villain is a terrorist, and the movie wonders how you deal with terrorism especially since the War in Iraq showed that an entire army couldn’t do the job. Superhero movies contain an element of wish fulfillment, and stopping street-level thugs in the post-9/11 era is too smalltime.